Since May, I have done about 192 (give or take) telephone interviews for various investigation matters.
The interviews that I have done have ranged from being for massive product liability cases to in-depth vetting of a possible CEO. In every single one of these cases, the names of these individuals were developed through open sources. All of these people were contacted unannounced, out of the blue.
They were not sitting around waiting for my call, happy to give some of their time to someone who needed help. They were contacted at random times, taking time from their busy schedules to answer questions, some of which were tough.
Here are some lessons that I have learned.
Human Sources Are Powerful
Investigator Steve Mason from Mason Investigative Solutions summed it up perfectly: “Human beings give context to digital information.” I am one of the biggest proponents out there for using open-source information and public records to gather intelligence. It’s discreet, cost-effective, and pretty powerful. And it’s because humans not only give context to the digital information — they also provide information that is truly unique and, at times, priceless.
Be Transparent and Honest
Chances are, the person on the other “end of the line” is not entirely comfortable talking to a stranger on the phone who is asking probing questions. It’s a pretty frequent response for someone to say, “I am not all that comfortable talking to you. I have no idea who you are.”
I get it. If some strange person called you out of the blue asking you questions, wouldn’t you be pretty wary too?
My typical response is: “I get it. I might not be comfortable either.”
That’s the truth.
I find the best way to make people comfortable is to be transparent and honest. So when they ask, “How is this information going to be used?” or “How did you get my number?” or “Who is this work for?” I have an answer for them. Sometimes that answer may be, “I have no idea” or “I can’t tell you,” but it’s transparent and honest. People react to that.
More than likely, you will only have one chance to speak to someone. So if you get them on the phone, you don’t want them to get off. Of course, you need to be accommodating to their schedule and be open to calling them back whenever. You can lose a person instantaneously if you are too pushy. Or you can lose them forever if you give them a chance — but it’s a risk you need to take sometimes.
It’s a tightrope.
To Talk or Not to Talk
When I contact someone, I’ve got about 30 to 45 seconds to win them over. So what do you do in that 30 to 45 seconds?
First, you better get straight to the point. Building a rapport is something that interviewers like to talk about when they explain the process for doing in-person interviews, but on the telephone, there is really no time for idle chitchat or icebreakers. Get to the heart of the point immediately.
My name is Brian Willingham. I understand that you previously worked for Steve Jobs. I am doing some work for a firm that is interested in hiring Steve and thought you would be a good person to speak with about his business acumen. Do you have a minute?
Second, each time I do an interview case, I use a script. I don’t read directly from the script (I don’t want to sound like a robot), but I do want to make sure I get some major points across in those 30 to 45 seconds. I don’t want to forget those critical points. If I am working for a law firm, there may be some legalese that I need to go over as well. For example, making sure that someone is not providing confidential information or making sure that he or she is not represented by counsel is usually included.
Just in the past few weeks, I have had several people say to me that they had no interest in speaking to me within that first 30 seconds, only to have them talk to me for more than an hour. I can’t force anyone to speak to me. And they can hang up on me at any moment. So you have to strike a balance between being persistent, transparent, and honest and being pushy.
I don’t record any of my phone interviews. While telephone recording laws may allow for it based on the state that the person you call is in, it’s an awkward icebreaker and I don’t want to break the flow of the conversation. That’s just my personal policy.
I know others may think differently though…
If your investigation is relying on telephone interviews, you have to be resigned to the fact that some people are just not going to pick up the phone or respond to your voicemails. It’s frustrating, I know, but it’s just a fact. So if you have three people who you absolutely must speak to, you are better off visiting them in person. But if you have enough leads or possible sources, knowing that about half of them are not going to be reachable, telephone interviewing will do just fine.
Many investigators will tell you that the best way to do an interview is face-to-face. All things being equal, it’s hard to argue. In-person investigative interviews help you develop a better rapport with a person. And reading body language and making the person you are talking to comfortable actually makes talking to you much easier.
But in-person interviews are resource-intensive. The best times to interview people are nights and weekends. And if you don’t have people who need to be interviewed concentrated in one particular area, you either have to travel all over the place or get other people up to speed to do the interviews on your behalf — both of which are an absolute budget killer and time-suck.
Alternatively, phone calls are relatively quick and easy, despite the fact that it’s much easier to avoid a few phone calls than to avoid someone knocking on your door.
Does Anyone Pick Up the Phone Anymore?
If you are like most people, you probably don’t answer the phone much when you see a call coming in from an unknown phone number. Perhaps it’s because 90 percent of the phone calls we get are spam. According to one survey, 75 percent of people said that they were “extremely unlikely” to answer a call from an out-of-state area code.
And if you are calling from a blocked number? The chances are even less likely someone will pick up.
While in years past, I might have called from a blocked number, I don’t do that much anymore. I have found that most people will just let these calls go to voicemail and, even if they pick up, they are cautious and guarded in what they say given the fact that they don’t know who’s on the other end.
And how do you get people to pick up the phone? You don’t. You need to be patient and persistent. And if that fails, you can always pay them a visit.
I’ve been doing telephone interviews for the better part of 15 years. There are times when you just can’t get people to talk, but you’ve got to have some thick skin. Rejection is pretty commonplace. It can be draining at times, but as long as you keep a good attitude, good things will come.
It’s human nature that people want to help.