Use Prospect Research and Failure Analysis to Learn Why Recruiting Underperforms

Sep 10, 2012

When you are battling for talent in a highly competitive environment, you are likely to encounter more than your share of failures. In fact, because underperformance in recruiting is so common, I am constantly surprised when corporate recruiting leaders have no formal process for identifying specifically why their current recruiting efforts don’t produce their desired level of results. The formal method for identifying the factors that cause a process to fail is known as “failure analysis.” But unfortunately, even though it is used throughout business, failure analysis is seldom applied to the recruiting process.

I was recently reminded of the need for failure analysis while researching the extensive recruiting problems of oil and gas firms in the booming area around Alberta, Canada. I’ll be presenting my recruiting solutions at the Talent Hub Conference, Metropolitan Centre in Calgary, on Wednesday, September 19, 2012. But if you’re not involved in the petroleum industry, don’t worry because the same failure identification and prospect research processes can and should be used in any industry.  If you’re unfamiliar with the term “prospect research” it is a form of market research which involves the use of surveys and interviews to identify what worked and what didn’t work during the recruiting process and precisely what factors attract and turn off top prospects.

Prospect Market Research Is Required

Most recruiters believe they know candidates, but when you drill down into their knowledge in specific instances, you realize that the knowledge is limited to generalizations and many stereotyped assumptions. It’s not entirely the recruiters’ fault;  few talent management leaders (possibly because few have spent time in recruiting) seem open to investing in market research to arm them with data.

Recruiters have been forced to rely solely on ad-hoc information garnered from informal conversations with candidates. If you are ever to consistently meet and exceed your recruiting goals, you must use prospect marketing research combined with failure analysis to fully understand your target prospects and how they look for and accept a job.

Research Area #1 — Understanding what worked and what didn’t work in the recruiting process

There are a variety of steps that you can take to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of your recruiting process. They include:

  • Ask new hires which parts of the hiring process reinforced their decision to say yes — you can dramatically improve your recruiting process if you survey all new hires during onboarding and ask “which specific elements of your firm’s recruiting process had a positive influence on your decision to accept?”
  • Ask new hires what almost caused them to say no — also ask all new hires during onboarding, “which specific elements of your firm’s recruiting and branding pitch had a negative impact and made you consider saying no?” Use this information to improve your marketing materials, interviews, and the offer process.
  • Ask dropouts why they give up — you should survey a sample of qualified individuals who voluntarily dropped out of the recruiting process and ask them, “what specific factors caused you to drop out of the recruiting process?” And then ask what if anything could’ve been done by the firm to keep them involved until the end.

After this type of analysis you should put together a list of the positive things that you do well and list of the areas where your recruiting process can be improved.

Research Area # 2– Fully understanding the best ways to reach candidates and to trigger them to apply

In order to reach a candidate and to get them to act, you must use some basic market research tools in order to fully understand the most effective way to reach them.

  • “How-would-I-find-you-again” profile to identify where “passive prospects” might see an employer branding message — in order to identify the best way to get the attention of so-called passive prospects (people who are not actively looking for a job), turn to your own top employees and ask them “if I wanted to get a message in front of you today, how would I go about doing that?” This means that you have to put together a profile covering “where those not actively in the job market hang out.” Do that by asking them what industry, professional, and social events they attend, what magazines and journals that they read, and what social media and Internet sites  they frequent. Assume that other top professionals hang out in the same places, so use the gathered information to identify the places where corporate branding, company information, and other recruiting-related information aimed at passive prospects is most likely to be seen and read.
  • For active candidates, identify where they see job information — although it takes less work to get active candidates to apply, the very best actives have numerous firms in mind. As a result, use your research methods to identify the specific places and locations where your top “active prospects” would likely see and read an announcement of either an open position or a recruiting-related event. You should also consider putting an identifying code, phone number, or unique web address in each message in order to allow you to later identify which ones actually drew the most interest.
  • Identify the message content that is required to get a prospect’s initial attention —  understand that as the competition for talent goes up and down, so do the expectations of prospects and candidates. Use surveys of candidates and new hires to identify what a message must look like and contain to ensure that a quick glance at it will get your target’s immediate attention. Identify the messages sent out by your competitors because once everyone begins to use the same recruiting approach, its effectiveness diminishes. After developing some sample messages, use a focus group to pre-test them.
  • Identify what causes top prospects to take the time to apply for a job — after you get your message in front of top prospects and they read it, you next must identify the factors about an industry, company, or job that can excite your target audience enough to drive them to apply; i.e. high pay, job security, interesting work, a green environment, a great location, an opportunity to learn, etc. Survey new hires during onboarding to identify what the “triggers” were that actually cause them to take the time to apply. Obviously in the future, these “convince-them-to-apply” factors must appear in the job announcement, recruitment materials, and on the corporate career site.
  • Identify possible “turnoffs” — in addition to understanding factors that excite, you must also identify the factors that are turnoffs. Survey a sample of prospects, candidates, and new hires to identify the factors that they perceived to be “turnoffs” or “deal breakers.” Next, survey the Internet in order to identify negative messages about your firm and then develop “countering messages” that may help overcome published negatives.

