Corporate Recruiters: Who Is Your Customer?

Who is your customer? If you’re a corporate recruiter, you’d probably say the hiring manager, or maybe the candidate. But, I want to challenge us to think differently about the idea of “customer” in the context of providing good customer service to our clients. 

A year out of school, I worked for a “best company to work for,” award-winning, customer-service-oriented company, that really taught me that — as a tech recruiter — my customer was my hiring manager.

I loved this mental model. I gather my internal customer’s requirements. (In other words, the hiring manager’s needs, such as target candidate profile, their preferences on process, how they wanted to run the interviews, etc.) Then I delivered. (By the way, I’m old now — this idea of an internal customer was cutting edge in 1993!). Recruiters who are naturally people pleasers love this model — hiring managers ask, we deliver, we get the “A,” they’re happy, we’re happy, and the surveys come in with all five out of fives!  

But …

The problem with this model is that too many hiring managers are unrealistic, or uneducated about the marketplace, or ask us to do things that are low ROI. I have 47 examples of doing things I shouldn’t have done, just to please the customer, when I knew — I knew — it was a bad idea.

Example 1: I once hired a pilot to fly airplane banners over the 101 highway in the Bay Area — advertising tech jobs at my company — because a hiring manager asked me to. I knew it was a bad idea, a bad use of money, and that there was no way to measure ROI. But I did it anyway, and it was one of the most embarrassing “pleasing the customer” moments of my early career.  

Example 2: I let a hiring manager include 12 (!) people on an interview process, despite the fact that I knew — I knew — it would take weeks to schedule an interview loop for 12 people, we’d get feedback from the candidate that their experience was bad (repeat questions, disconnects on what the priorities for the job were using Q&A time, unprepared interviewers, a long interview day), and it’d be nearly impossible to ever reach consensus (heck, you couldn’t get 12 people to agree on where to go to lunch, let alone who to hire).  

I could go on, but you get the idea. Pleasing the customer — at least the way I interpreted it early in my career — was to largely just do what they asked me to do. I wasn’t pushing back, I wasn’t being a “talent advisor,” and I wasn’t being nearly as effective as I could and should be.

So, who is my customer, then?

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Many of the best corporate recruiters and corporate recruiting leaders I know see the company as their customer. If we lift our heads up, and look above the individual hiring manager, and think about all hiring managers — in other words, all of the business, the whole company — as our customer, then it re-frames what we focus on, what we say yes to, what we push back on.  

If the company is my customer, then I need to think about providing good service (including good ROI) to the company, where the I in ROI includes my time. It wasn’t a good use of my time, of my hiring manager’s time, of our money, to do things like fly airplane banners over the 101, or put together 12-person interview teams. We didn’t make great hires or fast hires from either of those activities.  

When the company is my customer, I think about my role as being in service to the greater company, and think about my time as being too valuable to invest in things with a poor yield. As a corporate recruiter — and talent advisor — my job is to challenge bad ideas and recommend better solutions when the customer asks me to do something that I know will not get them that they need, even if it’s not getting them what they say they want. In other words, I have to be prepared to say “no” or “not now” or “instead, let’s try this, and here’s why” as an alternative to catering to every hiring manager request. (By the way, if you’re interested in all this, you’ll be interested in my session in San Diego in April on “5 Critical Conversations with Hiring Managers to Deliver a Talent-Advisor Experience.”)

So, can you be customer focused and still say no? Yes, of course. But, I think one of the keys to doing this well is to think of the company as your customer first.  

Of course you can still accommodate a hiring manager’s special request. You will have many opportunities to deliver just what the hiring manager wants, just the way they want it. But if you regularly get asked to do things that are low ROI or that have too high of an opportunity cost, then think about your customer differently. You will not scale, you will not love your job, and you will not be successful if you get stuck in a hiring-manager-is-always-right, please-the-customer mental model.  

