Bad Search Symptoms – How To Cure Your Business

With just four years’ experience in this great business, I’ve made my share of mistakes. Some I continue to make, even though I know better. I’ve learned, over and over, that it is not wise to get involved in low-quality search assignments. We all know what they look like, and I’m getting a little better at sniffing them out. My short list of signs or symptoms of a low-quality search are:

image source: Claus Rebler
  • Contingency search with multiple recruiters involved
  • Search that has been going on for a long time
  • A client who is in financial trouble (i.e. may not be able to pay your fee)
  • A client who refuses to sign your search agreement
  • Splits with other recruiters, where you are not the exclusive search agent
  • Searches where you have no access to the hiring manager
  • Searches where you are competing against an aggressive internal recruiting department

The list can go on and on. I’ve done work with each of the above, and it was painful!

Ongoing marketing, with a clear value proposition, is the only way to improve the odds of winning great search assignments. I’m a believer in open communication, and think it is a good idea to share your business goals and aspirations with many people, including your friends. However, this can be a double-edged sword.

Friends with Good Intentions

When I first opened my firm, hungry for business and enthusiastic about the possibilities, I reached out to everyone I knew. Literally. I let everyone I knew know about my career change (from the corporate cubicle to entrepreneurship), and I was excited to get going. Needing to pay bills and feed my family, I was anxious about making money right away. I was excited when some of my best friends and colleagues were helpful, getting me started on some searches. What I didn’t realize, or rather what I looked away from, was the fact that most of these searches were crap (excuse my French). I found that my friends were often the ones who would toss a low-quality search my way, thinking that they were doing me a favor. Because they didn’t understand the reality of our business, they honestly thought that giving me a search — even though there were twelve other recruiters working it and it hadn’t been filled for nine months — was doing me a favor.

Unemployed Can’t-Help Candidates

Another way that our friends think they are helping us is by referring the unemployed masses our way. I am amazed at how many people don’t realize that we are paid by companies that are hiring people, not by people who are looking for work. So many times, as I’ve introduced myself and explained what I do for a living, people respond with, “WOW…you must be doing great these days, with so many unemployed people!!!” I’m sure you’ve come across the same situation.

Low-Quality Searches

One of the problems with the low-quality searches is that they are relatively easy to obtain. Whether they are handed to you by a friend or they come the old-fashioned way — through the hard work of marketing and business development — they are still poison for you and your firm. At the end of the day (literally), all we really have is our time. Putting our time to work on low-quality searches is a recipe for disaster. Sure, we’ll win some of these now and then. I’m as competitive as anyone, and a part of me believes that I can beat out other recruiters and win the race, even on a low quality, non-exclusive contingency search. I’ve won quite a few, and my memory of these wins is strong. What I don’t tend to remember are the dozens (or more) of low quality searches on which my team and I flushed hundreds of hours of work down the drain.

Polarity of Purpose

I’m learning that it’s not the other recruiters involved that make some of these searches undesirable. It’s often the attitude and approaches of the client, typically coming from the HR or purchasing departments. These departments typically have one mission — to save money and conserve cash. It is unusual that the administrative side of HR would have an honest interest in attracting and convincing the BEST TALENT in the marketplace to come on board with their companies. Purchasing departments could care less about this. Of course, there are exceptions. People are simple, motivated by what’s in their own best interests. Lower level HR people are trying to survive in administrative hell. Purchasing professionals are trying to cost reduce and transactionalize our value offered, with the goal to eliminate us altogether.

So, with a clear list of “Bad Search” symptoms, and years of experience, why do we continue to say “Yes!” to these searches? For me, it is because old habits are hard to break, because the lure of the huge money potential can cloud my judgment, and because I think that I can outwork and outperform my competition and win. I’m a stubborn guy, and it’s been hard to make the change to permanently move away from these bad assignments.

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One of my 2011 resolutions is to “Respect Myself and My Team” by taking on only “Good or Great” search assignments. So far, I’ve stayed true to my commitment. The result has been far fewer searches initiated, but far more money being made. Hmmm??? I’m liking this, and I plan to continue on the path of working only on the better searches. Additionally, I’m doing much better in getting money up front, which is a further step along the path of search quality.

I have a long way to go in becoming the exclusive, retained, industry-expert search professional that I aspire to be. As the economy improves, so does the overall competitiveness of the search industry. I’m okay with that, knowing that there’s more work out there than I can get to, and there’s enough for all of us. My challenge is a personal one — to say “No!” to low quality searches, risk the days and weeks of having fewer searches to work on, and raising the bar of marketing for and executing only higher-level assignments.

My strong advice to all search professionals – new and experienced alike – is to avoid the temptation of low quality search opportunities. Stay focused on marketing for and winning the great assignments that are out there. You’ll be much better off if you do this, making more money and truly enjoying your work along the way.


This article is from the March 2011 print Fordyce Letter. To subscribe and receive a monthly print issue, please go to our Subscription Services page.

Brett Blair is President of Sanford Rose Associates in Brighton. Brett comes from a 22-year corporate career, with prior experience with RE/MAX, 3M, and Alcoa. He enjoyed multiple functional roles over that time, culminating as General Manager of a $200 million automotive parts manufacturing business. Brett holds a BS - Industrial Engineering degree, and an MBA in Finance. He has also studied in Japan and has extensive experience working in Mexico and Europe. Brett is passionate about helping people and through his recruiting business he is able to help people and subsequently organizations.

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1 Comment on “Bad Search Symptoms – How To Cure Your Business

  1. Great article Brett! Recruiters put up with poor search assignments because they either aren’t willing to sustain their marketing efforts long enough to find a quality search or they aren’t sold on their own value proposition.

    I found the best way to weed out the bad search assignments is to ask the client for an upfront commitment, usually in the form of an engagement fee. While I end up working on far fewer assignments, my close ratio since I started using this approach is 98%. It takes significantly more business development calls to get to a client willing to put some skin in the game, but it is definitely worth the effort.

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