HOW TO CRUSH CONSULTING COMPETITION
“I don’t meet competition. I crush it.”
â€“ Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, Inc.
Revson died trying in 1975. The cosmetics industry lives on.
Crushing, crucifying, and criticizing competition can drive you crazy. Crying will only smear your makeup. Successfully competing requires knowledge of the job market, ability to sell search, and competence in recruiting. That’s how you win the beauty contest.
What say? You’re doing that, but those pesky powderpuff placers won’t pulverize? Maybe your good looks aren’t enough. Especially when you’re on the phone.
You need the answers to these three contest questions:
1. HOW RESTRICTED IS THE HIRING AUTHORITY?
Very! Most recruiters are obsessed with the competition. They even worry about their own staff competing with them! We were like that at first. But when we strutted down the aisle from recruiting to interviewing, we became judges watching an empty stage.
In Give and Take, corporate negotiator Chester Karrass noted:
A seller’s [recruiter’s] bargaining leverage is to a considerable extent determined by how much he knows about the buyer’s [employer’s] attitude toward the problem [search].
The visibility of every hiring authority is incredibly limited by such things as:
a. Company bias against the placement industry
b. Company bias against all recruiters
c. Company bias against certain recruiters
d. Personal bias against the placement industry
e. Personal bias against all recruiters
f. Personal bias against certain recruiters
You probably aren’t aware of the pervasiveness of these half-dozen negative biases. Still, they’re regular recruiting realities. Every company – every hiring authority – has one or more. Experience teaches them well. A single wrong hire, fee dispute, or raid is a regrettable unforgettable lesson. Thank your competitors. They knock themselves out of the spotlight.
The continuing temptation of contingency-fee search is irresistible, though. Employers have their competition to worry about. And they worry plenty. So you can interpret “We don’t use recruiters” as “We don’t want to use recruiters, so use a few.”
The result is that your number of competitors isn’t in the Yellow Pages, it’s in the limited view of the employer. Even multinational corporations rarely deal with more than five recruiters at the local level at any time.
What about “We’re happy to work with you?” Don’t believe that, either. There are, at most, a handful of eligible contestants. Even a formidable fistful of finalists is a fair fight.
But it becomes unfair competition if the hiring authority follows Karrass’s advice:
Competition between [search] firms is but one source of power. The seller [recruiter] with no competitors may be exposed to other sources of buyer [employer] power.
. . . Never let the seller know or think that he is the only source unless you have to. The seller who thinks he has competition, has competition.
If you hear “We want to see how the ad pulls,” be grateful. A month later, it also translates into “We don’t want to use recruiters, so use a few.”
Herb Cohen shared his secret beauty formula in You Can Negotiate Anything:
A dose of irreverence, plus a dash of innocence, when combined with polite persistence and the asking of questions, will often change the attitude and behavior of the so-called expert [hiring authority].
He’s very restricted. Don’t let him convince you otherwise. You have almost no competition to crush.
2. DO YOU HAVE A SPONSOR?
The difference between “competition” and competitors is who’s a finalist in the contest. When you’re a winner, everyone else is a loser. You win with a sponsor.
Robert Kelley suggested that you find one immediately in Consulting:
[A sponsor] pushes for you and keeps you in the running . . .
Competitors also have sponsors. Their sponsors usually differ from yours . . . When you calculate your power network vs. your competitors’ power networks, who has the project [search] wired?
You can discover their approach in several ways. Ask your sponsor. Quiz your business associates and your personal contacts network. Question other consultants who have proposed against these competitors.
These things should be obvious, but most recruiters perform too much industrial espionage on their competitors and not enough on the employers their competitors serve. As a result, they either stop at the human resources manager or end-run around him before their path is even blocked. You might ask the human resourcer to assist you, but recognize that there’s only a 10% chance he can actively sponsor you. This number is understandable when you consider that he:
a. May not have a thorough understanding of the target job
b. May not have the power to control the political maneuvering (empire building, bids by present employees, etc.) that accompanies any job opening
c. May not have the authority to influence the hiring decision
Do you find out by asking him? Not if you value the truth.
Long-run relationships suffer if a company encourages its people to play with authority. Yet, many companies have no compunctions about long-run relationships. They operate on the basis that “In the long run there may be no long run.” So [you have] only one choice and that is to be on guard. It isn’t enough just to ask the question “Have you got the authority to make a deal?” More is necessary.
Among his suggestions in Give and Take are:
1. Know the history of the company and the person with whom you are dealing. If people have a long history of fooling around with authority, you can expect a problem.
2. Have the courage to ask the other person to describe his authority as clearly as possible. Do not accept partial or evasive answers.
3. Get the other person’s boss to tell you if any authority limits exist.
4. Find out in advance how long it takes to get an approval cleared.
5. Find out if those needed for approval are available.
6. Get a clear idea of all documents required for approval.
The Prentice-Hall Miracle Sales Guide added:
[B]ecause most large companies clear [placement fees] through [human resources] even though the actual decision to buy may be made by another member of the management team, it always pays to see him first.
