8 Tough Questions to Better Appraise Your Existing Recruitment Suppliers

qAs an in-house recruiter or HR professional, have you ever been in a meeting with a recruitment supplier and been very impressed with their pitch and excited about the results that are going to follow, only to be completely let down by their performance? It won’t surprise you to read that you’re not the only one.

We all know that for every good recruiter who walks the earth, there are others who don’t quite make the grade. Many sell a value proposition that isn’t being followed up with action — recruiters who purport to headhunt and cold-call top people in the market, but actually only advertise their clients’ vacancies. As a client of these external recruiters you need to be in a position to make an accurate assessment of their worth — not just by what they tell you, but what they actually prove.

Many contingency-level recruitment firms haven’t evolved their value proposition as technology has evolved over the past 10 years. As in-house recruiters have been able to catch up with doing direct sourcing through job boards and social media, external suppliers should be getting more sophisticated in their approach to maintain a value proposition worthy of the fees that are charged — mapping out competitors, gathering referrals, building expertise and relationships in their chosen niche, for example. Too many contingency firms are still charging 15% to 25% for doing nothing more than advertising a poorly written or cut and pasted job spec, and it’s just not good enough.

So here are some questions to ask your suppliers next time you invite them in for an update or suppler appraisal.

First, prior to the meeting, in addition to the normal data you ask for, ask them to bring with them the following:

  1. Two recruiters who actually source for the roles … Not just the senior executive who comes to these meetings who have been well briefed by the researchers and recruiters. Their senior exec is not out in the field talking to the market and making the approaches to the candidates. How are your company and your roles being represented by the recruitment firm? What message are they taking to market? Are they in a position to attract the best candidates in the market by the way they present your business to the market? The only way to find this out is to speak to those individuals doing the role day to day.
  1. A report on two of the assignments they’ve completed for you detailing who they approached, what companies they came from, and the result of the approaches. This report, or lack of one, will show you exactly what they’ve been doing to find your people. This will range from bad or made up to very thorough or somewhere in-between. This will display how well they know the market and your competitors (it may be different companies for different skill sets, of course). It will also demonstrate their approach to managing their data. If all data is recorded in the correct way on their ATS, this report should be easily generated and representative of a well-run recruiting firm from a data perspective.
  1. A copy of two job ads they’ve posted for your company and the original specs relating to both jobs. If all they’ve done is re-posted the spec, that’s not good enough either. They should be creating ads that sell the company and the role, not changing the facts but creatively communicating what is good about the role and the company. Re-posting your spec is just lazy. That’s not what you’re paying 15% to 25% for.

Typically in these meetings the pitch will have been well rehearsed, and sometimes the truth may be embellished in terms of how candidates are sourced. With these three items and the following questions, you will now be in a position to make your own informed conclusion.


When we give you a role, what is your sourcing strategy?

For a 15% fee, for them to do put a $50 job ad online is not good enough. You can do that yourself. A recruitment firm that has evolved in the past 10 years, even at contingency level, should be using LinkedIn (as an example) to put together target candidate lists to call and headhunt from. When headhunting candidates a recruiter can gather so much market intelligence and more importantly, they are fishing from a talent pool far greater than represented by those candidates actively looking for work.

If the recruiter tells you about their headhunting approach, call them on it. If they say they’ve done direct headhunting they should have a file for each search that details which companies they’ve searched from, what candidates they approached, the outcome of the approaches, and so on. So call them on it if they say they’ve headhunted — questions to the two recruiters who have come along to the meeting, such as:

Which companies have you headhunted from?

A good answer here will be your competitors, but perhaps they also have some creative thoughts. For example in the IT field, other target firms may be consultancies that the recruiter knows through their phone research are supplying your biggest competitors.

Why did you choose those companies?

How many (for example) C# developers did you identify in each of these companies?

Once you’ve asked this kind of question to a few different recruiters, and cross referenced it with candidates you hire from these companies, you’ll start to know when you’re hearing the truth.

What makes you sure that’s the number?

