Some Thoughts On The Art Of Persuasion

Wouldn’t it be great if employers automatically sent you all their job openings with a complete definition of exactly the type of person they wanted to hire . . . with no quibbling about fees?

Wouldn’t it be great if all you had to do to attract the right candidates would be to post the aforementioned job descriptions with the following instructions:

__ I’ll take the job and will start on _____

__ No interest now but keep me in the loop

__ Tell me more

Alas, that day will never come.

Why is one recruiter unable to penetrate a potential client company while others list that same company as their best client?

Why does one recruiter fail at getting a candidate in for an interview when another convinces them to go . . . resulting in a hire?

The answer is persuasion. Some people are naturals. Bill Clinton comes to mind. Some people are not. Charisma, personality, charm and magnetism are all ingredients in making a connection. So is the ability to assess the mindset of the person you are trying to persuade. Your approach to an IT Director or IT-type candidate may be far different from your approach to a Sales Director or a salesperson. Their hot buttons are different.

I get frequent requests from readers asking how to overcome their shortcomings in the persuasion arena. Some have promise; others are questionable. We covered this topic almost a decade ago but because of renewed interest in the topic, we are revisiting it. The word “closing” has developed some negative connotations but the art of persuasion is all about closing so we’ll suffer the arrows of the semantic purists and skip the doublespeak about what we really do.

According to the best-selling and venerable industry booklet “Closing on Objections,” the word “closing” is an ominous one in the minds of most folks. People equate “closers” with used car salespeople, encyclopedia hucksters or pot and pan peddlers.

In fact, even the industry giants are well populated with “closers,” otherwise they wouldn’t be where they are today . . . at the top of their respective heaps.

Broken down to its lowest denominator, closing verbally consists of either asking questions or painting word pictures which result in making a sale come together.

According to the old salesmaster J. Douglas Edwards, “A closing question is any question, the answer to which confirms that the person has bought.”

A word picture is any verbal scenario, the logic of which leads the listener to agree to buy what you are selling or, at least, move on with the buying process. In a sense, it is a debate from which you emerge the winner because your reasoning is more persuasive than that of your opponent.

There are, of course, non-verbal persuaders which can set the stage for closing situations. And closing is a process rather than an event.

Our industry has come a long way from the days when we were thought of as “flesh-peddlers.” I remember visiting an ?agency’ in the mid-fifties where half of the ?counselors’ were ex-cons and the other half were exiles from the siding business. A motley crew, to be sure, but there could be no quarrel with their effectiveness. They all had a keen sense of the “killer instinct.” They kept their eye on the ball and hit it long and straight.

They did not dabble in social service except when it suited their purposes. They could be as charming one minute as they could turn nasty the next. Their motivation was simple greed and their motives served them well.

There were a few honest and ethical people entering the business then, but the public perception of the profession as a whole painted most of the early practitioners with an ugly shade of soot. We tip our hats to the industry today and to those early and honorable pilgrims with the true grit to carry them through the terribly painful metamorphosis that led us to the thriving business of today.

But there is another side to this ongoing “professionalization” of our industry.

One reader wrote: “Just lost two deals to a competitor. We had both job orders and both of the candidates but my recruiter just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get them together. $40 grand out the window because he didn’t have the know-how to convince the candidates to interview. Aside from a personality transplant are there any magic words they can learn to make sure this isn’t an ongoing problem?”

Practitioners in our industry are basically salespeople . . . always have been and always will be. Whether you work at the lowest level placing day laborers or are one of the top ten in retained executive search, our business requires someone to sell services, capabilities, fees, guarantees, etc. On the candidate side, we must sell opportunity and convince the undecideds that it is in their best interests to at least explore that which we offer them.

Unlike many things (like retailing) where the potential customer has already decided to buy, our business, in many cases, depends upon motivating somebody, at some level, to buy something they hadn’t planned to buy . . . at least through the utilization of our services.

Somehow, as happens in all businesses, our industry has undergone a transmutation of nomenclature. We have become Account Executives, Personnel Consultants, Division Directors, Human Resource Consultants and the like. The industry has gone from “peddling flesh” to headhunters and ‘shoulder-tappers.’

Now, instead of filling jobs, we ‘give counsel.’ Instead of selling, we are “partners in executive selection.”

