If the Customer is Always Right? (Trapped Again By Our Own Good Intentions)

In agency recruiting and human resources, we call our hiring managers “clients.” It is a fact in the agency side, and a state of mind that started in the HR side in the mid to late 1980s. But if the hiring manager is the client, and if the client is always right, is it possible for us not to be wrong when we disagree with them? If not, is it your career goal to seek a business to business relationship based on the premise that you are always wrong! If you are in a vendor-client relationship, how much respect do you deserve? What got this train of thought going was an email I received two weeks ago from an HR professional who felt that her hiring managers did not respect her contribution or role in the staffing process. She was curious as to any advice I might give. Well, take two consecutive weeks off. The resulting chaos will teach them a lesson. Or, stop being their vendor and become their business partner. Because as long as they are the clients, we will always be wrong. So what is a “business partner” and how does that differ from being a client? Well, if you go to your car sales person to buy a specific car, with specific options package already pre-determined, and you assume that they have no special or critical knowledge to impart in the process other than processing the paperwork and working out a few number issues, then you are in a traditional vendor-client relationship. In the above, as a buyer, the sales representative was as interchangeable as a flashlight battery to you and your process. (Not unlike – “I called XYZ recruiters and got Dave’s voice mail. So I called ABC recruiters. Six of one and half a dozen of the other.”) If, on the other hand you go to your car salesperson with a transportation issue to resolve and seek and accept their advice, guidance and support in putting that recommendation into action, if you know they understand your problems and their products, if you respect them as professionals in their field, you are in effect making that person a business partner. A participant, not a functionary. (Not unlike -“I called XYZ about the new position. Dave was out, so I left him an urgent message to get back to me today! When he calls, I want you to free up some time and join the call. I want to get this rolling and Dave is the person I need to do just that!”) Which of these is your client? Better yet, which one do you want to be your client and do you want to know how to make it happen? So how do you become a partner in your business dealing with your clients?

  1. Keep in touch – even when you do not profit (Dollars or Task Accomplishment) from the contact. Nothing I hate more than the “occasional” phone call from a vendor farming for business. Hiring Managers learn to resent or fear calls from their own HR people, if the only time they hear is when the HR persons wants or needs something. Freak a “client” out, check in with them to make sure everything is going OK. To insure that they either have no needs, or their current needs are being satisfied. Give them a status report, even on unresolved issues. If the delay is excessive, admit it and have a reason, not an excuse, but a reason why. (Sorry I have not called for three days, I was off site recruiting, I’m lucky I still have a voice.)
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  3. Get involved in their world – not just the piece of it you make money off of or have business responsibility to manage. Most HMs do not respect agency recruiters or HR people because they are convinced we really do not understand THEIR business. If you are an inside HR person, ask to attend their business meetings, not just the staff meetings. Read the department updates on the internal departmental WEB sites. Track the latest release (or other relevant department activity.) and send an e-mail to the HM, and the rest of his/her team congratulating them on their return “to the living.” They will appreciate your understanding of their world. Now that they know you understand what a release is, you can now come back and say, “You know, the pressure of filling a requisition is a lot like the deadline on a release.”. If you are an outside recruiter, stay aware of your clients though publications and other contacts. Ask to attend a low level planning meeting to “get a feel” of the environment. Study, do research, have knowledge of the company, product, and marketplace. Many companies will not allow vendors to attend meetings, but you will still get credit for asking. If you hear the team is meeting at “X” place after work to celebrate a new product, or sales milestone, ask if you could “drop by for a minute” and offer your best wishes. Again, no harm in asking. But don’t just make “I” calls (I need, I want, I asked for, I told you, I decided,”I aiy aiy “). There is a second person singular and plural, use them from time to time. After all, “vendor” and “client” may be singular, but “partners” is plural.