They should confidently be able to say something like, “Well I know for sure there’s 12 .Net developers there because I’ve spoken to five of them and cross referenced this information.”

What percentage of the C# developers working in these companies have you identified and contacted?

If they tell you it’s five, for example, ask to see the evidence.

How many of them did you proactively call versus email? What was their feedback on the role and the company?

You’ll know from their answer here how much insight they have. If they have been calling candidates and building up their knowledge, they’ll confidently give you articulately delivered anecdotes they’ve gathered from candidate discussions.

Another good question to ask the recruiters who have come along to the meeting:

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Tell me what you know about (our company) and why it’s a good company to work for?

They should be able to give you a very clear and succinct answer to this as they should have this practiced for when they make all of their headhunt calls. If they can’t do that articulately and convincingly, what hope do they have of winning over the candidates? If you can’t do this articulately and convincingly, the same applies!

Unless between all the agencies you’re using they’re able to give you the confidence that most of your competitors for a particular skill set have been covered and approached, then there’s still work to do. That’s not necessarily bad news — at least you know you have a recruiter problem rather than a market problem. Recruiter problems can always be solved!

If you follow up with each agency and ask the same questions, you may find that one of them stands out and is at least marginally better than the rest of them. If that’s the case you could go back to them and simply instruct them on what to do (see below).

If they haven’t been doing all you expect them to, the meeting may be quite an uncomfortable one for the recruiters involved. That’s not a bad thing though. You can help to give them some guidance on what you expect moving forward. You can follow up with an email or a letter of your expectations and good recruiters who maybe just got a lazy will come through and deliver the second time around if you give them a second chance.

Setting Expectations

  • We expect you to keep track of these skill sets in the top 10 (or a relevant number) companies we compete with for these skills (it may be different companies for different skill sets), and include direct headhunting from these sources as part of your sourcing strategy. We expect to see evidence of these approaches in our next review meeting.
  • We expect you to be able to articulately deliver a compelling pitch to candidates about working for our company. (This may have to come from you initially — if you can’t articulate this, how can the agency working on your behalf?)
  • We expect you to do more than just post job ads and we will seek proof and cross reference with the candidates we hire through your firm.

When candidates come in for interview you should be tracking how they heard about the role. You can simply say to them in their interview, “were you approached by phone or email or did you respond to their job ad? Who approached you from this firm/who did you speak with?”

Tracking who they spoke to will help you understand who is out there in the market recruiting on your behalf. Is it the recruiters who came along to the meeting? Did their names feature at all?

It’s not a bad thing that some respond to job ads, but if not one single candidate was headhunted, you can’t believe the recruiters claims about doing so. If you get into the habit of tracking this information, you will come to understand more about the claims your suppliers are making.


If you’re building an organization with talent sourced only from job ads at all levels, you’re doing a disservice to the company you’re employed to be a recruiting expert for. If you’re using external suppliers and paying them more than a job board posting fee to find you people, then you should be getting more than a job board provides.

You should be getting recruiters who are building up talent pools of candidates, mapping out your competitors, and cold headhunting the best talent in the market, not just processing the CVs of the best candidate on the market.

Ten years ago it was more difficult for recruiting firms to get a head start on a target list unless they were genuine niche suppliers. Now it’s easy: start off with LinkedIn, call the people, get referrals, and build out your list from there.

By being prepared to cross reference and qualify the answers your suppliers are giving you, you can be in a position to more accurately assess them and where they fall short, and give them guidance on your expectations moving forward.

With this sort of quality control and cross referencing of information being provided, you can be in a position to help your suppliers to help you build companies with the best talent in the market, not just the best talent on the market.

For suppliers reading this article, if you’re not already doing so, this is a great opportunity to assess yourselves before your clients do. Better quality service means better business for everyone.

