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Always Be Closing

by
Dan Nielsen
Aug 11, 2009, 5:06 am ET

Closing — the art of getting a candidate to accept an offer and begin work — is every recruiter’s primary goal. And the strongest closers share several attributes:

They craft powerful employment value propositions that lay out the selling points of the company, group, and position — as well as the present and future opportunities for growth.

They communicate clearly, asking direct and purposeful questions, listening critically to responses (spoken and implied), and remaining nimble enough to respond to unexpected issues as they arise.

They set clear expectations for candidates and hiring managers on process steps, compensation issues, and potential roadblocks such as counteroffers.

They are persistent, consistently reconfirming the primary issues throughout the process with candidate and hiring manager, and continue sourcing efforts even when a good candidate is in play.

They have a keen sense of timing, knowing when to move quickly and — just as important — when to slow the pace to accommodate a candidate’s decision-making.

Unfortunately, too many recruiters view closing as a standalone process that kicks into gear only after the interview team identifies its front-runner. In fact, the opposite is true: successful closing begins before a candidate has even been identified, and it touches every step of the process.

Let’s examine (and I’ll go into more depth at my breakout session this September) some of the ways you can bring a closer’s mindset to each step of recruiting:

Role Definition

Develop a compelling employment value proposition that focuses on your company’s advantages, emphasizing selling points your competitors for talent cannot match.

  • Make the case for your company’s stability by pointing out steps the firm is taking to thrive in today’s economy.
  • Don’t lose sight of intangible advantages which are important to many people, including on-site exercise facilities, proximity to public transit, or continued education programs.

Resume Review

Carefully examine the candidate’s history for potential obstacles — and address them during the interview process.

  • Geography matters. Someone who has spent a lifetime in Little Rock may have a tough time adapting to living in New York City. Be prepared to probe how realistic the candidate is being about their ability to adjust to the move.
  • Organizational culture matters. You may be familiar enough with a candidate’s current organization to know that a move to your company will demand significant adjustments. Don’t shy away from discussing these issues.
  • Resigning is tough. A candidate who has been with one employer for a long time may have difficulty overcoming company loyalty and ending valued working relationships. What’s more, specialized expertise that makes a candidate attractive to you may foreshadow a relentless counteroffer from the current employer, who also values that expertise.
  • Little things matter, too. Even “trivial” changes such as giving up an impressive title or shorter commute can become barriers for a candidate weighing a major career and life change.

Phone Interview

Your phone interview should be comprehensive enough that the rest of the process simply adds footnotes to the candidate’s file. If you later find yourself surprised by the candidate’s motivations, strengths, weaknesses, concerns, compensation expectations, etc., you probably need a more thorough phone interview.

You can guide the process by asking the right questions. For example:

  • Don’t end the call until you have a clear understanding of why the candidate is interested in making a change, and what it will take to secure the move. And be sure to revisit this issue with the candidate throughout the process.
  • If the candidate hasn’t made a compelling case for change, don’t shy away from posing direct questions such as “Your company is the leader in our industry: why would you consider joining us?” or “Why would you leave a firm that has provided you such good career and compensation progression?”
  • On the pivotal topic of compensation, shift the burden to the candidate. Ask: “Do you feel your employer compensates you fairly?” (and follow up with “Why/Why not?”). Play to your company’s strengths with questions such as “Do you feel your company effectively rewards good performance?” or “Does your current firm encourage career advancement in a structured way?”
  • Explore whether the candidate has sought other people’s perspectives. Ask questions such as “What does your family think about relocating to Austin?” or “Have you sought any advice about the prospect of changing jobs?”

Finally, ask if the candidate has been inquiring about “inside” opportunities with the current employer that meet their career objectives. (If not, you have a counteroffer waiting to happen.)

Interviewing

Once the candidate is ready to meet your interview team, take time to prepare the interviewers:

  • Assign each member of the team one or more of the selling points from your employment value proposition. This will give the candidate a rounded view of your company.
  • Tell the interviewers what you’ve discovered about the candidate’s motivation, and encourage them to discuss it further with the candidate.
  • Prompt the interviewers to address potential deal-killers. An in-person reaction to a question such as “What might your current company do to keep you?” is invaluable.

Perspectives and impressions can evolve. Check in often with the candidate throughout the interview process, to make certain the role matches the candidate’s professional, financial, and personal goals.

Offer Development

As you prepare a formal offer, avoid unwanted surprises by thoroughly outlining their current compensation in greater detail than you may have done earlier in the process. Take note of anything the candidate might consider remuneration: pay, benefits, parking, stock, perks, and the like.