This new wave of titular grandeur may fit our corporate counterparts, but has created a problem for many of us. Some have begun to believe the nobility of the titles they are using and as you may have surmised, ‘consultants’ don’t have to stoop to such crude and mundane sales exploits as “closing.”

We take vehement exception to this new attitude, and interviews with countless ‘winners’ in our business show that closing (gentle persuasion} is more important now than ever in the past. Too many have become passive order takers, afraid to confront those who may appear to have differing agendas. Too many have become Internet ?clerks,’ harvesting candidates from the Internet/job boards and forwarding the information to a faceless Email address in the hopes that something good might happen.. The diminishment of human-to-human voice contact has left many without the verbal tools to persuade.

An old pro once told us that there is a vast difference between an order-taker and a closer. “An order-taker is like a book with a lot of knowledge just sitting on a shelf, waiting for someone to open up the pages and read. In comparison, the closer is like a smash Broadway play; it jumps right out at you and hits you right between the eyes. It doesn’t wait for anything; it’s a full-scale production with all the trimmings.”

If you view yourself as one who “gives advice and counsel” rather than as a salesperson, you are kidding no one but yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable with the word “sell,” consider yourself to be a master of persuasion (or dissuasion), but keep your eye on the ball. Closing is nothing more than motivating, instructing, encouraging and reassuring people that they’ve made the right decision by doing what you want them to do.

The rewards that come from being a good persuader don’t happen overnight. Don’t let people tell you that salespeople are born, not made. With practice (and some modifications to suit your personality) your close ratio will increase and your income will multiply.

It isn’t easy either. The art of persuasion (closing) requires that you do and say things that will alter the way others act in response to your influence. At first, this may make you uncomfortable. After all, the easiest way out of any situation is to agree with the other person and hope that things turn out the way you want. They often don’t!

Trainer after trainer has reported preaching to a room full of people furiously scribbling notes on productive scripts and rebuttals they think they’ll use when they get back to their offices. They also report that the majority of these scribblers will never have the chutzpah to actually use them and that many prefer to scribble than to make eye contact with the trainer who may decide to ask them a question. Using the right words requires practice, practice and more practice – much like a professional athlete. Rarely does it come naturally. See “A Question Is The Answer” by Terry Petra on Page ___

Ours a business of scripts and rebuttals

  • “The best script is one that doesn’t sound like one.”
  • “Scripts only work right if the other person is reading from the same script book.”

We’ve all had calls from salespeople who are obviously reading their pitch to us. It’s not hard to tell and, frankly, winging it just wouldn’t work with most pitches. But there’s no doubt that a telemarketer who doesn’t sound like they’re reading is far more effective than one who does.

Things such as enthusiasm, inflection, intonation, gusto in the presentation and sparkle all count towards establishing a meaningful dialogue rather than a monologue. It must be enjoyable to converse with you and, judging by some of the lusterless monotones exhibited by many consultants who call us, it’s no wonder some people fail in our business.

We’ve read that there are only fifteen basic closes. Everything is either a modification or a tributary of these basic closes. It is obvious, however, that a closing technique to convince someone to buy a refrigerator is far different than one which will work to sell a search or convince an uncertain candidate to take the plunge.

Many years ago, I wrote: “Our business is unique. I know of no other business where the players start with nothing to sell, no one to sell it to, and wind up at the end with a five-figure fee for doing it.”

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We could go into a long dissertation on basics such as “features and benefits,” but we assume that since you’re reading The Fordyce Letter, you’re already familiar with these elements.

To successfully sell to a market, you must first determine the needs of that marketplace. While that may seem like a keen grasp of the obvious, it is surprising how many people in our business haven’t mastered the nuances of the marketplace in which they try to prosper. Unlike a bottled water vendor in the New Orleans Superdome after the hurricane, the need for search/placement services is not so urgent.

What constitutes the all-powerful “employer?”

Chapter One of the industry classic The Placement Strategy Handbook says, “Many of us think of an employer as an overpowering entity which represents a necessary but adversarial evil in our business lives. In reality, an employer is nothing more than an employee with the authority to hire or the responsibility to make hiring recommendations.”

How about the other ingredient in the mix, the candidate?

