We engaged a retained search firm to help with one of our own company hires recently.
Yes, we are already specialists in finding and “headhunting” great people, so arguably we could have done the work ourselves, but the hire was for a skill set outside of our core network. We figured that a specialist firm with the currency of networks for the professional we required would secure us a time and thus cost effective hiring result.
It’s been an interesting exercise, and sadly, it’s meant we’ve now experienced first-hand some of the horror stories we hear about poor service in the retained search industry.
We narrowed down to just 5 firms that looked likely to deliver. All had an abundance of candidate and client testimonials on their websites. All have been trading for some years. All offered the right kind of reassurances and commitments of expertise in their marketing spiels. All had consultants with referrals and recommendations on their own LinkedIn profiles.
We left phone messages and sent email requests to all 5 firms, asking if they were available to take on a new assignment. Only 2 responded, and only 1 kept the appointment booking for a meeting with our MD.
That firm took the briefing, assured our MD that the remit, package and hiring criteria (both essential and wish list) were realistic, and gave a series of very exacting promises as to timeframes for delivery results and made all the right noises as to what their sourcing and screening process would be so we would be assured of quality of service and result. Our MD signed up at the full asking price, paid the agreed retainer and then the fun began!
We'd made our whole team available to the search consultant – he could then hear about the culture and challenges first hand from people who would be peers to this new hire. It took the search consultant a week to book in those calls. Ok we thought - maybe he’s busy searching for candidates?
We'd been promised immediate access to an online dashboard, to be assured of the firm’s work activity for fulfilling the assignment. 10 days later with 2 reminders from us, access was enabled. Ok we thought - maybe this is a new value add service and they’re sorting out tech problems?
Another promise was a weekly check call to discuss progress. By day 15, our MD finally got to speak to the consultant, who claimed to have left messages with our team to advise (not a chance – we’re a close knit group with everyone very interested in this hire)
On day 16, a CV was emailed through, and a call came from the consultant. He highly recommended the candidate, so we setup an interview for the following day. The consultant’s own interview notes with the candidate’s current packages details were to be sent.
The interview appointment loomed, no further details had come through, and the search consultant wasn’t to be found. Our MD conducted the interview anyway, and liked the calibre of the candidate. She went through all the hygiene factors (salary, location, job search status etc) and agreed next stages directly with the candidate. The candidate revealed that he had never been interviewed by the search firm, but had instead a 10 minute informal phone chat with the consultant about our company and the role and had been asked to check it out just as matter of curiosity.
2 days after that event and with no contact from the search consultant, our MD sent an email to his firm with feedback from the interview event and confirming the booking of next stage meetings for the following week. Those meetings took place, the search consultant was still MIA, and final meetings were confirmed again directly with the candidate; and an email and phone messages were made to keep the consultant “in the loop”.
On the morning of the final stage meetings the MD had a call from the consultant. The candidate had been made another offer, and had to give a decision that day. The offer was for 30% over our budgeted hire, so we’d need confirm an offer to match this, if we really wanted to hire this professional, and we’d need to supply employment paperwork that day.
The MD then called the candidate directly – explained that we’d have to cancel the final meetings as we couldn’t afford to match, but wished him luck in the other role. The candidate was bemused - no offer had been received and he wasn’t in other hiring processes!
Final stage meetings proceeded, and a successful employment offer was made the following day. The MD advised the search firm consultant by email of the result and requested a discussion with that person’s boss – we were very unhappy with the lack of service throughout and with the tactic attempted to force a close on "the deal". It was 2 weeks later that the “boss” finally responded with a non committal, non apologetic email.
Yes, we paid the bill, albeit through gritted teeth. After all the search firm had found and recommended the professional whom we successfully hired, despite not delivering on any of their promises of partnership along the way.
Our hindsight learning from this experience? We would have not been so readily swayed by the “client” company logos that this search firm splashed on their own website and marketing material as a sign of the firms quality. We would have checked with individual referees as to service quality. We would not have assumed that all retained search firms work to the same service levels or ethics as ourselves. We would have linked the agreed milestone deadlines to the payment with discounts for non-adherence. And if anyone is seeking to hire a specialist search firm for sales and commercial staff within the UK – contact me and I’ll share the name of this company NOT to use.