The Best Fruit Is Always Still in the Tree

When I was growing up we had an honest-to-goodness apple orchard about two miles from my house. On occasion, my fellow delinquents and I would jump the fence and help ourselves to some free fruit. Talk about hooligans. The quickest way to do it was to scoop a few apples up off the ground and hop back over the fence before you heard those immortal words, “HEY YOU KIDS! GET OUT OF THERE!” But the apples on the ground were usually damaged or over-ripened. Certainly they were the ones with the most bruises and the greatest percentage of worms and other bugs. The best fruit was always still in the tree. These apples were the most difficult to get; they often required that you literally go out on a limb. There was also the frustration of seeing your friends scooping up handfuls of fruit while you were still shimmying up the tree, getting some bruises and “raspberries” in your pursuit of apples. But at the end of the day, who do you think received the biggest reward? ARE YOUR CLIENTS FRUIT-ON-THE-GROUND OR FRUIT-IN-THE-TREE? In recent articles, many of the responses I have received from third-party recruiters have been laments about the difficulty in working with clients and convincing them of the need to improve their staffing process, procedures, policies, or expectations. In essence, the message from many was, “What can we do? They are the client.” But maybe they are not real clients. Maybe they have just made you into their order taker. (You want fries with that financial analyst?) When I first came into the industry we had a major high-tech employer in the northern Boston area with a real hard case as a recruiting manager. His fee policy was 15%, period. Every recruiting agency in the region wanted to be part of his hiring plan due to the company’s volume, and every agency tried to get him to renegotiate his fee policy. When you reported for duty as a new recruiter, most agencies had this company on your first-day call list — just as part of an effort to either wear him down or break new recruiters in the hard way. Name a fee negotiating argument and I guarantee it was used in an effort to convince this manager to raise his fees. I also guarantee he ignored it. Such arguments included: * You are not getting the best candidates with a 15% fee. * You are risking being a source rather than a client. * We will work faster to close a requisition with a better fee arrangement. * Nobody “searches” for 15%, you are just getting random and accidental discoveries. * It’s not worth my time at that price. * This prevents us from having a successful relationship. At the end of the day, this manger would go to his hiring managers and ask: * Are you getting the caliber of candidates and hires you want? * Are you closing your requisitions fast enough? * Is anybody recruiting out of your shop successfully? * Does anybody have any complaints or suggestions regarding my office’s efforts to support your hiring needs? (By the way, in recruiting, the above are the ultimate metrics. If your “customer” is satisfied and happy, all the other minutia we dwell on so devoutly is merely self-congratulatory.) Armed with positive feedback on all these points, this recruiting manager held the 15% fee line with headhunters. How did he get away with it? Because eventually somebody would opt for the fruit on the ground rather than make another phone call looking for fruit still in the tree. But they blamed “the farmer” for his poor fruit, rather than themselves for their unwillingness to walk past the rotten fruit seeking better quality. As recruiters, we are pretty fierce when it comes to “beating up” our customers for their pigheadedness, lack of understanding of the basics of effective recruiting, unwillingness to take our advice and guidance, and general lack of respect they have for us and our skill. But they didn’t ask permission to be our customers. We asked them and in some cases, begged them. It can be even tougher to be selective in a recession. But let’s also agree that the decision to keep a client at any cost is also a decision that permits the clients to dictate terms and conditions, and allows their prevailing attitude of, “Me Tarzan, you Expendable.” When you choose to pick up the fruit laying on the ground, you should also decide not to complain about the quality. The decision was yours to make. I mention the above not to chide or act “holier than thou.” I can assure you in my career my bank account has forced me to periodically indulge in a meal of bad fruit. But as I tucked the napkin under my shirt, I acknowledged the meal was of my own making and did not blame the industry I was in or the people I had decided to serve. I used the memory of the meal to encourage me to seek customers whom I wanted to do business with and — of equal or greater importance — who wanted to do business with me. At the very least, I sought those who I knew I could eventually upgrade to a level of FDA-approved Class A citrus. A DOWN ECONOMY DOESN’T MEAN YOU SHOULD SETTLE FOR BAD APPLES Sales can and should be both monetarily and professionally satisfying. It can be frustrating, demanding, frightening, and — depending on the economy — risky. But it should never be demeaning. I have no doubt that the top ten percent of sales professionals would rather climb a tree seeking the best fruit rather than scoop up what is laying on the ground. But during a recession it’s easy to become an order taker. Bills still have to be paid and there are more trying to sell than there are those trying to buy. Sales is a slave to the economy, and if you have chosen a career in sales, then the joys of the up cycle and the sorrows of the down cycle are as much a part of that choice as false smiles and firm handshakes. But there is also never going to be a more productive time to develop, build, and establish a more progressive and partnership base of clients than during the lulls and down cycles of a slow economy. The message this week is simple and uncomplicated: “Be true to yourself and to your decision to make a career in sales.” It is never a waste of time to try to upgrade your client base and the level of relationship you should expect and demand from those clients. If you are a recruiter of quality, skill, and business acumen, you should resist the temptation of a bad economy to settle for the “fruit on the ground.” To those companies that establish unreasonable and tyrannical agency policies based on the economic downturn, I have only this to say: If we are judged by the company we keep, and your policies towards recruitment agencies attract only those who are willing to eat “rotten fruit,” is that a good thing? This is not a the kind of reputation your organization wants in its branding efforts. Have a great day picking fruit, er… I mean recruiting.

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Ken Gaffey ( is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services ( 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,, 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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