Addressing a Corporate Recruiter’s Opinion of Agency Recruiters, Part 1

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Sep 26, 2011

A response to the article written last week by Matt Lowney titled “What Drives Me Nuts About Staffing Agencies (and How They Can Work as a Better Partner)

I am an agency recruiter  — a Managing Director for a search firm in New York City. I have nearly twenty years of financial services executive search and consulting experience. However, I have previously worked in-house for a large investment bank managing a team of recruiters. I take exception to some of the content of Matt’s article, as I’m sure you do if you’ve read it. There are some truths but there are also some points that demonstrate a lack of compromise, responsibility, and professional courtesy on the corporate side of the table.

While I understand that there is a need for give-and-take in the agency-corporate relationship, I feel compelled to address Matt’s points on the canned pitches he receives from agency recruiters, in order to provide an opposing viewpoint for our corporate brethren to consider when complaining about the ‘relationships’ they have with us agency folk.

Part one today will address each pitch outlined in the original article, and Part two will address the follow-up items suggested to fix the broken relationship. My plan is to show where we, as agency recruiters, need to own our own faults, but also point out Corporate’s role in the difficulties that are often experienced when working with one another.

“We’re different.”

From my HR time, I know this is true – most recruiters who have called me have said this and expect no further explanation to be necessary (to give some perspective, at one point I was running North American recruiting at a large investment bank, and we had “narrowed down” the list to 139 agencies, many of whom would call the recruiters they weren’t working with because they were “approved” – those calls came to me).  A very slim minority ever scratch the surface of showing how.

Back on the search side of the fence, I used my HR experience to adapt accordingly. My approach was to actually show our difference with a real-life example.  During one pitch, I sat with the head of recruiting at another large investment bank (well, it was large at one point…before their 30 times leverage turned against them, necessitating their rescue by another, larger investment bank in the late 2000’s), having been able to leverage my other relationships in the firm, and proceeded to tell him we were just like a great many other agencies, except in the area of candidate presentation.  I then offered to show him a single candidate presentation, which I immediately emailed from my phone, and he was blown away.

Of course, as I mentioned, they imploded.  And even though he said, “This is the most impressive candidate presentation I’ve ever seen from a contingent firm,” I still didn’t get any additional business.

Yeah, we’re mostly the same.  But even if we can show you that we really are different/better/whatever, is that going to win your business?  Are you even going to listen to the pitch?  I ran recruiting in NYC for producing financial advisors for one of the world’s largest brokerage firms, ran North American recruiting for another large global investment bank, spent years in Wall Street operations, got quoted in more industry trade rags than you can shake a stick at, and even when referred in by name directly by the CFO to the head of HR, got passed to a non-titled HR staff member who said, before I even had a chance to speak, “I know your firm is different.  We’ll keep you in mind when we open up the approved list.”  I mentioned that we were already on the list – andI can tell you it is not at all difficult to add a firm – and got a vacant “Well you’re not on it for this division.  We’ll be in touch.”

Really?  Now I know what a C-list extra feels like after a failed audition.

Ask me what I know about your business, or the competitive landscape for your business, or my experience in your business – or just ask me “How?” if I cave in to peer pressure and proceed to tell you “We’re different.”  Over the 50 calls you’ll get this week, this question alone will point out who may be an actual value-add in 20 seconds or less; that’s about a 15-minute investment a week.  Ask it enough times, and you’ll start getting fewer calls over time, while identifying firms that can provide real insight and actionable information – in short, value.

You know how I know this to be true?  Because with a staff 30 people reporting to me and accountability for filling a large investment bank’s entire slate of openings in North America, I found the 15 minutes a week to do it myself.  End result: the fly-by-night guys stopped calling, the value-added firms were identified and added to our approved list, and a few of them were even successful.

“We build relationships.”

I have no idea what this even means as a point of selling a service.  It’s like selling cars and saying, “They move.”

