Fail Successfully

It’s not something that we like to do very often, but we fail more often than we would like to admit.

Nobody likes to admit to defeat. But it happens.

In a business with so many independent variables, there are no guarantees. We can’t promise that we will be able to dig up some salacious information about a key witness if nothing really exists. And we can’t promise that we will find your long lost Uncle Louie who skipped town 30 years ago if he is living off the grid in Thailand.

The best we can do is to lay out all the information, give an honest assessment about our capabilities and the amount of time and resources that it could take, and provide a client with our best course of action.

But even the best laid plans can go down the tubes.

Finding Jane’s Father

Last month, we were retained by Jane (not her real name), who was looking for her father. She didn’t even know her father existed until five years ago, when her estranged mother called her out of the blue. After she spent five years gathering details about her father, the only things she had to go on were his first name, the town where he was born in Eastern Europe and his approximate age. She also believed that he had immigrated to the United States in the late 1970s and lived somewhere in the Midwest. She thought she also knew the first initial of his last name.

Jane had spent more than five years looking for her father and had incredibly detailed notes of her encounters with everyone who knew him. She had spoken to every member of the family whom she knew, had done her own digging around, and had called and ruled out a number of possibilities.

But she was stuck.

Right from the beginning I knew that this would be a tough case. The only factors that made this even a remote possibility were that her father’s first name had an unusual spelling and that she had a pretty good sense of his age.

I explained the challenges at the outset, and after some internal discussions we laid out a plan to help her. We knew it would not be easy and would take quite a few man-hours and resources. We could provide absolutely no guarantees.

Aware of the risks, Jane asked us to go forward.

Even the Best Laid Plans Can Go to Sh*t

In the end, after a few weeks of painstaking research and calls to individuals who fit the description of her father, we delivered our report.

In a call with Jane, I explained the process that we went through to get to the point we had reached.

We didn’t find her father. We had done everything we could.

It’s never easy to tell someone that you failed. We both knew the risks, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

A few days later, we sent her a routine follow-up to see how satisfied she was with our services and how likely she was to recommend us.

Who would blame her if she gave us a less-than-perfect score?

But she didn’t; she gave us perfect 10s.

How to Fail Successfully

We followed some of our own tenets for handling client expectations: we communicated often; we were completely transparent in what we were doing; and we gave a (brutally) honest assessment of the probability of finding her father.

In the end, we had eliminated everyone in the United States who matched the information she gave us for first name, first initial of the last name and age in the general age range.

Failure is inevitable in this business. Although we didn’t “succeed” in this case, we did have a client who was more than satisfied about what we did to find her father.

You can’t always predict results. But you can approach each case with honesty, openness, transparency and a healthy dose of communication.


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7 replies
  1. Mick Meaney
    Mick Meaney says:

    Hi Brian,

    I have got to agree that keeping in touch with our customers pays off. We recently were annoyed to “fail” to fully locate an individual for a client. We did manage to establish that he was in France by doing some phone work and extracting some exif data from a jpeg. We just could not find a fixed address for him as he was a slippery sort of person.

    We had kept our client up to speed on the investigation, and it turned out that just putting the suspect in France at a particular time was actually enough for our client.
    So what we felt was a “failure” was really a success from the client’s point of view.
    Keeping the client updated with our progress saved him money, made him very happy, shortened our investigation considerably and gave us some great feed back.

  2. Dwight moore
    Dwight moore says:

    When you have done your very best leaving no stones unturned , and God know you have done all that can be done then and only then you cannot feel you have failed.

  3. Kevin Cosgrove
    Kevin Cosgrove says:

    Unlike most service providers, professional investigators are faced with the daunting task of taking on assignments with few guarantees of a successful outcome to the objective.

  4. David Childe
    David Childe says:

    Wholeheartedly agree that good communication is essential to maintaining a stable of satisfied clients. The case you mention is a good example. I would add surveillance assignments as another vivid example because they oftentimes don’t result in the client getting what he/she wants. And they are expensive, too. Always keep clients informed on a regular basis. It is amazing how few investigators – and particularly attorneys – actually do this. Poor communication is the number one cause of attorney bar complaints. I am not aware of a study for private investigator complaints, but I would have to say that they are probably near the top in our field as well.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Communication is essential every relationship. There is a tendency to only report “good” information when you have it, but even small updates to say “we are still working on it” can go a long way.

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