A candidate is any person acquired through whatever means possible who meets the minimal employer specifications, is willing to enthusiastically interview and, at the end of the process, to say Yes to the offer of employment. There are, of course, several dozen persuasive techniques to assure that this happens, but the first hurdle is to acquire a search assignment from a reasonable and realistic employer. We’ll discuss candidate closes in future issues.

Former industry trainer/speaker Joe Zawacki said that there are three immutable “rules” governing our business:

  • Nobody wants to pay a fee.
  • All clients and candidates lie.
  • Clients and candidates only think of you when the need you.

To understand how to “persuade” employers to use our services, it is necessary to put yourself in their shoes to recognize and comprehend their thought processes when a requisition hits their desk.

Zawacki is right. Nobody wants to pay a fee. Despite the fact that our services are often less expensive than the other hiring alternatives, there are some basic flaws in that reasoning. Ads and web postings are sometimes less expensive if they work. More often than not, they don’t, or if they do, the talent pool is of lower quality. Asking current employees for referrals is obviously cheaper, but this method frequently produces unintended (and counterproductive) consequences within the company. Surfing the Internet is frugal from a direct cost standpoint, but the time spent in finding and thrashing through files is quickly becoming an inefficient use of everyone’s time. Other no-fee or low-fee choices available to them reinforce the sign on the wall of the Baskin-Robbins store that says, “We have no quarrel with those who charge less since they know what their product is worth.”

It’s human nature to seek the lowest cost method for solving a problem. Although there are a few recruiting firms out there who are willing to pay another recruiting firm to find people for them, they are countable on one hand. That’s why you see so many newspaper ads for consultants. How can we denigrate a method used by employers when we often use the same method?

When a personnel requisition hits a desk in an HR department, it generally means that some task is not being done.

Fact is, most jobs don’t require a superstar. Any warm body will do . . . and that’s generally what the less expensive alternatives provide. So when HR gets one of these openings, they usually turn first to the more traditional non-recruiter alternatives.

But the higher up you go in the corporate pecking order and the more critical the openings become, the lower the likelihood is that these openings can be filled without a recruiter. Of course some can, but the HR department is under the gun to produce the best candidate available in the shortest time possible.

So our job includes the evaluation of an employer position specification against the realities of the importance of the position to the employer’s profitability and productivity. To spend time flinging rebuttals around to get an assignment to fill a grunt job is generally ineffective.

That evaluation process must also take place in the minds of the HR people responsible for filling the openings. To diddle around with less productive (and often more expensive) recruiting methods can bring down the wrath of a department head who is working overtime to do the job of the person not yet hired against an aging requisition. This is not a pleasant experience for HR people so they must weigh all the methods very carefully. A good closer can tip the scales in the direction of using a recruiter.

You must also realize that a $20-30,000 tax-deductible fee is of little or no concern to a large firm which is budgeted for and used to paying fees. To a small business, it can often mean the difference between profit and loss and may even necessitate that they get a bank loan to pay you. So the adage that “one close fits all” is obviously not true. What constitutes chump change to one firm may be a major buying decision for another . . . and the persuasive techniques will have to be tailored to the situation.

Just as important, deal with the person who can buy. Before you bring out the verbal or non-verbal persuaders, make certain you are talking to the person who can say Yes and not to some chair-warming gatekeeper.

The basic reasons for employer apprehension are simply:

1. Why use a recruiter at all.

2. Price/cost

Many hiring firms have already moved past those two basic objections and may just object to using you or to the price you charge. They already believe in the use of recruiters.

The scripts and philosophies that will appear in subsequent TFLs must be tailored to the individual using them and depend upon the user’s personality and comfort level in asking tough and probing questions in a non-threatening way.

When Jimmy Dean drawls in a commercial for his sausage, “I’d much rather have to explain the price than apologize for the quality” he is very convincing. Short, sweet and thought-provoking.

Starting next month, we’ll have a new monthly column called the “Closer’s Corner” where we will bring you the persuasive words and music utilized by the industry’s big billers. Stay tuned.

Paul Hawkinson is the editor of The Fordyce Letter, a publication for third-party recruiters that's part of ERE Media. He entered the personnel consulting industry in the late 1950's and began publishing for the industry in the 1970's. During his tenure as a practitioner, he personally billed over $5 million in both contingency and retainer assignments. He formed the Kimberly Organization and purchased The Fordyce Letter in 1980.

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