Notwithstanding that it’s amateurish to offer this, of course we build some kind of relationship…but what kind are you going to let us build?  The kind where we send you a lot of resumes for every position, and they all fit, and all you have to do is tell your coordinator to draft an offer letter?  The kind where you never have to answer any questions about the position/manager/compensation?  The kind where, if it’s apparent that I know more about the industry than you do, you needn’t worry about facilitating a conversation with the hiring manager?

I get it – you’re busy.  You have 50 openings – a realistic number – and all your hiring managers (let’s say those 50 open requisitions represent 30 hiring managers) call you all the time for updates.  Then you have 50 firms you actually work with – because they all have different strengths – all trying to call you.  And another 50 a week cold-calling you.  Plus every candidate you’ve ever interviewed in the last 6 months trying to “touch base” – all the while having to provide detailed metrics internally on the number of candidates you’ve interviewed, the number submitted to each position, any diversity information (which no search firm in North America tracks unless they’re doing temp), internal meetings, etc.  It’s a 50-hour work week if you’re lucky.  No, most of us won’t trade places with you unless we’re burnt out or offered a high rate consulting position.  And no, most of the managers you work with aren’t going to call you and say “Awesome job!” – they’re going to call you with “What the hell are you doing about my open reqs?”

However, this is something most third party recruiters just don’t get – there isn’t enough time to devote per requisition and make it through the week with any semblance of sanity – that’s why the whole “Just use everyone and let the performers shine” thought process every third party recruiter hopes for doesn’t work in real life any better than “We build relationships” does as a pitch.

The flip side is that, because the internal recruiting process is more often misfiring than not, some outside help is necessary from people who can – argh! – build relationships with the core group of professionals (read “passive candidates”) either directly in a hiring manager’s area or in areas that easily network into that hiring manager’s area.  You think our fees are that easy to earn?  OK – go earn some.

But yes, we recruiters all – ALL – suffer from megalomania coupled with an inferiority complex.  We love to tell you how great we are, how necessary we are, how important we are…while we typically disavow the real truths:  our product is people, we’re not humanity’s gift to hiring managers and any client can pretty much take or leave us whenever they want.

That’s probably why we focus on the relationship thing – because you don’t need to.  And therefore, many times you don’t.

Doesn’t matter what we did before – young guns will still be asked by a smiling face for a salary survey from a client they’ve never made a placement with, terms will change on converted temps and total compensation-based fees, RFPs will still need to be filled out when your third party outsourcer comes in and we’ll still have to anonymously upload resumes to Taleo, only to find out that you “already have” a candidate who sold his house and changed jobs in the 3 years since you first got the resume (without candidate permission) from another recruiter who flooded the database.  And even if that candidate is perfect, you probably still won’t call him…there’s just no time in the day to do it.

Sure, we build relationships.  Mostly dysfunctional.  But we keep trying anyway. It’s our job.

“We have a proprietary database.”

Yes, this is a joke.  But it pales in comparison to the “proprietary database” you in HR have – the one with all the candidates from all the recruiters you’ve worked with.  The one that’s “yours” after 3 months, or 6 months, or 9 months or a year – whatever time period it is that lets you take our work.

Are you able to actually get what you want out of it?

Agency recruiters: raise your hand if someone in your database ever got placed by a competitor at a client you were working with on a job that had been listed by you.

And RPO guys – raise your hand if your firm ALSO has a search capability.  Because the actual truth of the matter is that those resumes we’re sending through your interface aren’t firewalled from the search guys – I’ve seen this first-hand while the president of the company swore to a client’s General Counsel that the information was segregated.

Now HR – raise your hand if a significant portion of your hires (more than, say, 1/3) come from your internal database.

I see a big difference in the number of hands raised.  Maybe the “proprietary database” line is amateurish…but there’s some truth to it.

I think “proprietary network” is probably more accurate.  That, Mr. or Ms. Internal Recruiter, is what we have that you don’t. If you can’t find the candidates in your own database, then you have bigger problems than to poke fun at our “proprietary database…”

…like filling your open requisitions. We can help you with that — if you’re willing to give us a fair shake.

Stay tuned for Part 2…

image source: Simone Lovati

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