Recruiting is Not Selling — It’s Getting the Candidate to Sell You

(Note: this is an excerpt from my upcoming new book — The Essentials of Hiring and Getting Hired. It will be geared to recruiters, hiring managers, and candidates. I’ll have it available at ERE’s Spring Expo 2013, April 15-17 in San Diego!)

One of my fundamental rules of recruiting is to stay the buyer from the moment of first contact to final close. To do this you must get the candidate to sell you, rather you selling the candidate.

If a candidate has an economic or career need for your job, it’s pretty easy to stay the buyer. Needy candidates are always in sales mode, trying to convince you they’re worthy. However, any high-demand candidate who has multiple suitors is a different person entirely. In this case, managers and recruiters typically switch roles and go into sales mode, using hyperbole and PR-speak in an attempt to convince the hot prospect of the worthiness of your offer. Even if the person doesn’t opt out, in ends up in a bidding war if you decide to make the person an offer. Staying the buyer not only prevents the problem, but also increases assessment accuracy, and the probability of closing on fair and equitable terms.

Here’s how this “staying-the-buyer” process works.

Start by listening 4x more than you talk. Asking tough, detailed questions about the person’s accomplishments is the easiest way to do this. This is what the one-question Performance-based Interview I describe in Hire With Your Head is all about. The key to this is to ask details about the person’s most significant accomplishments in relationship to the actual performance needs of the job. If you preface each question with a description of what you need accomplished and why it’s important to the company, the best and most worthy candidates will naturally get excited and try to convince you they’re qualified.

This is called the “pull-toward” interviewing technique, using the actual job to get the candidate excited about what you’re offering. During the interview, don’t accept superficial answers. Peel the onion, and get facts and specific details about the accomplishments. Challenge the person. Top people will leave this type of interview knowing they’ve been assessed properly, and if the job appears to be a real career move, they’ll leave thinking about why they want it, not why they don’t.

Make the candidate earn the job — it has more value this way. This is how you stay the buyer, by making the candidate become the seller. As a result, they’ll go home telling their family, friends, co-workers, and advisors why the job represents a great career, despite a modest compensation bump. If a candidate can’t sell himself on the merits of the job, he won’t be able to convince anyone else, either. Since top candidates never make the decision to switch jobs alone, this is a critical step you must address in the recruiting process.

Create the career gap. In order for a job to represent a career move, it needs to offer both stretch and growth. Stretch represents the actual difference between the person’s current job and the job you’re offering. It covers the scope and scale of the job in terms of team size, overall responsibility, budget, what the person can learn, and the challenges involved and their impact and importance to the company. Growth is the future. It represents what the person can become if the job is handled successfully. This relates to taking on bigger assignments with more impact, promotional and unique learning opportunities, and getting exposed to more challenging situations. While hard to quantify, a job 15-20% bigger than the person now holds would represent an excellent career move. If the combination of stretch and growth is less than 10%, the job is more a lateral transfer, and if more than 25%, the job is most likely too big a jump.

As part of demonstrating this type of opportunity, have the candidate meet other people who have been successful and who have taken on bigger roles in the company. You need to prove the company claims of growth opportunity; otherwise, you’re pulling a ruse that will lead to disappointment, underperformance, and turnover.

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The performance-based interviewing process can be used to help both the interviewer and the candidate figure out the size of this opportunity gap. First, use the most significant accomplishment question to compare the candidate’s accomplishments to the performance objectives listed in the performance profile. The differences represent the opportunity gap. Then use a “push-away” technique as part of follow-up questions to get the candidate to “own” it. One way to do this is to state your concern about the size of the gap — for example, team size or company pace — and then ask the candidate to describe something he/she has accomplished that’s most comparable. Good candidates will not be deterred or offended, if the assessment is accurate. Instead, they’ll try to convince you, in other words sell you, as to why they’re qualified. Some candidates might be overly concerned by the size of the challenge.

This is one way to have candidates self-select themselves out of the job. Strong candidates will likely want to better understand the challenge involved and ask a series of appropriate follow-up questions. Expect this. Be concerned if the questions are not forthcoming or not relevant.

Convert jobs in careers. By combining the push and pull techniques using the most significant accomplishment question as the framework, the candidate understands clearly why the job represents a possible growth opportunity. A bunch of small gaps like this can often represent a big career move.

For example, a slightly bigger team, more influence, bigger impact, and broader responsibility combined with a faster growing company is often all you need to convert what seems like a lateral transfer into a significant career opportunity. A performance-based interview achieves this far better than overt selling. Then if an offer is made, the candidate is in a better position to favorably compare your opportunity among others from a long-term growth perspective, rather than strictly on the size of the short-term compensation increase.

You’ll never have enough money in your budget to hire every great person you want. However, if you stay the buyer and get the candidate to sell you on the career merits of your job, you’ll hire every one you should.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).


3 Comments on “Recruiting is Not Selling — It’s Getting the Candidate to Sell You

  1. Lou has done it once again. Being a former salesguy, I understand that the customer “self closes.” What this means is once they identify their pain point and this pain point is relieved, they will buy. The other item that Lou hits right on is the fact that the best salespeople are GREAT (not average) listeners. GO DEEP with your questions and you will find out if you have a good candidate or an imposter.

    Thanks Lou!

  2. I really like the notion of the pull-toward technique. That balances getting the deep performance insight you need while selling the complexity of a role. I don’t think recruiting is sales. I’ve never thought thought that. Companies are more effective with talent strategies when they see it as a matching program.

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