Research Area # 3 — Fully understanding what factors excite “high demand” candidates

Whenever you’re targeting truly top candidates who are in high demand, you have to offer them something extraordinary in order to get them to apply and accept. That requires market research into their job acceptance criteria and what they would consider to be a dream job.

  • Ask for their “job acceptance criteria” — candidates who are in high demand must have each of their specific job expectations met or they will accept other offers. You can determine a candidate’s expectations (and any “deal breakers”) by asking them up front at the beginning of the recruiting process to list their job acceptance criteria. Using this information, you can then tailor the recruiting and closing process so that you end up providing them with compelling information demonstrating that you meet each of their acceptance criteria.
  • Identify the high level excitement factors that make up a “dream” job or company — if you want to go the next level and really excite top candidates you must identify what factors about an industry, company, or job excite your target audience enough so that they consider it a “dream opportunity.”  This requires you to interview or survey a sample of truly top prospects in order to identify the factors that would differentiate a good job from a “dream job.”
  • For not-looking top prospects, identify what it takes to get them to enter the job-search process — if you don’t know already, currently employed individuals who are “not active lookers” simply cannot be attracted using “active approaches.” If you are targeting individuals who are not actively seeking jobs, identify the specific “triggers” that would excite them enough to enter into job search mode. Usually this information can be obtained through one-on-one interviews and focus groups made up of non-job seekers at industry conferences.

Research Area #4 — Additional information to be gathered

Some additional market research that should be conducted includes:

  • Identify the “right days” to recruit — when recruiters initially contact individuals who currently have a good job, they often respond with a resounding “no.” However, these same individuals may change their perspective almost immediately after they experience a negative “triggering event” at their current firm. This negative event might include the fact that their boss/friend just left, their budget has been cut, or a major project proposal has been rejected. In the same light, when a competing firm is undergoing cutbacks, staff reductions, mergers, or other turmoil, it makes sense to immediately increase your recruiting efforts and to target all of their best people. In order to fully identify these “right days,” you need to survey candidates, your own employees, and new hires in order to identify these “triggers” that might move someone into job search mode.
  • Chart the changes in the typical job search process — obviously if you’re going to attract the very best prospects you must fully understand and chart their “job-search process.” However, it might surprise you to learn that the typical job search process literally changes almost every month. This is because with the growth of the Internet, social media, the mobile platform etc., the way that people look for jobs literally changes on a monthly basis. If your organization is going to “match” the currently used approach, you must survey and interview a sample of your targeted prospects on a regular basis in order to identify their current search process. With this research you might find that even though last-quarter prospects looked for jobs on Pinterest, today they would never consider using it for job-search.
  • Identify any potential causes for future turnover — in an area like Alberta, the demand for talent is so great that you must include in your recruiting process a plan for replacing future turnover. Rather than being naïve, it’s better to plan for the possibility of losing a significant percentage of your new hires. First you should interview a sample (after a few-month delay) of your employees who left to identify the negative factors at your organization that cause them to leave as well as the positive attraction factors that caused them to go to another firm. You should use this list as a screening tool to eliminate candidates who are unlikely to stay at least six months. You should also survey your top candidates and new hires in order to identify the reasons that they left previous jobs at other firms and the reasons that might cause them to leave this one. Obviously if a candidate is money-driven and your organization doesn’t give periodic raises, you have to realize up front that they are a turnover risk. If a particular candidate has a history of leaving for the same reasons that many other employees have left your firm, that means that you either consider not hiring them, or as an alternative, you must develop a pre-assessed candidate pool in order to have the capability of getting instant replacements when they inevitably leave.

Final Thoughts

Recruiting leaders can learn a lot from sales and marketing people. You simply cannot expect potential targets to read your messages or buy your product unless you fully understand them.

Well, recruiting is no different. If you’re continually failing to reach your recruiting targets you need to take a step back and make sure that you fully know and understand your target recruiting prospects. It is simply unacceptable to assume that you know, because in most cases, both recruiters and hiring managers get it completely wrong. All it takes is a simple survey of a few candidates and of all new hires during their on boarding session. With this information you can easily identify the steps that they take when they are looking for a job, whether your targets are even seeing your job postings, whether your message covers their expectations, or whether some part of the recruiting process is turning them off.

After you fully understand their expectations and how they search for a job, the next step is to select the appropriate recruiting approaches that are designed to meet that profile. But don’t get too comfortable, because within a year, new applications may change the way they search for a job and economic shifts made dramatically change their job acceptance criteria.

Next week in a follow-up article, I will cover the most effective recruiting tools for the oil and gas industry.

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