John Vlastelica is the managing director of recruiting toolbox, a consulting and training firm focused 100 percent on helping recruiters and hiring managers recruit better. Startups to big global brands -- including PepsiCo, Google, Nike, Booking, IKEA, Starbucks, and Pokemon -- hire his team of former recruiting leaders to build custom training for their recruiters and hiring managers. Learn more at @vlastelica 


8 Comments on “Corporate Recruiters: Who Is Your Customer?

  1. I’ve always seen it as the hiring manager is my customer and my business partner. Our project is to hire the candidate. I am an ambassador to the candidates, representing the company and appreciating their interest in our role. To my company, I am an employee whose obligation, in addition to the two roles I’ve mentioned, is to ensure that they are protected and compliant with employment laws.

    1. Hi Christine – There’s no questions we have to be ambassadors to the candidates. but one of the ways we can and should help our hiring managers is to focus on what works, prevent them from making bad decisions, and helping them get top talent, quickly. As part of that, I imagine your focus on compliance and laws helps them stay out of trouble. That’s great.

  2. Agree with your concept, but disagree with the position that one cannot disagree and counsel the client. If I hired an Attorney to handle a legal matter, I am the client. However I would fully expect that Attorney to disagree with me when necessary, and I would listen, because I hired that person for her/his expertise. When in house recruiters cultivate the type or relationship with hiring managers where we are seen as the SME, pushing back on crazy ideas like paying for a plane and banner is not at all difficult to do.

    I consider both the hiring manager and the candidate as my customers. But just as I would not hire the candidate to appease them (oh wouldn’t they love that !) I’m not going to give into every single request from the hiring manager just to make them happy. I’ve certainly received requests that I know will not work (none as good as yours though!). In those instances, with an authoritative voice (own your position and speak with confidence) I explain exactly why that is a bad idea, then present other options. Most of the time the hiring manager is just anxious because of a weak candidate pool and they just want something more to be done.

    1. Hi Desy – Thanks for the comment and feedback. I don’t think we disagree – the point of my article was that disagreeing and counseling, not just pleasing the client, is key to a strong relationship. Sounds like you have really strong relationships with your hiring managers, which is fantastic to hear. Love your comment about presenting other options, as well. That’s key. And agree – many are anxious, reaching for straws, because of a weak candidate pool. Thanks!

  3. Hi John, its right that many Hiring Managers have odd requests and ways of wanting to do things that aren’t good for the overall hiring process. We spend more time doing irrelevant and sometimes damaging activities that hamper our ability to get them the best candidates and slow the process down.
    What can help is making the impact of Hiring Manager conduct visible – so show that following good practice means a better quality of hire in a shorter time. Conversely, that a maverick Hiring Manager causes reworks and has new hire retention issues. That’s why great recruitment data analytics and reporting is so powerful for recruitment teams.

  4. I agree with your basic premise; I think, though, that it’s just another way of reminding the corporate recruiter that they are, in fact, a human resources professional. The should understand how the talent acquisition lifecycle (and the analytics associated with it) impact the organization as a whole.

    I bring this up only because of the trend of many in the recruiting field to view themselves as a part of sales or marketing. Personally, I view that as a huge mistake because it places blinders on the recruiter in selecting the best candidate for the organization as a whole (which is what you correctly recommend.)

  5. You’re speaking blasphemy. But then, I ‘spect you know that.

    Hearing hiring managers called “customers” has always had the effect of nails on chalkboard for me.

  6. There’s an easy way to solve this issue without worrying about customers: there is no customer in the company. There are just partners. Customers you keep happy and do what they ask, even if they ask you to after you’ve explained why it’s a bad idea. Partners you keep successful, happy comes second, if at all. You don’t let partners do stupid things, and if they insist you go over their head because no one person gets to sink the company just because their ego won’t let them admit they’re wrong. All this blather about ‘internal’ customers never was anything more than buzzword stupidity pushed by ‘thought leaders’ who needed a new line of crap to peddle. Differentiate between the two, because you NEVER HAD any internal customers.

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