I am making a confession that perhaps I should not be making publicly, but I thought my clients and my candidates ought to understand a little about the executive search business. There are many recruiters who do general search in all industries and functions, but I only handle advertising executives both for agencies and for clients.
For senior searches, I will only accept assignments on a fee basis. For most other searches, I will work on contingency. But here is the issue with contingent searches.
On a retained basis, it is rare that a client will call more than one recruiter. Fee-paid retainers are almost always exclusive. But contingent searches are usually given to multiple recruiters. For a single industry recruiter like myself, I know which of my clients use me exclusively and which call multiple recruiters. As a result, contingent recruiters will only work diligently for two kinds of clients: clients who use a limited number of recruiters (and who don’t compete with us with their own internal recruiters), and clients who pay quickly and well. The others, unfortunately, get second priority – they include companies which take sixty or ninety days to pay and companies which don’t discriminate and use too many recruiters on the same assignment.
(Often, the companies which take sixty and ninety days to pay, put their executive recruiters in the same category as those that place administrative help. Secretaries and administrative people tend to leave quickly. Executives rarely leave. Besides, we guarantee that our candidates will stay.)
I once had a client who paid quickly (two weeks or less), but confessed to me that she called twenty or so recruiters on every assignment (She couldn’t remember who she called and generally started her conversations with us by saying, “Did I discuss the…assignment with you?). Because they paid well, I always did due diligence immediately. As a result, I would conduct what is called a file search, meaning I would see who was in my files but if no one fit the brief or if I was really busy, I would probably not work too hard on the assignment. (There is nothing worse for a recruiter than to call candidates and discover that another recruiter had called them prior – sometimes as much as a week before – or, worse, to find out that this candidate had already been called by multiple recruiters.) I know most of the other successful recruiters did the same. When so many recruiters are involved, there is no incentive to work hard on the placement. A recruiter’s time is valuable. The reason why the client called so many recruiters is that she did not nurture any of her recruiting relationships and none of these suppliers therefore felt special or loyal. The HR person figured (wrongly) that if she called twenty recruiters she might get lucky and get a couple of candidates. She had no idea that she could get more candidates by being loyal to two or three recruitment firms who would work hard for her. The shame is that it was a wonderful agency.
The bane of every contingent recruiter’s existence is to have a search cancelled because of the job going to an internal candidate. While I have always thought it fair and smart for companies to promote and to rotate within their ranks, giving out a search and having it cancelled after having spent time working on it is frustrating both for the headhunter and for candidates, who may be far along in interviewing.
Or sometimes, for whatever reason, the search just gets cancelled. Both cancellations and internal candidates are acceptable because it is part of the business, but it is not acceptable when the client knew of the internal candidate or knew it might be cancelled at the time they gave out the assignment (see my post on “The more we know the better we can perform”) and they neglected to tell us of this possibility. If I know in advance, it is my choice to work on the assignment or not. If we are forewarned, it is not an issue. I can also tell my candidates.
Companies that don’t pay well, clients who abuse our time or call too many headhunters end up getting the least consideration.
Unfortunately, recruiters are rarely evaluated on their true performance – finding great candidates – but they are judged by how quickly they are able to find the most candidates. The recruiter who makes the placement is deemed, “the best”, whether true or not. Often these same clients are not concerned about quality, but merely by quantity. We often get called by new clients, but if we do not make the placement, they won't even return our calls in the future.
Those clients where we do the best, are those who work with us on a preferential basis and give us exclusives or at least limit the number of recruiters who work on the assignment to two or three. This is a relationship business especially since our client base is limited.
I have always told clients that we may not get the first person we send right or even the second, but once we understand who and what the company is and what the assignment is, we can make placements efficiently and quickly.