Fewer Candidate Cold Calls, More Conversations

When I started in search in 1998, conventional wisdom said that if you were not on the phone, you were not working. In fact, two of the firms for whom I have worked had call tracking software built into the phone system. Every night, the head of the office would send out a report to the entire company detailing how many calls each recruiter made and how much time they spent on the phone. It was implied that recruiters who spent time sending e-mails and performing internet research did so because they lacked the spine to make cold calls. This attitude became deeply ingrained in me.

However, times change and technology changes behavior. Many people today are not likely to answer the phone if they do not recognize the number on the caller ID and even less likely if the caller ID is blocked. A few candidates in their twenties and thirties who work at big companies have confessed to me that they frequently go a week without checking voicemail. They feel that if information is important, it will arrive via e-mail. 

To adjust to the changes in how people communicate, I have had to change the way I initiate contact. I could still make eighty cold calls in a day, but seventy of them will go right to voicemail and of the ten people who answer, most will not be interested in speaking. Instead, my first candidate contact is nearly exclusively via e-mail. I send a brief, personal e-mail that tells the candidate who I am and the nature of my search. I’ll then ask if they would like to speak.

I receive significantly more responses than I do with voicemails—some days one-third of the people I e-mail will respond. Now, a number of candidates will respond to say “no”, but many more will respond with follow-up questions or a request to set up a time to speak. In a good day, I’ll send out forty emails that will generate four or five e-mail conversations and eight or nine phone conversations. These phone conversations are usually far more productive than the old “catching them at their desk” conversations because the candidate has agreed in advance to discuss your search (or his career, or potential referrals) and is likely taking the call at a place and time where he or she is able to focus completely on the conversation. I’ve also received numerous e-mails from candidates interested in discussing a search who were made aware of the opportunity because friends or colleagues forwarded my original note to them (frequently without responding to me).

The advantages of making initial contact with e-mail instead of a phone call are many. You get a higher response rate because e-mail is silent—candidates need not worry about who can hear them speaking. You do not have to worry about gatekeepers deflecting your call or about reaching out to too many people in the same department in a short period of time. And candidates can respond when it is convenient—you’re not calling somebody who is battling a deadline.

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Obviously, the real “work” still has to be done on the phone or in person.  If you are presenting a job, interviewing a candidate, preparing for or debriefing after an interview or hopefully extending an offer and closing a placement, you still need real-time interaction. You need to listen to what a person says (and does not say), establish a personal connection and help him or her make a major life decision. That is not something I would recommend attempting via e-mail.  However, I have found that by cutting out the inefficient process of leaving seventy voicemails in a day, I can drastically increase the amount of time I spend on productive tasks.

Given how I grew up in the business, this was not an easy transformation for me to make. It was only when I saw the success that other people in my office were having that I decided to give it a try. And based on my personal results, I think that the cold e-mail will eventually replace the cold call as the standard method of initial candidate contact. There is so much information available today that uncovering candidate identities and e-mail addresses is pretty easy. What will be interesting to see is what will happen to our profession once a major barrier for entry, the willingness and ability to make cold calls, is removed from an industry with an already-low barrier for entry.

Matt McMahon is a Principal in McMahon Partners LLC, a three partner national retained executive search firm. Before forming McMahon Partners, he led a specialty practice for a northeast regional firm. Prior to entering the search industry, Matt served as a corpsman for a Marine Corps infantry platoon, both on active duty and as a reservist in college. A nationally-recognized expert in employment market issues, Matt has been quoted in publications such as MSN Careers and CNN.com.


5 Comments on “Fewer Candidate Cold Calls, More Conversations

  1. Great advice,

    Certainly Linkedin, Facebook and other Social Networking sites have changed the way we do business in this industry. I have to agree with you, calling up a pre-qualified lead or warm prospect is much better than calling out of the blue.

  2. “It is what it is” is overused but I think it applies here. I agree with Matt and most of my voice mails to new people now are to try to get them to find and respond to the email I sent.

    I just went to another training event last week where we are advised to ‘turn off your email during prime time’. The guy saying it is a producer so I guess there are still a few niches where that could work but there are many people now who handle calls exactly like Matt suggests AND many people specifically don’t want to talk on the phone.

    Many industry washouts will continue to be people who can’t make connections but phone calls as introductory instruments might end up like using a buggy whip to make a car go faster. Or, being a Marine, Matt might prefer ‘bringing a knife to a gunfight’.
    Thanks for the article and for your service.

  3. There will always be a percentage of people who refuse to respond to phone calls (because they are jerks?). That said, I don’t seem to be having that much trouble getting a hold of candidates by phone. That is probably because I have worked in a very small niche for a very long time and most potential candidates know or know of me. Also, I am working on senior and mid-level searches so most of my candidates are over thirty-five (a demographic more likely to return phone calls – at least for now).

    However, I am very interested in the efficiency aspect of this. Reading this has convinced me to try sending out a personalized looking email blast first and only then start working down the call list. It seems to make sense that this should reduce my very heavy “call load.”

    Nice piece, Matt. I’m glad I read it.

    Tom Keoughan

  4. Matt,

    Your posting gave me a good laugh reminding me of how, when I started in recruiting (also in 1998) we weren’t even allowed to have computers. And I was with a large and very successful firm. Once we did get them it was implied that sending an email was for lazy people. Our calls and time on the phone were also tracked and those with the most time (often spent talking to each other in the office to get time up!) were awarded.

    I’m suprised to hear how many people don’t check voicemail so thanks for sharing that. I agree that an email as a first connection is the best. It gives the individual some background and prepares them for an eventual (and more likely) conversation with you.

    Good stuff!


  5. First contact through email works for me. I also leave a voice mail but email pretty much is the default channel now.

    -Responding is so much easier and convenient for the recipient.
    -People carry their smart phones all and night. Some candidates have responded at 3am.
    -It’s quiet and less intrusive yet checked constantly.
    -I write “headlines” in the subject to say a a lot before they even open the mail.
    -My full contact information is now in their phone – often automatically added as a potential contact.
    -Sometimes I get a referral to someone else without even asking.

    The eventual voice conversation is usually schedule though email.

    I’ve learned a lot from big billers on the business of recruiting but usually not on the tools.

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