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Gumshoe Marketing

It was a standard-issue summer morning on Monterey Bay. A chilly fogbank had skulked in like a ghoul and shrouded everything with a thick, soggy, gray blanket. This July funk (a deeply depressing weather pattern for which the central coast of California is notorious) was already backing up on me, and my brain felt as heavy as a load of wet towels.

Bummed by the lack of sun, I started thinking about people whose stock-in-trade is throwing light on murky situations. And before you could say Sam Spade, I had private eyes on the brain.

Investigators have the inside track when it comes to stealthy maneuvers, judging from the way they snoop around and get the goods on people, especially when those people would just as soon keep their goods to themselves. Detective work is so deliciously hush-hush, done on the QT and under cover, that private investigators have to be persistent and more than a little devious, or else clock their careers with an egg timer.

The sneaky profession appealed to me, and as I thought about what investigators do, I realized there's a whopper of a Machiavellian marketing lesson here. Sooner or later every IP learns that the gig goes to the quick and the crafty, not simply to the most competent. Like the time I was outfoxed by a wily opponent on a big consulting contract, mostly because my rival was an old smoothie at wangling information out of people, plus he knew exactly what to do with it -- the drop of a name at just the right moment, the casual comment designed to draw attention to his special grasp of the client's competitive position. While I toiled away at my desk, sweating over every little thing in my official proposal -- believing, the way you do when you're on your own and determined to prove yourself, that my formal pitch alone would do the trick -- that conniving so-and-so charmed a client right out from under my nose. I never knew what hit me.

Now, quite a few years (and loads of winning proposals) later, I'm wiser, and cagier. My foray into the subterranean world of the private eye was enormously instructive, too. It turns out that those clever PIs, in that lurky way they have, do know a special thing or two about persuasion, the very soul of marketing. They are, above everything, closers; they make the sale and get the job done. So, my dear Columbo, grab a ratty raincoat, a stogie (if you must), your trusty notebook, and follow.

Chapter One: The Ruse. You've got to get your foot in the door one way or another, and this is the time-tested technique favored by savvy sleuths. It goes like this: Let's say you hire a PI to locate your old pal Billy Birdsong, who skipped town to get out of paying the $500 he owes you. Your gumshoe might first search the Net, then buzz every Birdsong in the book. When he gets somebody on the line, he rolls out the ruse, or pretext: Hi, he chirps. I'm chairman of the high-school reunion committee, and I'm trying to find Billy to send him an invitation. Yeah, we go way back... We haven't seen him in ages -- say, do you have his number by any chance? You get the idea, which is to reassure the prospects that you're such a nice, honest guy that they'd be first-class jerks not to help you track down the erstwhile Billy.

I've seen IPs use two distinct twists on this sort of ploy. In one, a consultant makes it clear that it was her considerable know-how that really saved Harley-Davidson. In a similar scenario, an IP brags that everything he knows about leadership he learned from working side-by-side with, say, Nelson Mandela. They're not outright lies, since the first consultant did visit Harley as part of a group, and the other met Mandela at a mega-conference in Salt Lake City. But they both trample the boundaries of ethics and plain good sense.

Since any IP with an ounce of competitive drive knows it pays to project a certain chutzpah (but on the other hand, there's nothing more attractive than confidence that isn't flaunted, merely called upon), it's perhaps inevitable that ambitious professionals embellish their accomplishments. But there are significant drawbacks to making this a regular gambit. When your clients discover (and they will -- oh, they will) that you can't tell a Sportster from your Softail, your reputation as a motorcycle mama is shot. It's one thing to use a little artful misdirection to serve the ends of justice, but otherwise, you only create one heck of a credibility gap, one there's no hope of climbing out of.

Chapter Two: Be Cool. The most important instrument in the PI's toolkit is the investigative interview -- an intense, occasionally dangerous, absolutely indispensable piece of casework. According to sleuthhound Greg Lepore, a PI in Santa Cruz, Calif., this kind of interview is to the cold call what a Sunday drive is to a hit-and-run. It's a focused and carefully researched event where the goal is to schmooze as much information as possible out of reluctant witnesses. "Direct questions don't work," Lepore says. "You have to get people to talk about things when they really don't want to."

Sometimes, though, that reticence transmutes a straightforward chat into a bad scene. If a witness tenses up, gets fidgety, starts yelling, or takes a swing, the investigator has to be prepared to defuse the situation, pronto. That's why PIs are trained never to lose their cool, to be careful interpreters of body language, and to use restraining tactics only if things get really hairy -- fancy moves like takedowns and physical holds. And although an IP doesn't, as a rule, have to worry about physical assault, she's not home free, either, because an independent outsider makes the ideal target for frustrated or freaky clients. It happened to me.

Midway through a presentation to about a dozen managers from a company I urgently wanted to work with, a senior executive inexplicably cut in with a series of short, clipped, angry challenges. He got pretty worked up, pitching his pencil around and attacking my research, my credentials, my reputation, and my intentions. He called me a "mugwump" (my face on one side of the fence and my rear end on the other) and made loud tsk-ing noises when I tried to respond.

I had to draw upon every ounce of interpersonal skill to get that wacko to chill out, and I got no help from the rest of this crazy crowd; those bozos just sat there. Well, enough was enough. I declared the meeting over and made for the door. That's when the mouthy guy actually boasted that the whole thing had been a test -- his company needed somebody with backbone, he said, and this was his little way of finding out if I had one. But what he was really doing was messing with my head for sport. It happens. Your best bet is to keep your social skills sharp as tacks, your temper in check, and be careful out there. (Oh, and I turned down the gig. Duh.)

Chapter Three: The Stakeout. PI Greg Lepore runs a small box ad in the yellow pages. In boldface type, it reads: We Find. We Follow. We Film. And it's true, he does. Like most PIs, that means he's good at fading into the background while he gathers utterly convincing, potentially case-turning evidence with a teensy camera. PIs use a stakeout, or surveillance, to keep somebody or something under close and unobtrusive watch, and they spend huge chunks of their time this way.

So should a smart IP. Well, I don't mean that you should camp out in an unmarked blue sedan and record your quarry's every move for hours on end -- imagine the bladder control. No, I'm thinking here about competitive intelligence-gathering. If I'd looked up from my paper-strewn desk, for instance, I might have had a clue that Mr. Oh-So-Smooth was about to walk away with my would-be client, and maybe I'd have been faster on my feet. As it was, I never even made it to the playing field, and all the time I thought I was on center court.

This is one of the most consistently vexing problems for IPs, whose very independence can make them feel like islands. Sure, you can get by for a while with work that washes up on your shore like driftwood, but there are a lot of fish in the sea. So go fishing. Be on the lookout for a flurry of activity that signals a shift in the market you're interested in. Who wants in on the action? Who are the big noises in your field, and what are they up to? Who's supplying book-jacket blurbs for hot business authors? In twenty words or less, how would you characterize your market? (Note: This is harder than it sounds.) How is that market changing? Where is it going? Will you be able to take advantage of its evolution? How, exactly?

Epilogue. If this were detective fiction, we would by now have reached the epilogue, where each loose end gets tied up, every dilemma is neatly resolved, and every question answered. But that only happens in books. Out here in the real world, everybody's on Internet time and people get crazy. So you don't have to dwell on the finer points of detective work, just keep in mind the basics. One: Get in the door, but not if it means selling your soul. Two: Follow your nose, ask really good questions, and remain calm no matter what happens. Three: Always keep your eye on the competition and where you fit in. Four: Never give up. Never surrender.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Nancy K. Austin if you like. You may also like to see her biography.

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