The Four Rules for Successful Recruiting in a Recession, Part 1

Nov 9, 2009

We’re in the middle of it, folks. The toughest economy in decades. We hear it every day from prospective clients and long-time customers alike.

“We have a hiring freeze” or “We are about to have a “RIF (reduction in force)” or even “We’ll work with you, but only if you cut your fee.”

Today’s marketplace is not for the faint-hearted. These are trying times in the recruiting world for those not fortunate enough to be deeply entrenched in the rare market unaffected by a struggling economy.

There is good news, however. In a sort of Darwinian way, weak recruiters are going to remove themselves from the industry. The rest of us will stay and fight for our careers.

It won’t be easy, but those of us who won’t accept defeat are going to make it happen. To do that, you’ll need to follow four rules of recruiting in a recession.

Each of the rules I’ve outlined below is essential in a tough, tough marketplace. The reality is you’re hearing a lot of client objections in this economy. You’ve got to have a strategy in place to deal with them.

Those who master the art of recruiting in a recession will emerge from this economic downturn stronger and better at what they do. The recruiters who succeed today have so much to look forward to tomorrow!

Rule Number 1: Talk to the owner of the problem.

Many times when we hear objections, we are not talking to the right people or the specific hiring manager who owns the problem. Our friends in HR are good at delivering the bad news. A great example: I got a call last month from one of an existing client’s HR managers. He’d heard that the major ERP organizations were only paying flat $10K fees. And he wanted the same deal. His reasoning: if Oracle and HP can get away with it, why can’t my small software provider?

It’s a classic mistake and one I needed to correct. Right away, I arranged a conference call with HR. I then began discussions with the hiring manager – who owned the problem. We talked about the difficulties he was having finding and acquiring top talent in his market. We defined the pain associated with sub-par talent, the risks posed by tolerating a “C” player on a team that absolutely needed superstars. We never talked fee reduction. This was a conversation completely focused on one thing: identifying the ways in which we could find him better talent, more quickly.

Talking to the owner of the problem or the actual hiring manager increases your chances of working through the issues on the table. It isn’t about fees. It’s about people. HR may not feel the pain when a team is struggling to find top talent, but I think they like inflicting it sometimes!

Rule Number 2: Understand the problem.

Sometimes I feel like I should tell people I’m a full-time recruiter and a part-time psychologist. Because over the years I’ve realized that my clients need a lot more from me than a cursory knowledge of their hiring needs. Especially when times are tough, recruiters need to really understand their clients. The more we know them, and the deeper our understanding of what they are going through in this economy, the better we are positioned to help them.

Never forget. No economy changes this basic truth: all problems in business are people-related. To identify what is really going on in an organization, get to the tertiary level of questioning.

For example, a client tells you her firm is putting into place a hiring freeze. You then ask the first question: “Why would you do that?” Your client explains there has been a slowdown in revenues lately. At this point, most recruiters would put their tails between their legs and slink off to the next client hoping for better things.

But that is exactly the wrong thing to do! Here is a chance to earn your stripes. Ask the secondary level of questioning.

“Where are you seeing a shortfall in revenue? Is it a product, service or location?”

The client tells you the shortfall in revenue is occurring mainly in the Southeast – which accounted for 33% of the company’s revenue in 2008. This is your chance… your tertiary level of questioning.

Follow up with this: “Is there a problem with the product or service – or with your sales team in prospecting for new business?”

It isn’t that the product has failed. It’s the people failing the company in a tough economy. When you’ve subtly led the client to that inescapable conclusion, you’ve won. She may pause for a few seconds, give an uneasy laugh, and say something like “Our product is still the best in the industry.”

Bingo. The truth will set you free.

By achieving the tertiary level of questioning on business issues, you will uncover realized and unrealized client needs. Like a psychologist helping a patient navigate through complex problems, unrealized (or latent) needs are what recruiters need to uncover. We must really understand our clients’ problems — today more than ever.

Editor’s note: Tomorrow, look for Rules 3 and 4 in the conclusion of this two-part series.

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