Conversely, identify anything the candidate might consider a financial sacrifice or takeaway: additional commuting costs, taxes or distances, waiting periods for benefits, potential “paybacks” for leaving an employer, etc. Even if you don’t make up for everything, the candidate needs to know that your offer is based on a thorough analysis of all available information.

Finally, before you test-close the candidate, check with the hiring manager to get a clear understanding of how far they are willing to stretch the scope of the role, compensation, and any other issues that might matter to this particular individual.

Test-closing

Test-closing offers a final opportunity to eliminate unwanted surprises, while creating a “cushion” between the candidate’s expectations and your offer. Advise the candidate that your firm extends offers only when there are no open issues, and the candidate is fully prepared to make a decision.

Focus the candidate on the non-financial components of your offer. Remind the candidate they already know most of the offer — the company, the job, the opportunity, and co-workers. Take the candidate back to the motivations you discussed during the phone interview, and reaffirm that this role represents the best opportunity for career growth.

Next, talk through the remaining variables — everything except salary. Share details on benefits, time off, relocation, continued education programs — and even target bonus. Find out if the candidate has unanswered questions, additional people to meet, or follow-up with or other concerns.

After you’ve covered everything else, let the candidate know your objective is to make one financial offer — and to do it right. Refer to your earlier conversations about compensation and pose direct questions such as “If the offer is $X or above, are you accepting?” During this critical step, your goals should be to:

  • Eliminate ambiguity: If the candidate tells you “I was hoping for a little more than $X,” respond with “Does that mean you would reject an offer at $X?” or “If we were able to come in at $Y, are you accepting?”
  • Gain the candidate’s permission to accept an offer at a specific dollar amount. That amount should be what the candidate wants, but below what you believe your offer will be. This “cushion” is crucial to maintaining excitement at the point of offer.

Finally, help the candidate anticipate a possible counteroffer. Ask questions such as “What happens when (not “if”) your boss says she will expand your job duties and beat our offer?” Close with the direct but open-ended question “Is there anything that can stop you from joining us?”

Offer Extension

On the heels of your test-close, the offer extension is simply a matter of calling the candidate to congratulate them on landing their new job. The only surprise to either party should be that the compensation is a little higher than the candidate expected.

Of course, there will be times when you won’t have an immediate acceptance. In that case, ask questions such as “What is holding you back from making your decision?” and “Are you planning on speaking with your boss or other companies about our offer?” or “Should we still expect your answer by Friday?”

Too often, at this stage, candidates tell us to “try again” — and we do! Never revise an offer that has been extended without a firm commitment that the candidate will accept without condition. If a candidate asks you to adjust an offer in any way (compensation, start date, title, etc.), your response should be “I’m not saying I can do anything, but if we make this change, do I have your assurance that you are accepting?”

Resignation

We all know there is a big difference between an acceptance and a hire. Even after a candidate accepts, there is still work to be done before you can call it a “close.” In a sense, the resignation is the most crucial step. This is because if it does not go well, you not only have an unfilled role, but have wasted a lot of your company’s time and effort. There are some things you can do to get past this final step which build on your past conversations about the resignation.

  • Help the candidate control the resignation. The candidate needs to understand and embrace the idea of notifying the boss of a decision, as opposed to starting a dialogue.
  • Role-play with the candidate. Discuss how the boss might respond. Pose questions such as “What happens when (not “if”) your boss asks what she can do to keep you?” and “What will you do when she asks you not to tell anyone until she has a chance to speak with management?” or “What happens when she offers to allow you to work from home two days a week?”
  • Create a sense of accountability. Have the candidate call you immediately after resigning, to let you know how it went.
  • Maintain contact. In addition to your own outreach, schedule “spontaneous” calls for interview-team members to contact the candidate during the important time between resignation and start date.

A Few “Closing” Words

Strengthening your closing skills allows you to directly contribute to the performance of your company by landing their most desired candidates. The best way to improve your technical recruiting abilities in this area is to experiment with new methods. Start by working some of these techniques into your standard approach to each step of the process. The effectiveness and value will show up in your acceptance rate, days-to-fill rate, and best of all, the appreciation from the business you support by contributing to their next outstanding hire.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. George Bradt

    Dan – A well thought through and well written piece on how to get a candidate to accept an offer. Unfortunately, that’s the wrong goal.

    The goal should certainly be an accepted offer if taking the job is the right move for the candidate, his or her supporters, and the organization over time. On the other hand, recruiters want a “no, thanks” if it’s not. Far better to have the wrong candidate say “no” than show up, fail, and leave after a few months.

