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Telephone Interviewing Techniques

January/February 2020 (click here for printable version)

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Telephone Interviewing Techniques Part One

Certainly the ideal circumstance for an investigative interview is a face-to-face meeting with the subject. However, due to a variety of factors, it is becoming more and more frequent for investigators to conduct telephone interviews. Part One of this Investigator Tip will highlight some of the issues to consider and the guidelines to follow in order to conduct an effective telephone investigative interview. Part Two will focus on the verbal and paralinguistic behaviors that the investigator should listen for during the interview that will help assess the credibility of the information provided by the subject.

Identify the interview goals

Prior to conducting the interview, the investigator should carefully identify the goals of the interview:

What is the purpose of the interview?

What are the objectives of the interview?

What information do I need to develop?

What issues do I need to address?

What inconsistencies do I need to resolve?

The answers to these questions will be dictated by the circumstances of the interview. For example, if the subject to be interviewed is an investment firm client who has been the victim of a get-rich-quick-scheme the goal of the interview will focus on developing information about how the subject was contacted; what information did they receive from the “scammer”; what documentation do they have regarding the investments that they made with that person, etc. On the other hand, if the subject is an insured who is making a claim with their insurance carrier, the purpose of the interview (and corresponding areas of inquiry) will be very different.

Preparation 

In preparing for the interview the investigator should create a comprehensive outline of the topics that will be addressed during the interview, and a list of questions for each topic.

The investigator should decide whether or not the interview will be recorded (see your company policy) and if it is being recorded, should the subject be so advised (see your company policy). It is important to have in your possession all of the documents that you will be referring to or asking about during the interview, such as electronic files, expense reports and any other relevant materials.

The investigator should try to learn as much about the subject as possible before the interview, including any prior claims, prior contacts with the company, or prior similar allegations, as well as any background information about the other parties involved (such as the get-rich-quick-scheme “scammers”).

The investigator should try to arrange with the subject a time for the interview when they will be in a private, quiet, uninterrupted environment. You should also consider how you are going to validate the identity of the person that you are speaking to – what information will you solicit from them to confirm their identity.

Investigator Demeanor

The investigator should be a neutral, objective fact finder who sounds understanding and empathetic, and utilizes a conversational tone of voice. The investigator should avoid expressing his/her thoughts, opinions or conclusions about the status of the investigation. The investigator should treat the subject with dignity, respect, and courtesy, and neverintimidate or make threats. 

The investigator should not promise confidentiality, but advise the subject the you will only share the information with those who need to know.

At the outset of the interview the investigator should introduce him/herself, your position and your organization, and advise the subject as to the purpose of the call (confirming what may have been originally discussed when the interview time was set up). The investigator should express appreciation for the subject’s cooperation, using such phrases as “I appreciate your assistance on this matter,” or “I appreciate your help in clarifying some information about your [claim, account, etc].” Since the personal display of identification is not possible over the phone, you should provide the subject with a call back number for verification of your official function.

The Structure of the Interview

Opening 

The interview should begin with casual conversation as well as questions to develop the appropriate personal information to verify the subject’s identity (name, address, account number, security questions, etc.). It is important for the investigator to show sincere interest in the subject and possibly discuss topics unrelated to issue under investigation, perhaps offering a well-timed and sincere compliment.

When interviewing the subject of a fraud scheme, keep in mind that they oftentimes feel embarrassed, victimized, gullible and humiliated. In an employee investigation, the individuals you interview are likely to be nervous and uncomfortable. It can help to put the subject at ease to start the interview with basic questions about their background, the employee’s job, coworkers, daily schedule, how long they have been with the firm as a client, and so on.

It also may be beneficial (for example, when interviewing the victim of a fraud scheme) to use an introductory statement to reassure the subject that their situation is not unique, or when interviewing an employee in an internal investigation, indicating that you do not expect anyone to be perfect. For example,

Mike, as we discuss this issue today (your account, the missing deposit, etc.) keep in mind that we deal with these types of situations on a regular basis and it is important that you understand that our decisions will be based on factual information. (For victims of fraud) - We know that even the most cautious and honest person can be manipulated and become the victim of elaborate con-games. (For employee investigations) – We don’t expect anyone to be perfect. We know that everyone makes mistakes in judgment but we simply would like to get an accurate account of what happened. So it is very important that you are completely truthful with me today during this interview, Okay.

Investigative Questions

One of the first investigative questions that should be asked at the outset of this phase of the interview is an open-ended question that invites the subject to tell their story, their version of events, their explanation for the activity in question, etc.

“Please tell me everything about…..” 

“Can you walk me through what happened regarding …..?”

“Please tell me everything about the accident that you witnessed….”

