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A Private Investigator's Tips For Breaking Bad News to Clients

Editor's note: This article was written by an industry professional and guest contributor. The views and opinions in this article are of the author and do not reflect the views of PInow. If you are interested in becoming a guest contributor, send an email to [email protected].

Private Investigator Tips for Breaking Bad NewsScott Fulmer is a successful Texas Private Investigator, Seminar Speaker, Writer, and President and CEO of Scott B. Fulmer Investigations, LLC based in San Antonio, TX. He served with the famed 2nd Armored Division during the Gulf War and has a BA in Criminal Justice from the University of Texas at San Antonio.  He has worked security and investigations for the public and private sector for about 20 years.

Mr. Fulmer is a frequent contributor to, writes a popular p.i.-related  Blog and is an engaging and sought after presenter and seminar speaker available to speak to you group or organization on surveillance, workers comp fraud and insurance defense investigations.  He can be contacted at [email protected].

A harsh reality for private investigators is that things do not always go as planned. For example, in the real world, surveillance is affected by the weather, traffic patterns and the vagaries of human nature. There are no guarantees. Sadly, television, movies and literature have done much to convince the public that private investigators are super heroes. PIs in film and in between the pages of books never lose subjects on surveillance. They break and enter buildings, hack computer networks and throw uncooperative witnesses through plate glass windows like they are immune to the law. 

Because of this, clients in the real world often expect the same results. They don’t understand how private investigators can lose someone on a moving surveillance when it never happened to Magnum, P.I., and he was driving a bright red Ferrari! They don’t understand why investigators can’t get a witness to cooperate and give a statement. Witnesses always talked to Charlie’s Angels.    

When private investigators are not able to achieve the kind of results the client expects or the results they have obtained are likely to be upsetting to a client, they may find themselves having to break bad news to them. The following 8 tips will help:   

1. Let Me Make One Thing Perfectly Clear!  Every PI's saying should be: under promise and over deliver. All private investigators should know that clients think they are paying for what they perceive as the outcome of an investigation, but no PI can guarantee an outcome. In reality, they are paying for a private investigator's time, advice and effort. Private investigators need to tell clients specifically what they can and cannot do for them at the very beginning of a job, and get it in writing. This will prevent misunderstandings at the end, especially if there is nothing good to report. My client retainer agreement, for example, will state the tasks I am to perform in specific detail. Sometimes the investigation does not go as planned. When that happens investigators may find clients saying “this is what I wanted you to do” or “that’s not what I asked you to do.” That’s when client't should be refered to the retainer agreement. Make all of this clear at the beginning and it will be easier for them to accept bad news at the end. 

2. I am Not a Surveillance Psychic. If we knew exactly when a subject left their home we wouldn’t sit outside freezing our behinds off in our surveillance vehicle for 8 hours. Clients often get angry with surveillance results because they do not understand the degree of difficulty involved. Explain the realities of surveillance BEFORE an investigation even begins. Investigators sometimes lose people on surveillance. The weather and traffic patterns are factors in surveillance's success and failure. Subjects often change their plans at the last minute. Investigators sometimes get burned. When a PI is hired to conduct surveillance, an honest and open conversation with the client is warranted. Be sure to have this conversation before the investigation begins. Explain to the client and prepare them for the possible outcome of the surveillance. Waiting until the end of an investigation to talk about how difficult surveillance is will only sound like an excuse and make the client angry.

3. Selling an Intangible. Most private investigators sell a service. Other than a written report (and sometimes video, photographs and other documents) we sell an intangible. We don’t sell sofas that clients can sit on and enjoy long after the job is done. We don’t sell works of art they can caress and display in their home. In many cases all they have for their money is a final report and a few photographs. This can be made even more difficult when the investigation results are not in the client’s favor. Investigators can overcome this by remembering that they are part priest and part therapist. The simple act of listening to clients and giving them outstanding customer service throughout an investigation will make selling an intangible easier. Especially if bad news is given in the end.

4. If a Tree Falls in the Woods Will a PI Get it on Video? Sometimes nothing happens. In other words, sometimes a client’s so-called alcoholic, child-abusing, money-spending, free-wheeling, cohabitating, reckless-driving, prostituting, drug-using ex-wife is really a sweet, overworked mother of two who doesn’t get along with the client. Clients often decide the facts of a case long before an investigation begins. They hire a private investigator simply to confirm their suspicions. Unfortunately, when an investigation proves otherwise it can be difficult to tell them they were wrong. No one likes to be wrong. The best way to handle this is to be thorough and methodical. Leave no stone unturned in both the investigation and the final report. Move every conversation with the client away from opinion and supposition and point it towards facts and findings. Deflect any anger they may have toward the facts you have gathered. Give the client nowhere to go; no other avenues to explore. They may still be angry when the news is broken to them but they will find it hard to argue with the facts of the case. 

5. Well Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!”. The actor Jim Neighbors (as Private Pyle) used to utter, "well surprise, surprise, surprise" at least every other episode on Gomer Pyle, USMC, a television show I watched as a kid. In the PI business clients do not like surprises, especially if they’re bad ones. A private investigator's final report should never, ever contain information that will surprise the client. In fact, a final report should really be more of a formality. The client should already know the outcome of the case before they even read the report. Any bad news must be communicated to the client beforehand.       

6. Don’t Kill The Messenger. I suspect this cliché came into vogue because too many people did just that; they killed the messenger. Any unsatisfactory progress or bad news on a case should be communicated in person or at least by telephone to the client immediately. Never leave bad news for a client in a voicemail, email or text. If an investigator has alarming news and can’t get a hold of the client, they should simply leave a message stating that they have an important update and need to speak with the client right away.  

7. If Dad Says “NO” Then Go Ask Mom. As most children learn early on, one parent is usually more pliable than the other. If a client consists of a family, business partnership or more than one person, try to engage and deal with the most reasonable and likable person. If an investigator can build rapport with this individual it will be that much easier to relay bad news to them in the end. As author and speaker Stephen R. Covey stated in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective PeopleSeek first to understand, then to be understood.” Building rapport is worthy of an article on its own. Simply put, building rapport will go a long way in ensuring that the client will accept bad news without too many negative side effects. 

8. Press Here to Refresh Your Investigation Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, give the client regular updates on the progress of the case. Whether an investigator does so by phone, text or email, they just need to make sure they do it. There’s nothing a client hates more than paying a retainer and assigning a case and then, "POOF!" the investigator they have hired dissapears. This is further complicated if a PI reappears two weeks later with nothing but bad news for the client. Even bad news is easier for a client to swallow when they have received regular updates and begin to understand the ups and downs of the investigation.

I should also state that there will be a few select clients that will be angry no matter what happens. I had a case involving a physician who was in a custody battle with his ex-wife over their son. He swore his ex-wife was using drugs, associating with low-life’s and endangering their child. After a long, extensive investigation two facts became clear: the ex-wife was a good mother and everything the client had said about her was simply his opinion and not supported by the facts. I went through all 8 steps listed above and he was still absolutely livid over how the investigation turned out. The reality is that sometimes everthing that can be done is not enough for some people. However, if private investigator follow these 8 steps, it will serve to lessen the blow of any potential bad news that must be broken to clients. 

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This article was written by an industry guest contributor. If you are interested in submitting a guest post or have an article suggestion, send an email to [email protected].

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