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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.

Be Accommodating

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.

Recording

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…

Spray-and-Pray Interviewing

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.

Efficiency

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.

Thick Skin

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.

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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.

Telephone Interviews

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?

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Witness interviews can be one of the most valuable sources of information in civil litigation.  Most people envision a “witness interview” as the clichéd scene of an investigator grilling a suspect in a tiny, dingy police room with a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. This image is ever-present in cop shows and typically involves some type of criminal activity, usually murder, arson or something equally disturbing and dramatic.  And, admittedly, it’s good TV.

Far less riveting, but equally as valuable, are the interviews private investigators conduct with witnesses in civil cases.  It’s not that the details are unimportant, but the review of  P&L statements, sales projections, and employment contracts or digging around for background information on a witness can seem fairly dry to anyone not involved in the case.

Whether working on behalf of the plaintiffs or the defense, information provided by witnesses in civil cases can verbally corroborate what is discoverable, such as emails, financial statements, memorandums, and contracts, as well as reveal vital information not found on paper.

For example, in a securities fraud case, it is useful for the plaintiffs to know if the defendant CEO’s email inbox has in it damaging financial reports that were generated by the finance department.  

But, it is far more useful if three current or former employees reveal during their interviews that the CEO was seen reading these finance reports every day.  The CEO can no longer claim that he or she did not read the damaging information about the company just because it was sitting in his email inbox.  The plaintiffs know the reports were read because the witnesses confirmed it.

Why does the use of a investigator to assist with interviews in civil litigation makes good sense?

  • Early in the process, investigators utilize numerous tools to identify potential witnesses, including proprietary databases and extensive networks of industry sources. Additionally, investigators can find contact information, such as an addresses or phone number, for a witness—even if they are hiding.
  • Private investigators are careful to adhere to state laws when meeting witnesses in person—especially if they must doorstep (showing up at a potential witness’s home, place of work, or a scheduled event unannounced to see if the witness will speak with them).  Done right, this is an effective strategy.
  • Investigators also adhere to state laws when cold-calling witnesses or interviewing witnesses expecting their call. For example, there are strict laws regarding when a call can be recorded. These laws vary state-by-state.
  • Investigators are careful with their interview notes and understand they are likely discoverable.
  • Lastly, but probably most important, investigators know that a witness must be treated well.  If the witness is unable to trust the investigator or feels taken advantage of, they are likely to disappear or flip—scenarios all investigators work hard to avoid.

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