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

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.

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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

Dan Ogden is a Managing Director for Rockwood?s Financial Services practice and has been in recruiting functions within the executive search, financial services, and management consulting industries for nearly 20 years. Prior to joining Rockwood, Dan was a Vice President with the Response Companies? Financial Services practice for approximately ten years. In addition to a very successful career within traditional search at Response (at the time, Crain?s #1 ranked NYC Executive Search firm), Dan was also instrumental in the creation of Response?s Securities Compliance and Regulatory Consultancy, RCRS, where he separately functioned as director of business development. Dan?s career began in operations at Smith Barney and PaineWebber. He has also managed all recruiting for North America for Deutsche Bank, managed producing financial advisor recruiting for Merrill Lynch?s entire New York City metropolitan area and was the longest-held merger integration consultant within Recruiting Solutions for Wachovia during the Prudential acquisition. Dan has been quoted in Compliance Reporter, Operations Management, Securities Industry News, Clearing Quarterly & Directory, as well as Reader?s Digest. Additionally, Dan is the globally recognized leader in Hedge Fund expertise among the 100 million+ member LinkedIn community.


17 Comments on “Addressing a Corporate Recruiter’s Opinion of Agency Recruiters, Part 1

  1. Great post, love the style and the language and the inherent sense of humour! Talking of sense of humour, I only recently realised that at some stage in my 17yrs in the recruitment / search industry I had forgotten just how critical having one is to enjoying this business. A slight aside, but if your a recruiter and wondering why things may not be going so well stop getting angry with clients, candidates, the market and your colleagues or employer. Smile, laugh and remember how lucky you are to be doing what you do, how lucky your clients are to have you and how much you positively impact on companies, teams, candidates and even their and their families quality of life!

  2. Dan,
    Your comments are argumentative and do not address the issues at hand in Matt’s article despite your corporate H.R. & Exec search recruiting experience. Given your deep and diversified experience I’d hoped for a more strategic & progressive response, however was quite disappointed. Clearly Matt’s article angered you, but where did you hear that spewing your emotional baggage about your recruiting career will give you a competitive edge in the market? Try responding with a position that actually addresses his issues with staffing firms which would, in turn, shed light on why a client would want to partner with you & RFS?

    1. Hi Rob, I actually think Dan has done a good job of going back and explaining and showing where the corporate recruiter should take ownership of some of these areas. Since he has worked both sides, he is in a unique position to be able to recall both perspectives. As a career Internet researcher, I can tell you that what he says about internal databases is so true — I have worked in in-house roles where the database was a complete disaster and virtually unsearchable. One of the companies I worked for even had to pay a fee for a hire who was in our database already because the recruiting team didn’t know the candidate was there. I think Dan simply chose a somewhat humorous approach to make his points and in my opinion he addresses the issues quite well.

      1. You’re not seeing the forest for the trees. He does NOT address the issues at hand in the posting by Matt. Everything else you’re referencing is irrelevant to the point. Try as hard as you might to manipulate and confuse the issues at hand, but a savvy recruiter (whether on the corporate side or agency side) will recognize those issues and be able to forge a progressive, dynamic approach to them. Please don’t waste your, or my, time with irrelevant nonsense. The issues are the issues. Period.

    2. Rob

      I had to sit on this for awhile before responding, primarily because I wanted to revisit my response to determine emotional content, as well as prevent myself from writing too provocative a response.

      I wouldn’t, under any circumstance, describe the article as a “spewing [of my] emotional baggage”, and Matt’s article didn’t anger me.

      Indeed, if you re-read my article, you’ll see that I not only understand the position Matt is coming from, but that I largely agree with him – “We’re different”, “We build relationships” and “We have a proprietary database” are all amateurish marketing ploys made by recruiters for whom the first 2 statements don’t usually apply and for the whom the last statement probably doesn’t matter.

      Notwithstanding that I actually gave an example of a particular difference early in the article, at the very beginning of the article I plainly stated that all I set out to do was “to provide an opposing viewpoint for our corporate brethren to consider when complaining about the ‘relationships’ they have with us agency folk.” Part 1 was never intended to answer the “How do I get past the initial HR meeting?” question. If you’re disappointed, it’s because you were looking for something that wasn’t being offered from the outset.

      Part 2 (which may wind up being parts 2 and 3 – it’s pretty long), will address some of the items — though I caution you that if you’re looking for that “magic bullet” line you can use with your own clients, you’re going to leave disappointed. Though not explicitly stated, I think part one alludes strongly to a simple fact: it’s the scripts that got our industry in trouble in the first place.

  3. The best way to differentiate from the masses is to identify and present gainfully employed candidatess who don’t have resumes in someone’s database.

    It’s time consuming to find, and approach candidates who are not on the job boards, but that’s what we’re paid to do.

    John Kreiss

    1. I agree completely, though there is the occasional – by which I mean very rare – job board candidate that goes unrecognized for whatever reason. But the fact is we’ve just ended several large job board relationships because the boards are largely worthless.

      However, you raise a good point – results matter. I just finished writing part 2 (which is long enough to possibly be parts 2 and 3!) and submitted to edit, and this is one point on which I couldn’t agree more.

      Of course, the question in relation to the original article is “How do I get a shot at filling the job without any history at a particular prospect?” — I feel I addressed this in part 2 (3?), coming soon.

      1. John / Dan – I agree that Results Matter but sometimes we measure the wrong results. For several years, like everyone else, we claimed a 98% or 99% success or completion rate until recently we calculated our actual retention success rate. Like most retained Search firms our project completion rate is over 99% so it’s hard to differentiate.

        Instead, we have calculated how many of our candidates have stayed and/or been promoted after 24-months. Now our positioning is to let our ‘results’ speak for themselves. Step 2 is to get our ISO Auditor to confirm the results.

        1. Wayne, I like the idea of tracking actual retention success rates. It’s an excellent way to differentiate yourself from the competition.

  4. So far so good, excited for PART II! I read the article as well… While it was a TPR lashing, alot of it was sadly true….

    1. It wasn’t so much intended to be a TPR lashing, so much as a recognition that as an industry, we need to own up to our shortcomings (among other things) if we’d like corporate to partner with us.

  5. Dan – Is your firm contingency or retained?

    In Canada we find that most firms are one or the other – about 85% Contingency Recruiting and about 15% actual Search with full research, engagement and assessment processes.

    How much time do you spend at the client’s office directly with the Hiring Manager before accepting a recruiting or search project. We have a rule that we have to physically visit their lunch room before we will start a search project. We feel that this is where you can learn the most about thier culture and demonstrate one more way that we actually are different.

    I would like to hear what either a Recruiting firm or a Search firm can do to demonstrate that they are different and worthy of a chance?

    1. We’re mostly contingency, probably 90%.

      Time spent at a client’s office prior to taking a search is highly variable; the New York City market is too competitive for our core areas to insist on a client visit prior to each search we undertake, though we are regularly one of a select 2 or 3 agencies on conference calls for priority searches. Not insisting on visit hasn’t hurt us in any way.

      I’m still working part 2, but have to say I’m surprised nobody seems to notice the fact that I have actually addressed (both directly and by alluding to) several things that make our firm different.

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