To get business, [sometimes the human resources manager] must be outflanked. A demand for [your recruiting] must be created behind him.
Nevertheless, when you get an order through the back door, it is still a good practice to let the [human resources manager] know you appreciate his cooperation.
If you attempt to pass over the [human resources manager] and go directly to someone else, you are likely to incur his anger and make him an opponent rather than an ally.
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How mature is your hiring process? Answer these 5 questions and find out.
Then once you find that sponsoring supervisor (the first-line supervisor’s boss 50% of the time), form a psychological contract with him. This is a series of expectations that control your dealings. They go much deeper than the job order and fee confirmation. They’re at the level of filling a [real or perceived] need. They’re based on trust. No search can result in a placement without it. Many placements are made with little else.
What should you discuss?
a. Why you’re being considered to do the search.
It’s not because:
i. The job needs to be filled.
ii. You happened to call at the right time.
iii. You’re so effective in your approach.
There’s something deeper, and it’s probably related to direct dissatisfaction with a competitor.
When the supervisor starts trusting, he’ll tell you. That’s when he starts becoming a supersponsor.
b. The differences between you and the competitor.
Once you know why your competitors aren’t on the inside track, you can explain either:
i. Why you are different.
The issue here is rarely price; it’s service. That means recruiting the “right candidate” quickly, and guaranteeing he’ll stay.
Notice we didn’t say “professionally.” That’s because someone who’s hiring defines “professionalism” much differently from someone who’s placing. If a supervisor knocks a competitor by saying he’s “unprofessional,” make sure you find out the real reason. It usually has nothing to do with recruiting techniques or fees – only with some misunderstanding over placement speed or guarantee performance.
If you don’t find out, your contest speech about professionalism will sound like you’re afraid to use every trick in the book to hunt the right head.
Clients don’t call a lawyer because he’s “professional.” That’s the lawyer’s perception. Great for society, but not marketable in the competitive world. Stressing your association’s Code of Ethics can make you many friends, but foreclose many sponsors.
ii. What you will do differently.
That’s how you initiate making a psychological contract with a sponsor. Don’t make the same mistake as your competitor, and above all follow the Miracle Sales Guide’s advice:
Be careful to avoid misunderstandings . . . If he finds or even believes that you have misled him, he will very likely suspect everything you tell him. But when treated squarely, such prospects usually turn into [sponsors].
There’s always room for another beautiful contestant. Always another search to be done, another ribbon to win.
3. HAVE YOU DEVELOPED A SPECIALTY?
Maybe you need a little image enhancement – a makeover. Specializing can work wonders for you.
The more you specialize, the less you compete. Of course, the narrower the audience, too. Do you really care? You shouldn’t. You can’t please everyone. Being a runner-up is no fun in the placement race.
In Creative Aggression, George Bach and Herb Goldberg cautioned:
One prevailing, emotionally destructive by-product of living in a [competitive] society is the tendency to compare oneself to the norms and standards set forth by others . . .
A vital step . . . is learning to say, “Nobody else in this world is like me.” Once this point has been reached, there develops a sense of self-acceptance rather than an endless, crazy-making striving to conform to the patterns of those mythical “others.”
In addition to channeling aggression from crushing to creativity, specializing automatically starts to enhance your reputation in the industry you serve. Your visibility is increased. People start asking you to work with them, instead of the other way around. This gives you the negotiating leverage to determine how you’ll do business.
Are you really that effective? Will you develop a bad reputation? Not likely. The placement numbers and fees don’t lie.
“[T]he more you do something, the better, faster and cheaper you do it.
. . . Changing markets, clients and competitors are a fact of life in the consulting business. Within this swirling context, you must find a niche if you are to profit and grow. Establishing a distinctive competence that differentiates you from your competitors is now mandatory. This is the only way you can gain dominance within a niche.
To do so, you need to understand the framework for establishing your reputation. Clients must view you as being the most expert person in their area.”
We discussed how easy it is to specialize in Chapter 8 of The Placement Strategy Handbook, entitled “Zap! You’re an Industry Specialist.” Whether it’s “vertical specialization” (all levels within an industry) or “horizontal specialization” (for specific disciplines), the results can put the “fun” back into “funds.”
That’s how to crush consulting competition. You’ll have a contest-winner’s smile!
Jeffrey G. Allen, JD, CPC, turned a decade of recruiting and human resources management into the legal specialty of placement law. For over 32 years, Jeff has collected more placement fees, litigated more trade-secrets cases, and assisted more search and placement practitioners than anyone else. From individuals to multinational corporations in every phase of staffing, his name is synonymous with competent legal representation. Jeff holds four certifications in placement and is the author of many best-selling books in the career field. He can be reached at: Law Offices of Jeffrey G. Allen, 10401 Venice Blvd., Suite 106, Los Angeles, CA 90034; (310) 559-6000; email@example.com. The Placement Strategy Handbook and other books on search and placement can be purchased at: www.searchresearchinstitute.com.