In February of 2000, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. Bootstrapping Independent Special Investigations in the fall of 1997 with an ’86 Oldsmobile, a 486 Computer and a rolodex full of industry contacts, I had seen nine straight quarters of double digit growth and had added 8 investigators. The plan was to become a super regional agency “From Bangor to Baltimore” providing fraud expertise to Special Investigation Units (SIUs) and insurance attorneys. People were throwing resumes at us and the checkbook was swelling. Then in that fateful month, two clients decided to do business differently and 57 percent of my business dried up in sixty days. It was not due to my pricing or quality of work. it came from Home Office decisions that left my clients apologizing to me.
My Rolodex and word of mouth referrals had carried us that far, but we needed to replace that revenue pronto.
While standing in line at my local Fedex Kinkos’s getting some printing done, I came across two books that enabled me to replace 90 percent of that lost business within a year. The books I purchased were Stepahn Schiffman’s Cold Calling Techniques (that Really Work!) and Closing Techniques (That Really Work!)
When I started to apply his advice, I was out of my comfort zone. I was the guy who would rather take out the trash than pick up a phone and market. I practiced the scripts so I wouldn’t sound rehearsed and made the calls early in the morning and later in the afternoon for lawyers and on Fridays for insurance investigators. It worked. Years later, it dawned on me that employing just one marketing strategy and sticking with it was better than no marketing or scattershot unmeasured marketing. However, by 2004, the big boys were eating my lunch. National contracts and cost-prohibitive cutting edge technology were making local guys like me antiquated. I felt like the blacksmith watching those new-fangled automobiles scare the horses. Even though we were coming out of the insurance down cycle, the expanding pie was getting eaten by the one-click Track Your Case online vendors with massive marketing departments. What to do? I finally paid attention to advice given me earlier by Bill Vincent of VTS Investigations from Chicago.
2) Skill Set Realignment
I stopped competing for the local offices of national companies and started concentrating on local lawyers. They didn’t have home offices in far away states with Vice-Presidents getting wined and dined by professional marketers. I knew insurance. I could learn how to market to local trial attorneys. I was a former cop. I studied Brandon Perron’s Uncovering Reasonable Doubt: The Component Method. I began offering my services to my state’s Special Public Defender program and the Federal CJA program.
Quality criminal defense lawyers got to try me out on the government’s dime and then would call me for the paying client’s cases. I cranked up the cold-calling and closing techniques, kept track of qualified prospects in a CRM. I was tracking conversion ratios and what I was grossing and netting from each client. In very short time, Squire Investigations was born. I joined the National Association of Legal Investigators and began attending NALI Conferences and Super conferences put on by John Lajoie and Jimmie Mesis. I read every issue of PI Magazine and the The Legal Investigator cover to cover. I figured out what I was good at, got out of my comfort zone, obtained specialized knowledge and applied it to customers that appreciated my effort and paid me a better hourly rate than my insurance work. I started working off of retainers. Talk about improving one’s cash flow!
3) Improve Business Acumen
The saying goes, “An expert bricklayer will make less money than an average bricklayer with expert business skills”. You can apply that saying to almost every self-employed solo-operator. The transformation of thinking of myself as a businessperson who does investigations was slow and painful. I had many lapses. I found that while I was great in the trenches and planning a start-up company, I had difficultly with goal planning and execution. After seven years in business, I was still honing my investigative skills to the detriment of growing my business skills. Through local Chamber of Commerce meeting and morning leads groups, I began to see how other small businesses operated. I joined a business coaching group class. I was in a class with pest control owner, a HVAC specialist, a carpet and flooring retailer, a financial planner and a landlord-tenant lawyer. What a diverse bunch, but all of our needs and concerns were very similar. We all had to read books on business, and do exercises on generating leads, increasing margin and honing business processes. It was not painful and it showed each of us that he had to keep moving. There was no whining or excuses allowed. We had to be ready for class every other week for 12 weeks. When we finished, we had a binder full of examples that we could implement to increase revenues and reduce expenses. Applying what I learned in the sessions allowed me to land a large account that I was able to farm out all the work to part-timers and associates while maintaining a healthy profit margin. From that experience, I contracted with a business coach for an every other Wednesday one-on-one. We covered sales forecasting, cash flow and key performance indicators. We talked about measurable action steps for the next two weeks. I didn’t waste time telling war stories and we hustled.
Some people asked me, “How can you afford it?”
My reply was simple, “How can I not?” I was building a skill-strength and learning more about running a profitable business.
4) Watch For Opportunity
I had made the transition to Squire Investigations while maintaining clients from the old days. I was running leaner and with less overhead, profits doubled. Then one day a probate lawyer responded to my advertisement in the local bar journal and I was given a missing heir case. I didn’t find the heir and the file still sits on my desk as a reminder, but my work in that niche led me to create International Missing Heir Finders, LLC. I was at the right place at the right time in Connecticut, but eventually I returned to what I did best and that was work for local attorneys. I rebounded with Elm City Detectives and rebranded as Hoda Investigations. The lessons here are that if I had just stayed with me expertise in insurance fraud investigations, I would have never learned to work on Surveillance, Signal Piracy, Criminal Defense, Wrongful Convictions Exonerations and Missing Heir Research.
5) Stay Positive
The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale was written in 1952, I am positive by nature, but could fall into some paralyzing funky foul moods. For me, his book was a game-changer. That book is the ganddaddy of positive thinking. “Stinkin_thinkin” is the worst thing that a small business owner can fall into; particularly a private investigator who spends time in criminal defense or family matters. No pay, low pay, slow pay lcientand drinkers and burners, bureaucrats that take joy in making your life miserable, the list is endless of all the energy-sapping people in your life. You have to exercise your “stay positive” muscles just like you physical muscles to keep from crawling into your hole.
In today’s fast changing world, your attitude can be your lifeline or your anchor. As I take to private investigators found the country, the thing I hear resoundingly is positive people overcoming adversity and negative people blaming everybody and everything.
What are you doing to survive and thrive in today’s fast-paced world? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but quitting was not an option. I learned that I needed new skills and a new outlook to survive in tough times. I needed to be savvy about business as well as being a good investigator.