Fraser Hill started his career in technical contract recruiting in London in 1997 before moving to Hong Kong to head up a technology practice focusing on contingency and executive search recruitment for a UK public-listed recruiting firm. After a period back in the UK working in boardroom retail executive search and global investment banking technology search, he ran a finance recruitment company throughout six countries in Eastern Europe. After that, he moved to Canada to work in finance and technology recruitment before setting up and later selling a Canadian-based recruiting organization. In 2009 he created and launched Pure Recruitment Training, an online on-demand interactive recruitment training suite of products providing over 20 hours of recruitment training along with detailed appraisal and business planning tools via the online portal. Since then he has worked as an in-house headhunter for a leading U.S. global bank, enabling him to understand the internal recruitment market, and in 2012 launched headhuntin.com, a similar training product targeted at the in-house market. In 2012 Hill also launched Bremnus, a search and recruitment firm where he practices what he teaches on a daily basis.


13 Comments on “8 Tough Questions to Better Appraise Your Existing Recruitment Suppliers

  1. Great checklist Fraser. You sound like a client who recruiters should fight to win. It’s pretty clear that you understand how important communication is during the search process, and why recruiters, who use a direct approach, are worth a lot more than the resume slingers.

    There is 0ne thing I would add, however, as someone who worked in the trenches more than 15 years. I do recall a search where I had directly sourced, contacted more than 400 people, and had no luck finding someone who was both qualified and willing to talk.

    Then one day, the resume of a person with the right qualifications, arrived in my email. This individual saw an ad I had placed on a job board, sent me his resume, and eventually filled the open position.

    Direct recruiting is the best way to get the best candidates, but occasionally the job boards will deliver a pearl out of all those oysters.

  2. @Jacob – you’re very welcome – thanks for commenting.

    @John – thanks also for your comments. I’m glad you added that as I agree with you. Sometimes those nuggets do appear from the ad’s, hence I included in the article about making sure these job ad’s are well written. It’s great to do both in parallel a number of times to build your own (relevant) data on what’s the best sourcing method. For lower skilled roles it will probably be the job boards but I think it’s fair to say that the higher up the food chain you go the more relevant the direct piece becomes.

  3. Dear Fraser, interesting article but you have a rather particular view on how external recruiters work. Most probably you have negative experiences with working together with third party recruiters. If you only have the slightest indication these recruiters “make up” information, you should immediately send them away. Talk to the professional external recruiters and you will experience the differences. If you are worried about the fees these professionals are charging, try to work with amateurs.

  4. Thank Anmol – glad you found it interesting.

    Norbert, thanks for your comments. I did introduce the article with “We all know that for every good recruiter who walks the earth, there are others who don’t quite make the grade”. It sounds from your comments like you’re one of the good ones but this article was really to help in-house recruiters better appraise and qualify those suppliers who they may suspect fall short of the mark. Keep up the good work!

  5. Richard – thanks for your kind comment.

    If by passive you mean those individuals who are not actively looking for work but who may be open to a discussion for the right role, then this is exactly what I’m referring to in the article when I write, “You should be getting recruiters who are building up talent pools of candidates, mapping out your competitors, and cold headhunting the best talent in the market, not just processing the CVs of the best candidate on the market.”

    I’m not totally comfortable with the term passive though. You’re either looking for work or your not. Passive to me means you’re passively looking – not intensely searching but occasionally checking out the job boards for example. In my book that’s still looking. If you’re not actively looking it doesn’t mean you won’t be open to a conversation about a good role. So when I’m recruting, everyone’s a potential candidate – those looking and those not looking. “Not looking” doesn’t mean “wouldn’t consider” until they’ve told you so.

    Feel free to expand on your question if you were looking for something more specific. All the best!

  6. Great article Fraser. In 14 years as a recruiter, only once has a client asked to meet with the people at the coalface of the process, and I thought it was a fantastic idea. My only comment would be that the information you’re asking for may border on infringing privacy regulations (in Australia).

    It will also take a fairly big chunk out of a recuiter’s busy day to prepare the information in the format you’re requesting, so I would hope that a company would have already qualified the recruiter to some degree and established genuine interest in engaging them… as much as we work hard to make every company feel as though they are our only client, it’s not the case!