There are a number of benefits of asking an initial open-ended question early during an
interview. First, because the subject is free to include or exclude whatever he wants to within his or her response, unless dealing with a fabricated victim’s account, the subject is unlikely to include false information, as open questions do not invite fabrication. Information that is volunteered during a response to an open question—for example, a subject’s alibi—will probably all be truthful, although perhaps incomplete. Second, the subject’s response to an initial open question can be evaluated for editing, where the subject intentionally excludes specific information within the account. Finally, responses to open questions generally do not commit the deceptive subject to a position of denial, whereas a series of closed questions may cause the subject to stick to a lie he told early during the interview process.

Once the subject starts responding to the initial open-ended question the investigator should allow him/her to continue with their response without asking any questions. If the investigator does interrupt the account by asking a question, the truthful subject may edit the account to provide what he believes the investigator wants to know. Also, interruptions as a result of questions break the subject’s flow of ideas and continuity of the account, which restricts the investigator’s ability to evaluate the account for edited information. The goal is to obtain the “pure version” of the subject’s story.

To encourage a full response to the initial open question, the investigator may use a technique called forced silence. After the subject pauses, the investigator might say something like, “all right” or “okay,” followed by silence. Inevitably, the subject will break the silence and continue with their response. An alternative procedure when the subject pauses is to nudge them forward by such comments as “please continue” or “go on.” When their story is complete the subject will generally let the investigator know this with a statement such as, “And that’s everything I did” of “That’s everything that happened.” *

Once the subject has completed their response to the initial open-ended question, the investigator should go back and ask clarifying questions. The following list can be used as a guide to help direct the interviewer to those areas that require further clarification:

  1. sketchy details
  2. illogical or unexplained behavior
  3. time gaps
  4. implied actions
  5. people referenced but not clearly identified 
  6. conversations the subject refered
  7. qualifying phrases (I believe, I think, As I recall)


Clarifying questions are open-ended questions that can be divided into three categories: (1) questions that elicit more information, (2) questions that seek an explanation for events, and (3) questions that develop information about the subject’s feelings or thoughts.

The first category of questions is designed to elicit further information within a section of the subject’s account. For example:

  • Please tell me more about……...
  • Can you please describe in more detail how ……. .
  • What did you do after………?

The second category of clarifying questions seeks an explanation for events. For example:

  • Could you explain more fully……?
  • When did you ….. ?
  • Why did you decide to …… ?


The final category of clarifying questions develops information about the subject’s feelings or thoughts. For example:

  • What was your first reaction when you saw…… ?
  • How do you feel toward the person who …….?
  • With whom have you discussed this incident?

After the investigator has asked a series of clarifying questions and the subject has volunteered all the information that he/she is going to, the investigator should ask direct questions designed to develop additional details about the event or situation that were not included in the subject’s response to the initial open-ended question.

Here are some additional investigative questions/issues to consider, depending on the particulars of your investigation and your organization’s protocol:

If the interview is about a specific event, identify the five Ws: who, what, when, where, why.

Develop a chronological timeline if possible

Ask about any witnesses or others who can corroborate on comment on the issue/incident under investigation

How do you think this was done?

Why do you think you may have been a victim of what happened?

Has anything like this ever happened to you before? Or to someone you know?

Would it be possible for us to meet at a later time if it were necessary for me to take a formal statement?

Document Your Interviews (Record)

The investigator should take notes during every interview. The notes should include the date, time, and place of each interview, the name of the witness, and whether anyone else was present. They should include all the important facts that the witness relates or denies, using the witness’s own words whenever possible. When taking notes the investigator can draw a vertical line down the page, recording what the subject is saying on the left side and making notes of any follow up questions you have on the right.These notes will help you remember what each witness said later, when you are making your investigative decision. 

Closing the Interview

Before the interview is over, the investigator should take a few minutes to go back through your notes with the witness to make sure they are complete. In some cases it may be advisable to ask the subject to prepare a written statement detailing the information that they provided during the interview.

Ask the subject whether there are any other questions they feel you should have asked or whether there is anything they would like to disclose before you conclude the interview. You might also ask them if there is anything that you can do to help move the inquiry along. It would also be a good idea to ask the subject if they would mind if you called them back at a later date if you have any more questions. To make sure you stay in the loop, close every interview by thanking the witness for their time and asking him or her to contact you if anything else comes to mind. (Make sure that they have your contact information: business number, cell number, email address and mailing address)

In Telephone Interviewing Techniques Part Two (the March/April 2020 Investigator Tip) we will discuss the verbal and paralinguistic behaviors that the investigator should listen for during the interview to help assess the credibility of the information provided by the subject.

* For additional information on using open-ended questions, evaluating the responses and determining the appropriate follow-up questions, see our prior Investigator Tips:

Using Open-ended Questions During the Investigative Interview (Part 1)

http://www.reid.com/educational_info/r_tips.html?serial=20170301&print=[print]

Using Open-ended Questions During the Investigative Interview (Part 2)

http://www.reid.com/educational_info/r_tips.html?serial=20170501&print=[print]






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