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While this article is not intended to promote myself or my company, I still feel that it’s important to give the reader some context and background for an article about business tactics. My father started our company in 1988 out of our kitchen. I grew up enamored by his war stories of tracking down the bad guys and getting people served. In my early teens, I started sweeping the parking lots at his business and, since then, I have worked in almost every other capacity within the company at one point or another. Now, in partnership with my Father and oldest brother, it’s our business. I moved into a management role around 2009. Although the company as a whole was prosperous, the investigations aspect of our business had dwindled to barely being a blip on the radar, with only about ten assignments coming through the door per month.
Today, we’re taking in more new investigation assignments than that on a daily basis, and our Investigations Department represents the largest division of our company in terms of revenue generated. Likewise, every other department (Service of Process, Courts, and Records) is growing and operating more profitably than ever before, with the company as a whole growing on average of 35-40% per year for the last several years. This growth is a result of many people and factors which can’t all be acknowledged here. However, I have had the blessing of being heavily involved in this process and I have learned many lessons along the way. I’m not a business guru and I still have plenty to learn myself, but in this article, I endeavor to share some insights based on my experiences.
Not every business owner wants to grow their business like we have (heck with about 60 employees now, there are many days I miss having a 5 person office); however, whether you want to be a sole operator with just enough work to keep you busy, or if you are trying to build a major company, you need to build a brand. All too often (especially in the attorney service and investigations industries), I see small companies who have never-ending lists of “services” that they offer listed on their websites, which inevitably leads to clients having an overinflated idea of the company’s capabilities, and they frequently end up being disappointed with the end result.
You need to decide if you want to be mediocre at everything, or an expert at a few things. Don’t be afraid to tell a client that you’re not knowledgeable enough in a particular area and then recommend them to someone who is more competent or able. This was an especially hard lesson for me to learn, because I didn’t want my clients going to my “competition,” but I found that by doing so, it increased the level of trust that my clients had in me, and it helped me to focus on becoming very good at a few things. Over time and with a few existing clients being willing to test new waters with us, our areas of expertise have grown.
Just getting “a lot” of work as a standalone goal is a terrible business plan. You must not only define the amount of work but the type of work, the type of client, the profits you need, etc. All too often, I’ve seen new process servers or private investigators who may be good practitioners, but are terrible business people, paint themselves into a corner because they go into business with the attitude that any work is good work, and that simply isn’t the case. In the last several years, we’ve had to make some very difficult decisions, sometimes cutting off clients with longstanding relationships or who represented a significant source of income to us, because they no longer fit into our business model. It’s never been an easy step, but we’ve been happy with the long-term results every time.
I’m a firm believer that in the legal support and investigations industry, there’s plenty of work for everyone and there are several business models that can work. As a business owner establishing your brand, you have to ask yourself if you want to be more like Walmart, Nordstrom, or Louis Vuitton. If you were to ask your clients why they use you, what would their answer be? Low prices, good customer service, expertise, ability to handle high volume? Once you identify who you want to be, set your prices and go after clients accordingly. If your goal is to provide awesome customer service and expertise, stop trying to compete with other company’s pricing. Instead, help your clients see that working with you is worth paying a little extra.
In the California attorney service industry, there is a business model for doing court filings referred to as “retainer work,” wherein for a low monthly fee, usually in the $100-$200 range, a company will drive to a law firm every day, pick up an unlimited number of court filings, take them to various courts, file them, and then return to the client. I’ve never believed in or practiced this model, but there are many companies who have, apparently, some quite successfully.
Their client base generally understands that they are trading off quick turnaround times and good customer service for low prices. There is a market for this type of work, we just chose not to compete in that market. Every time I get a call from a law firm complaining about the service that they are getting from their retainer attorney service before making the switch to our company, we have the same, sometimes painful conversation. If you want Walmart pricing, you’re going to get Walmart service, period. It doesn’t mean the other companies are bad or wrong, their model just focuses on keeping prices low.
Over the years, I’ve learned that to grow your business well it’s imperative that you surround yourself with good people. If you’re content with being a “one man show” or if you don’t have large aspirations, this may not be as applicable. But if you’re wanting to really grow your business, this is pivotal. There are certain functions that you and only you as the owner and expert can perform; however, everything else that can, should be delegated. The more you can focus on what you do well, the more and better you can grow.
Here’s the rub though – people who will genuinely care and who can adequately replace what you’re doing don’t come cheap. For new business owners especially, you first have to establish a good workstream, profit stream, and cash flow before bringing more people on. Typically, that means the business owner has to put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, as well as working some really long hours for a significant amount of time, before being able to bring on the right people. Doing so too early will eat away at your operating capital, and doing so too late will eat away at your sanity and/or the quality of service. If you’re doing good work and your clients are happy, yet you still can’t afford to bring on the kind of quality employees that you need; raise your prices. If that’s not an option, re-visit your business model.
To be sure, there are no silver bullets and each business situation is unique. Layered on top of that are the ever-changing business landscapes and factors completely outside of our control. While we would all love to have that big idea that will make us millionaires overnight, that’s not the reality for most of us. We need to approach things while acknowledging reality. I’ve found that the concepts discussed herein have really helped us not only to grow but to grow well. Not only have we gotten more work, but we are getting the right kinds of work, at the right prices, which has allowed us to perform at a level that brings significant value to our clients.
Joseph Jones is a licensed Private Investigator and the Vice President of Bosco Legal Services, Inc. Joseph is a Certified Social Media Intelligence Expert, Certified Expert in Cyber Investigations, and holds multiple certifications in Open Source and Cyber Intelligence. He also has degrees in Psychology and Social & Behavior Sciences. Joseph has received over 1,000 hours of specialized training and regularly teaches courses to judges, attorneys, paralegals, insurance professionals, and contributes to their various publications. Joseph has appeared as an Expert Witness in legal cases on various topics. When he’s not tracking down bad guys or digging up the truth, he enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife and 4 active children.
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