We have recently been working on a case for a California-based firm in which we are conducting a number of in-person interviews. In this particular case, we are interviewing individuals who may have some knowledge of a fraud involving upward of several hundred million dollars.
As my colleague and I were driving around the New York metro area (which has nine of the nation’s worst bottlenecks) and sitting in hours of horrible traffic, I got to thinking about the effectiveness of in-person interviews and whether they really bring more value to the client than telephone interviews do.
One hundred percent of the time, it is always preferable to conduct an interview in person. In a perfect world, you would call up the person of interest, set up an appointment for a specific place and time, meet the person in a neutral area, and conduct an interview with two investigators — one asking questions, the other taking notes.
Perfect worlds exist on television but not in reality.
Or at least not in mine.
In-Person (Doorstep) Interview
In our line of work, an in-person interview is what we like to describe as a doorstep interview, which is showing up at someone’s home or business unannounced to conduct an interview. It’s not the ideal situation, but a private investigator would utilize this tactic for a number of reasons.
First, you don’t want to give the person an opportunity to think too much about the reason why a private investigator is standing at the door asking questions or to wonder whether or not they should speak. It sounds a bit deceitful, but I assure you it’s not. The reality is that if given the choice, most people just don’t want to be involved, or they are afraid they might say the wrong thing. But despite what people may think of private investigators, my only interest is in the facts, good or bad; it doesn’t matter which side I am working for. My experience has been that the more time you give a person to sit and think about why they should speak, the less likely it is the person is going to want to talk.
Second, an in-person interview gives the person a level of comfort. You might think the opposite, that showing up unannounced at someone’s doorstep might freak the person out. But in my experience, quite the opposite is true. People are more comfortable putting a face to a name.
Building a rapport with a person is also critical to successfully interviewing the person, and you have a much better chance of quickly building rapport in person than you do over the phone. In about 95% of the cases that we work on, the person I am speaking to has absolutely no compelling reason to speak to me or cooperate, unlike when being questioned by the police (or other governmental authority) or other authoritative interview (employer/employee). My ability to build rapport and trust and provide a compelling reason why they should speak to me is critical to having a successful interview.
All things considered, a doorstep interview is the best way to handle any investigative interview, but the biggest problem is that it is enormously time- and resource-intense. And there is that possibility the person may not be home, which is just a total waste of time. Doing an interview at a person’s place of employment is not recommended unless absolutely necessary.
Also, technology has made the world much larger; so you may have to do in-person interviews in New York, California and France, which require either extensive travel time and resources or getting multiple investigative teams up to speed. [It’s always best to use one investigative team to do the interviews to avoid involving other investigative teams lacking institutional knowledge about the case].
In sum, in a perfect world, in-person interviews are ideal, especially in situations where a few key witnesses/individuals may make or break the case; but they are enormously time- and resource-intense.
There are a number of advantages of conducting telephone interviews. First and foremost, it is much more efficient and less resource-intense. A private investigator can sit behind a desk, utilize proprietary databases to find telephone numbers of former employees or witnesses to an accident who have been found through discovery, social media or resume databases, and make phone calls from the comfort of his or her desk. An investigator can potentially make dozens if not hundreds of phone calls in a day and work through a long list of potential leads.
Telephone interviews have no bounds, so I can call people all around the country or the world. And I don’t need a second investigator, because I can easily take notes while conducting the interview, or in some cases, I might record the interview if I get the person’s permission — or if state laws allows, I may record the conversation without his or her knowledge.
(If you are looking for a digital voice recorder [affiliate link], Amazon has number of high quality voice recorders starting at around $25. If you want to record a conversation through your computer, Pamela for Skype [affiliate link] is a great tool that I have been using for years with great success.)
The reality of any investigation is that you never know who is going to be helpful to your investigation. It could be anyone, from the janitor to the secretary to the CEO. Or from the best friend to the eighteenth cousin, once removed.
Because it does not take nearly as much time and effort to contact people by telephone, my list of “people of interest” might expand to others on the periphery. Whereas when conducting an in-person interview, you don’t want to waste precious time and resources trying to interview someone who may have no helpful information, but calling that same person might take all of a few minutes.
Telephone interviews do have their disadvantages. First, fewer and fewer people are answering their phone these days, especially calls from blocked numbers or from numbers that they don’t recognize. It’s also getting harder and harder to identify good telephone numbers as well, which makes it challenging to get in touch with people in the first place.
It’s also a bit more difficult to establish a rapport, so you may not get as much information as you hope or want on your first interview, but you can combat that by following up with other telephone interviews or scheduling an in-person interview at a later date.
Telephone interviews are ideal in cases where you have the potential for a large pool of witnesses or leads, or cases where you are gathering information from a wide group of sources.
Which Is More Effective?
Nine times out of ten, I would tell a client to conduct telephone interviews first, and if any interviewees are particularly helpful/meaningful, I would follow up with an in-person interview to get a signed statement. The exception would be extremely sensitive or high-profile interviews of a short list of witnesses.
In my own personal experience and the experience of the group of investigators I spoke to, in-person and telephone interviews have about the same success rate with people willing to speak to you; so from that point of view, it’s a bit of a wash.
This should all be taken with a grain of salt, though. This is entirely based on the type of work that we do, which tends to float into the white collar world.
You can ask my friend Hal Humphreys of Find Investigations, who does a lot of criminal defense work, and he may tell you the opposite.
So What Is Better?
In the end, it really depends on the type of work and your (or your client’s) appetite for utilizing your time and resources. As investigators, we bill by the hour, so from a pure efficiency standpoint, I would typically recommend telephone interviews.
What say you?