  4. Make your effort in the process known – do not assume osmosis will do the job. Sometimes you just have to accept that unless you engage in a little self-serving advertising, your future business partner may be going unaware of your efforts. Bring up planned events or activities being done to support the teams recruiting needs. If you are an internal HR person, invite the client to attend a few hours of a career fair, open house, or other recruiting function. Tell them you want them to “experience” the flow and see a cross section of candidates to better understand the available “talent pool.” If you are an agency recruiter, invite the HM to your office to meet your recruiters and support team. Make an “office lunch” part of the visit. It is easier to relate to people you have met and dined with than it is a “headhunter” on the phone. I gave an HM a chance to observe setting up a resume search on Monster.com and work the “raw results” with me, rather than just see the 1 in 20 that I usually route that fit the search request. I “CC” my the managers on all internal traffic on their jobs, candidates, interview set-ups, travel arrangements. I forward all responses from candidates, I send copies of just about anything that pertains to their activities complete with attached notes on actions taken. 95% of this is in e-mail fashion, so it costs little extra effort. But the impact it has on my managers, priceless. If there is an article on recruiting as pertains to your market, industry, company or technology, send it onto the HM. Ask him/her to send you useful information to help you gain knowledge of their business. Admitting ignorance is no crime. But, revealed as ignorant is the end of hope in your efforts to be respected as a partner.
  5. To be seen as professional, be professional – you will be seen as you present yourself. All too often, our HMs see us as functionaries (agency and HR ), because in the spirit of the client-vendor relationship, we just cannot wait to do their bidding and carry their “bags”, if only to prove how helpful and eager we are. My stockbroker refuses to shine my shoes. I know he would be insulted if I asked, and I know he is far more useful to me as a stockbroker than as shoeshine resource. So I do not ask him to shine my shoes. But if I ever suspected he would, who knows! If you find your hiring manager making requests that are not in your line of responsibility, tell him/her. They are not “wrong” if you do not tell them they are “wrong.” It is your job to define your job. For example, it is their job to write position descriptions, that is part of the “quality in the process” of a good hiring program. But, hiring managers hate to write them. So they either ask HR, or they use a “boiler plate” descriptions from three years ago that have no reverence to the process. All too often, we are so grateful to get the description in any form, we accept the “boilerplate”, or the responsibility to get it done correctly. (Do you also do windows?) This is a chance to take a stand, “You own this part of the process. It really is not yours to reassign. If the job requisition is not complete and accurate, I will end up wasting a lot of time recruiting the wrong people. That in turn wastes your time as well. Let’s do it right now and get the job done.” Assert your role as the “Project Manager” for staffing. If, as an agency, the HM is using you as an errand boy and only calling you back randomly, it is time to stop being a “vendor” and try for “business partner”, “Look, I have the ability to solve your staffing problem. But as a professional I have to tell you that you are using me all wrong. Let me solve your problems by bringing my skills to bear. Here is how we can do it together?” Partners succeed together, or they fail together. The operative word is “together.”
  6. Never call back about what’s important to you if you are not prepared to discuss what is important to them – it is not always about you and even when it is, it is still about them. All too often I get a call from a vendor who has a new resume and new business. He or she will not have my attention until my curiosity is satisfied. A “tough” job search I gave them last week that they do not want to do. The candidate who is tough to track down, so a message has been allowed to become four days old. This “tough stuff” may be a pain to you, but it is part of the work I am expecting my “Partner” to stay on top of for me. So never start new business with a client, until you have reviewed all open business. (“Ken, glad I caught you, I have a new resume to discuss, but first, let me review some open files with you and get you up to speed on them.”) This presents you as an organized, detailed person who is on top of things. You prevented me from interrupting you, by covering all the issues I might have. Why should I worry about “managing” the process if you are in such good control. I like to work with people who I do not have to “manage.” When I find a co-worker or vendor who is “buttoned-up” in control and exercising positive control of the process, I let them. I defer and refer whenever possible as that type of relationship is rare and allowing them the autonomy they earned, allows me to micro-manage those who truly need to be micro-managed.