    I also think the power of the recruiter’s personal network carries a value which is often underrestimated. A recruiter who has been working a sector in the same town for ten years may find the right person in a short space of time, which some clients may feel is almost too fast to justify the fee, but that’s thanks only to their personal reputation and network which is something good recruiters work very hard at building.

  7. Hi Sam – thanks for commenting. Great points well made. Yes this was about appraising existing suppliers – I agree it would be a lot to take along to the first client meeting every time! 🙂

    The further up the food chain you go (into search) the more readily available such data should be as it’s the detail required when working on retained searches.

    I agree about the personal network. If you’ve been doing a niche area for 10 years in the same town then you’re definitely going to be able to do a better job in less time. That in itself is a huge selling point that clients should be mindful of. It is a shame that some clients don’t recognize the value of such knowledge and in some cases mistake it for being a recruiter who’s making a quick dollar.

  8. Thank you, Fraser. I am not a contingency/retained recruiter, but I have great respect for them and believe they should be paid 30% for what they do. That being said, what they do should be really hard to do and rarely, and IMHO much of what you’ve discussed them doing isn’t the best use of the client’s money:
    1) If you’re having a 3PR source for you- YOU’RE WASTING MONEY.
    For a tiny fraction of the cost of a single placement, you can have excellent sourcing done.

    2) Likewise, if you’re considering a 3PR to advertise or post your job- YOU’RE WASTING MONEY. You shouldn’t consider using a 3PR for almost any job you’d consider posting.As you mentioned, the 3PRs personal network of potential candidates is quite important.

    3) Fundamentally, asking how a firm does their work is secondary; it’s *their results that really matter, and that goes to why/when you should use them-

    You should use a 3PR *when you have a very difficult hire:
    you want them to get candidates who’d never talk with you on your own (OPENING) and accept a position with your firm that they’d not ordinarily accept (CLOSING). Other than that (wait for it): YOU’RE WASTING MONEY.


    *Careful due-diligence on the 3PR is important here.

    **Folks, there are probably exceptions to this, and I welcome your input as to what these may be.

  9. Keith,

    Thanks for commenting, as always. Are you an in-house or contract/temp recruiter if you’re not contingency or retained? Just wanted to clarify.

    To your points respectfully:

    1)Was that a deliberate contradiction where you said “if you’re using a third party recruiter you’re wasting your money” (what all $300bn+ of the global external recruiting spend is wasted?), only to go on and write, “use a third part recruiter if you have a difficult hire”? I’m confused at that one.

    2)Re your point on paying 3PRs to advertise roles – that’s exactly what I wrote in the article – “Too many contingency firms are still charging 15% to 25% for doing nothing more than advertising a poorly written or cut and pasted job spec, and it’s just not good enough.”

    3)I’m confused – how can you do * without doing 3? The point of the article was not to ask firms how they do their work, it was to get them to prove what work they do, hence the questions then the confirmation question or proof request.

    I think you’re undervaluing the ability of the in-house reruiters to suggest you need to go external to close a candidate? Do you honestly think that if an in-house recruiter can’t close a candidate on a company they work for that they’d then go to an external recruiter to get them to do the close? I’m not sure if companies would feel good about hiring a candidate they had to call in someone from outside to close. And how do you suggest that arrangement is paid for. If the external recruiter wasn’t involved from the start are you suggesting they charge a fee for doing a close exclusive of the rest of the process? Not sure if that one was very well thought through Kevin.

    This statement reads like you’re completely disillusioned as to the value of external recruiters and what they can bring to the table, and also shows your apparent lack of respect for what internal recruiters can achieve on behalf of the companies they work for. In-house recruiters can close you know?

    *)That’s what this whole article was about – due diligence on existing suppliers.

  10. It was very nice read.
    I’m mostly an IT recruiter so my candidates are usually experts in what they do. It means that I need to be updated and prepare for new topics (in this area everything changes sooo quickly).
    According to you: which are the best ways/places/ways to recruit the best tech people?

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