Last month, this column touched on the factors pushing our industry into a commodity product business model. Employers are looking for “faster and cheaper” products and in response screening firms are looking for “faster and cheaper” court research to meet that demand. However, this approach often shortchanges the most important aspect of our service industry – quality.
Maintaining quality court research providers is one of the most important things a background investigations firm can do to differentiate itself in a commodity marketplace. Admittedly, many employers purchase background investigations in the same way that they purchase toilet paper (and the investigations they purchase are often appropriate for the same purpose). Increasingly, however, employers are becoming more educated and discerning on the issues that differentiate good screening firms, including quality.
The court researcher’s product can truly make or break a screening firm. If the researcher provides a quality due diligence search of the court’s records, the screening firm will be more likely to meet the expectations of their clients. If the researcher’s work is shoddy, the screening firm’s relationships with clients will suffer and they may ultimately have to defend themselves in court.
When reviewing potential court research providers, our firm examines a number of issues, including:
- Experience – How long has the researcher been conducting research? If they are new to the industry, what in their background would suggest that they are competent to complete the research?
- Knowledge – We often use BRB Publications’ Public Records Research System to identify how the courts are organized in a particular jurisdiction. We also call and discuss the local courts’ access and index information with the local court clerks. Then, when reviewing the response from potential researchers to our Provider Information Form, we can identify if the researcher really understands the nuances of research in his or her jurisdiction.
- Reputation and Integrity – It seems obvious, but many of our researchers tell me that potential clients rarely ask them for references. The research provider’s references should be contacted and asked about his or her quality, responsiveness, and integrity.
- Research Methodology – Ask the research provider how he or she conducts the research. Is he or she venturing into the courthouse, accessing the information over a subscriber-based remote access system, using a free internet-based court index, or forwarding the work to another researcher with whom he or she has a relationship? Does he or she pull files for review where complete identifiers are not available? We rely on the researcher to respond appropriately to the unique factors affecting research in his or her jurisdiction, whether that is incomplete identifiers, multiple search locations, or crabby court clerks to get us the best information available.
- Price – Price should not be the primary determining factor in selecting a court research provider. In fact, it should be considered last after reviewing the criteria listed above. However, it is important that the researcher be competitive and within industry norms. It is important, however, to understand the factors that may cause a truly great researcher’s prices to exceed those of his or her peers.
Like any relationship, a screening firm’s relationship with its court researchers needs constant care and attention. The first aspect of maintaining that relationship is clear communication. The screening firm should request a great deal of information when selecting potential researchers but it should also provide to researchers the firm’s requirements as to research quality, data security, responsiveness, and other issues. Each request for research should be explicit as to the scope and nature of the search requested.
While having quality research providers is truly a competitive issue, our firm often refers other screening firms to our favorite researchers. While this may seem counter-intuitive, we believe that it is important to our success to help ensure that our researcher providers are also successful. Additionally, the good will that comes from helping out your best researchers will pay dividends when that truly urgent need arises.
For whatever reason, research providers sometimes need a little “push” to improve their responsiveness. There is a direct relationship between the amount of time a screening firm spends following up on slow responses and average turnaround time. In some cases, the research request (often made by fax or email) was never received or the response was similarly waylaid. In others, the researcher misplaced the request or has not “gotten around to it.” We see this most often with rural researchers who try to accumulate enough research to justify the trip to the courthouse. (Hint: If timing is critical, pay them enough to justify the trip.)
Some firms in our industry apply a great deal of price pressure to their court research providers. There are even purchasing organizations that attempt to leverage the buying power of a number of firms when negotiating with researcher providers. As discussed before, this is a reflection of the increasing commoditization of our profession. However, we all need to remember that the ability of a quality court researcher to gain efficiencies in their research while maintaining quality is limited. In other words, whether they are searching twenty names or one hundred names, each name takes the same amount of time to research correctly. Lower prices give research providers an incentive to cut corners when conducting research.
Review of a research provider’s pricing should consider the method of research, the unique circumstances affecting research in a given jurisdiction, and the variety of other factors that characterize the research provider. When I’ve asked potential research providers about their pricing, they often ask what I’m willing to pay. Rather than pull a great price out of the air, I place the ball back in their court and ask them to describe the research circumstances in their jurisdiction. From there, I can make an educated pricing offer in line with what we are paying other researchers operating in similar circumstances.
Finally, audit research providers’ invoices for accuracy but pay them. This may seem obvious, but if you ask any research provider and they can likely give you numerous examples where they were not treated fairly by screening firms.
Remember that the research provider is really the backbone of your company. Treat them with respect and deal with them honestly and they will become your firm’s greatest asset.
This article was originally published in The Background Investigator, a monthly journal for the pre-employment screening industry.