  7. Respect may be earned, but to actually get it you have to demand it – the meek will not inherit the earth as long as I am on it. There is a fine line between rudeness and assertiveness. Look for it, find it, and always stand on it. If you are a successful recruiter in control of the process and generating resumes and successful offers, you have value. According to Fortune Magazine, INC., Business Week and all the other business journals of record, staffing is the #1 issue confronting companies in meeting their business goals for the year 2000. The #1 issue. For those of you in the back, let me say that one more time, THE #1 ISSUE. Did you ever meet a humble heart surgeon? When is the last time a Fire Fighter apologized to a victim for saving their life? If you are competent and bring value to the process, set the standard you will accept, and accept no less. (We are 10% ahead of last year’s hiring plan and the quality of hiring is right up there. This is a result of a lot of hard work on my part. To make things even better, here is what I propose…) There is no profit in alienating your HMs, but there is less in allowing them to under appreciate or diminish your impact. That is even truer if they are awarding themselves the credit they are denying you. You are further diminished in their eyes by your own unwillingness to claim the credit that you deserve. Look, unfair relationships are doomed. Pretending it does not bother you or allowing it to continue does not prevent the end, it merely postpones it to the point you can no longer stand it. Or, they can no longer stand the “ineffective” staffing person (Agency or HR) that they are saddled with. Don’t forget, “If the client is always right, then the vendor is always wrong. If the client is always right, then they are smart. If the vendor is always wrong, then they must be pretty stupid!” Eventually your clients might decide to find themselves a smarter vendor. Be that smarter vendor now, be their business partner.
  8. You must be truly selfless – selfish only works in vendor-client relationships. The vendor-client relationship survives selfishness because there is an understanding of temporary or self-serving. But a Business Partnership is founded on a belief of eventual mutual success or mutual failure and a sustained and shared effort to insure the former and not the latter. Many agencies have started to accept stock-options and a reduced fee structure to enforce the idea of shared destiny. The agency’s real hope for financial success is the success of their Partner, not just one or two placements. The company is motivated to deal with their “Partner” for both financial (Reduced Fee), recouping investment (Stock is already set aside.) and spiritual (After-all, you are stock holders – that makes you somebody.) On the insiders side we have some companies initiating a process where the HMs has input into the HR/Staffing representative’s review, as a peer. But, the HR/Staffing professional also has input, from a peer level, into the review of the HMs they support. In the Cold War this was often referred to as “Mutually Assured Destruction” or “MAD” strategy. But it works in this application, because there is an alternative to destruction, Partnership. You have an entire year to hammer out and develop a good working relationship. The potential consequences are already known. If you cannot become “Business Partners” in this environment, forget about it!

There is nothing wrong with a healthy vendor-client relationship. But, understand the relationship and do not expect more from it than it was designed to offer. (Me client, you vendor, go change my tires.) If you want more, raise the stakes and play the game. A Business Partner is truly concerned about the long-term relationship, even when tested with either short term extra work or reduced fees. You cannot send poor resumes to a partner in the hope they will hire poor quality product, and call yourself a Partner. A Business Partner realizes that they must deliver the new level of excellence in service that is automatically anticipated from a Partner, and must have an equal willingness to demand the same in return. A Business Partner has fewer clients, but a deeper understanding of the Partners needs and greater control over the process that satisfies those needs. But as a consequence, a greater market share of the Partners business. The business is less likely to cease, suddenly and without warning. After all, you?re a Partner The final motivation is your knowledge and experience. Every level of growth and development must eventually and inevitably lead to another level, or we stagnate and cease to grow. As you are learning your trade, it is OK to be a client’s vendor. But, in time, as long as you are perceived as a vendor (Internal or External), so much of the talent you have, experience you have gained, and contributions you can make go wasted. Why? Because the person best qualified to do your job is you. So why aren’t you? Ask your Partner! Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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