Certain Strategies for Uncertain Times

Aug 28, 2008

Consider this: there have been 10 post-World War II recessions. Do we really expect that another is not on the horizon for our industry? If you fantasize that your market is “recession-resistant,” watch what happens when hundreds of other recruiters come flooding into it because theirs isn’t. As Winston Churchill said, “Nourish your hopes, but do not overlook realities.”

Is there a solution? Can an experienced recruiter equal or even exceed his previous production in a slowing market? Maybe, but not without re-thinking, re-organizing, and re-engineering previous methodologies.

Consider the following 12 areas:

  1. New client emphasis. A recent call from a young but successful recruiter pointed out the fallacy of not thinking differently in a potentially difficult market. He suggested that, as his plan to deal with a market downturn, he was going to write an article each month on careers, then email them to his entire database of candidates! He was quite surprised when I informed him that large quantities of generic, cookie-cutter candidates are the last thing he’ll need in a recession. In fact, his phone will be ringing off the hook and his email inbox loaded with such people, though their quality will be questionable. What he, and you, will need are clients. His existing clients, despite his good production in a good market, will not be enough. Existing Client A will reduce hiring by 70%, existing Client B by 50%, and existing Client C will cease hiring entirely! A recruiter facing a possible market downturn would be well-advised to stop focusing on candidates, to organize an extensive list of prospective client companies, and methodically start calling and qualifying each of them…right now!
  2. “Hit ’em where they ain’t!” Baseball fans will recognize the words of “Wee Willie” Keeler, one of the best-hitting players in the last century. When asked how he achieved such a high batting average, “Wee Willie” replied, “I just hit ’em where they ain’t.” That is exactly what a search consultant facing a looming recession should do. By questioning hiring managers, a recruiter must identify a narrow sub-niche market where demand for talent exceeds the supply. This should be as close to his existing area as possible, so as to retain the great benefits of industry knowledge, buzzwords, relationships with current clients, and back database of candidates. Only in a state of extreme necessity should a recruiter even consider totally changing areas of specialization.
  3. Enhance search assignment selection. As the market slows and the quality of search assignments drops, the tendency will be to become sloppy in the selection process, just to have some work. This cannot be allowed to happen! Just because you have done business with a firm does not automatically make the search assignment a “Class A” priority. An existing client could give you three assignments; of these, one might be “Class A,” worth a full-scale recruiting job; one might be a “Class B,” worth only a file search; and the third might be a “Class Q,” useful only as a fire-starter on cold days. Select individual assignments, not clients. Those who wish to survive a market downturn would be well-advised to be extremely selective with their time. The time to start is now.
  4. Obtain more information on client stability. Employed candidates are far more nervous about changing positions in a slow market. Even the hint of a recession will cause spouses or friends to bring up the old “last in; first out” theory on employees to be laid off. Accordingly, emphasizing the growth of your client will be far less persuasive to a candidate. But emphasizing long-term stability will be far more positive. Ask your client about lay-offs his firm found necessary in the 2001-2002 recession. Track down an annual report to read specific growth and profit figures from that time. A solid no-lay-off performance in the last recession will go far toward assuaging candidates’ fears about this one.
  5. Obtain and emphasize candidate accomplishments. Recruiters who have only worked in a boom market will be surprised to find that their candidate presentations will no longer fly in a weak market. No longer is the client just looking to fill the position. Now he wants people with a proven track record of increasing raw revenues and profits, or saving money.
  6. Eliminate time-wasters. A boom market covers a multitude of flaws. As things slow, the same work pace and effectiveness levels that allowed one to prosper in a strong market will no longer be enough. Common time-wasters in our business include personal phone calls, personal emails, excessive in-office conversations, message boards, and the Internet. As Gandhi said, “Wherever you are, be sure you are there!”
  7. Increase time spent in role-playing. Do the objections to be overcome change in a deteriorating market? You bet they do! Candidates are harder to move, clients more difficult to obtain, and fee objections rise. Make a list of the most frequently heard objections, another list of the answers, and role-play to practice.
  8. Pay attention to counter-offers. In a strong market, we focus strongly on counter-offers….as we should. In a questionable or weak market, however, with unemployment rising and hiring freezes abounding, the tendency is to assume that counter-offers will not be extended.
  9. Focus on daily planning. Of all the rules for working a desk, the most absolutely proven one—tested in good times and bad for over 50 years in our industry—is the iron necessity of filling out an effective written daily planner. Our business tends to be inherently disorganized, a trait shared by most in sales. Without a written planner, this is a formula for chaos. What happens without a daily planner is that people tend to go in many different directions and frequently the wrong directions. They tend to get the wrong things done, and they tend not to get enough things done. A tight, well-ordered daily plan in writing is an absolute necessity to maximizing production. Paul Hawkinson, long-time editor of The Fordyce Letter, wrote that one of the few things all top producers in our business have in common is that they are well-planned. Particularly in the case of a slow market where a larger number of calls will be even more important, the lack of a daily planner could be catastrophic. Time spent in planning is time well-invested. A half-hour of “planning” and 7.5 hours of “doing” will yield much better results than eight hours of seat-of-the-pants frenetic activity.
  10. Learn to do real recruiting. In a bad market, unemployed candidates will flood the for-fee or for-free databases. Because hiring is slow, unemployed candidates will stay that way for much longer. This enables clients to run ads or search online and actually find qualified candidates, with the help of the same Internet trainers who hustle their services to our industry. Mike Kappel, president of Top Echelon, once said, “The temporary Internet honeymoon is over. It is now known to yield primarily second-rate candidates. Fire up that telephone before someone else with a phone takes your place!”
  11. Increase skills yourself. Have you been to a used bookstore recently to invest in books on selling? Do you read and highlight industry-specific books, and review frequently? Do you tape and evaluate your calls after-hours on a regular basis? If you commute, do you listen to business audios as you drive? Do you regularly put notes on your phone to remind yourself to correct errors and improve skills? In a slow market, you need reviewable, serious material to survive and prosper, not froth and popcorn.
  12. Outwork the market. Life eventually forces us to face reality. And the reality as the market slows is that working longer hours, presuming you stay effective and focused, may well be necessary.

Editor’s note: This article appeared in a longer form in a two-part series in the July 2008 and August 2008 issues of The Fordyce Letter.

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