    We go into depth on this in our new book, “Onboarding – How To Get Your New Employees Up To Speed In Half The Time.” (Wiley, August 26, 2009) There’s a downloadable executive summary of the book at http://www.onboardingtools.com.

    George Bradt – PrimeGenesis Executive Onboarding
    http://www.primegenesis.com

  2. Kevin Spain

    I have some that is a little off from the subject. Can anyone give advice on convincing a new boss (HR Director) to see that value in the recruiting function, when the boss doesn’t have any recruiting experience?

    I’m a Corporate Recruiter, what I notice is that he just sees it as filling slots.

  3. Someshwar Halihede

    Very well written note. This is applicable to third party recruiters as well. I am wondering what kind of goals and metrics can be set so that closing is objectively measured. There could cases that a recruiter does his best job to close, but stills fails to close it positively. How to measure such cases against those which are done badly?

  4. Mark Sullivan

    Dan – great note and one that I will be sharing with my team. I agree that the closing of offers is much easier when the initial stages of the process are performed well.

    George – a little surprised with your response (and unashamed self promotion on another person’s post)- your comment is a given to recruiters – at the beginning of the process and if you get to the closing stage – that this move is the right move for the candidate, company and supporters. If not, either the hiring manager, the recurter or the candidate will make the decision to have the candidate removed from consideration.

    The point of the article is to give recruiters (potentially geared towards the more junior) real deal training on how to be closing candidates effectively and efficiently. In addition, it is a good article for the more experienced recruiters out there to remember the basics.

    Kevin – good question – pose it to an ERE group or LI group and you should get some helpful responses.

    Dan – thanks again for a great post and one that in my opinion will be useful to many recruiters.

  5. George Bradt

    Mark – Good point on the self-promotion. Sorry if I stepped over the line. And I agree that the article does an excellent job of laying out the basics of closing a deal.

    I do stand by my point that not all deals should be closed. It is in everyone’s best interest for the recruiter and the organization to help the recruit do a real due diligence after the offer is made and before it is accepted to mitigate three risks:
    – organizational risk
    – role risk
    – personal risk
    If those risks can’t be mitigated, the best recruiters will not push to close a bad deal. I’ve spent too much time since 2002 cleaning up bad deals to keep quiet on this point. We’ve reduced the risk of failure from 40% to 10%. Mitigating these three risks is the only way to get below 10%.

    George Bradt – PrimeGenesis Executive Onboarding

  6. Mark Sullivan

    George,

    Agreed. You and I both know that not all recruiters are mitigating the risks and that is the case both for in-house and TPR’s. If done right as stated above the risks can be addressed throughout the process leading to a successful close.

    Thanks,

    Mark

  7. Dan Nielsen

    Mark – Thanks for the comments and engagement on this.

    George – I’m glad you’ve raised this issue because it’s one I was concerned would lend itself to misunderstanding. The primary thing I’m trying to encourage people to do is start the closing process from the beginning. By definition, this means we use these closing techniques with candidates we won’t want to hire (nor will they all want to join.) The danger is that if we reserve the use of these techniques for fully-vetted candidates, it is too late for much of it to be useful. Furthermore, while it wasn’t the focus of the article, these are also selection tools that benefit both the candidate and the firm. (For instance, being clear on the candidate’s reasons for a job change allows you to also collectively evaluate how good of a match you have, etc.)

    Someshwar – Thanks for highlighting the 3rd party connection. While I’ve been on the corporate side for over 10 years now, virtually all of the closing techniques I’ve learned came in my contingency recruiting days. (There’s nothing like a full-commission job to get you motivated on increasing your closing skills.) A major way a recruiting firm can differentiate itself from competition is by doing this well. I can’t tell you how many times we received resumes from an agency who can’t tell us the basics of what the person is looking for (opportunity, location, compensation). Adding value from the start of the process is what earns the right to have influence at the offer stage as well.

  8. Jason Lauritsen

    Nice article on closing, Dan. As someone who got his HR start in third party recruiting, I’ve always felt that my advantage over other corporate recruiters was my training in selling and closing.

    Selfishly, I always had too much to do and too little time to do it, so closing was a way to drive a decision as soon as possible in the process–less wasted time. Closing starts in the first conversation and doesn’t stop until the candidate is hired or out of the process.

    This is one of the most under-developed skills for corporate recruiters. I think it boils down to the courage and the confidence to ask the important questions early and often.

  9. Ross Clennett

    Dan – I really enjoyed your post, especially the very specific language that you advocate using. In my work with recruiters I see vagueness, assumptions and ambiguous language as the real enemies of effective closing and you captured this really well with your suggested questions and recommended responses. Great stuff.

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