7 Tips You Need Before Working With a Search Firm
3 min read

7 Tips You Need Before Working With a Search Firm

You’ve been approached by a search agency.

There must be a hard to fill job available with specific technical requirements, or the type of job where candidates are unlikely to come forward themselves and need to be hunted.

Congratulations, you’re in high demand!

But it’s rare that even experienced executives have worked with a search firm before. So you need to know how to navigate this specific situation.

I spoke to 12 headhunters and search firm executives to get the inside track on working with search firms. Read on to learn my top seven takeaways on how they work and what you need to know before dealing with a search agency.

Let’s dive in.

1. Search firms do not get paid by you

Here’s the short version: search firms don’t work for you. They work for the organization looking to hire. Because search firms get hired and paid to fill jobs for their clients, you need to go in with an expectation that they may not prioritize your needs.

Understand their incentives. They want to place a candidate and get paid. It doesn’t have to be the best-qualified candidate, just the one their client decides to hire. You are of interest to the search firm if you are a viable placement: if not, you’ll take a back seat.

2. Don’t expect advice and personal attention

The work search firms do is heavily transactional. Get the commission from a client to fill a role, match candidates and get paid. Then move on. That means you can’t expect the experience to be relationship based at the candidate level. Some search executives may buck this trend. But the structure of the business means search execs need to fill jobs so they can quickly move on to other searches. They have little time to have coffee and give advice to candidates.

3. Expect the search process to be bumpy

The process typically moves in fits and starts, influenced by travel schedules, general availability of candidates and interview teams, and business operations. Most searches move slower than advertised, and the internal machinations around candidate selection are frequently not predictable.

4. Search firms have imperfect information

The search firm’s knowledge of what’s going on with their client may range from full knowledge to very little knowledge at all. It totally depends how often the search firm has worked with the individual client, and how recently they worked together. Personnel turnover on both sides regularly so often the institutional knowledge is lost.

So remember that like with everything else, information flows are never perfect. All three sides of this transaction (you, the search exec and the hiring manager) are busy so approach the situation with an open mind. Be forgiving if not all your questions can be answered or the process doesn’t run as expected.

I’ve even heard that quite frequently the company will hire a candidate totally outside of the retained search firms process and without any knowledge of the search firm.

5. Communication can be patchy, at best

During the process you’re involved in, the search firm has to communicate with you, competing candidates and often several stakeholders on the client-side. Taking a wider view, they have to communicate with all these parties on every search they are running (sometimes dozens) and manage their stakeholders within their own company (the search firm). That’s a lot.

On the client-side, the HR team might have hundreds of open roles, be engaging with a handful of search agencies, as well as managing every other hiring channel. That’s a wicked communication problem and can be hard to stay on top of.

As a result, you may not receive the type of communication you are accustomed to. There may be days or even weeks between updates. Sometimes offers are even made after weeks of non-communication.

6. Not all searches result in a placement

The typical close rate for retained searches is around 70%. That means that search firms are paid for searches 30% of the time, even when no candidate is hired. Prepare for some opportunities not to close. The company may change its mind, do an internal restructuring, or find an internal candidate. Weigh your expectations accordingly.

7. Hiring works differently for senior roles

Search firms aren’t hired to fill junior roles. They are hired to fill more senior roles.

At the junior levels matching skills to job specifications is critical. But this is not the most important element in the process when a search firm is involved.

The focus is more on the intangibles. Are you a good leader? Can I trust you? Do I like you enough to spend a lot of time together? What other intangibles do you bring to the table?

Emphasize the networks and relationships you bring to the table. The ones that show you can bring value to the company above and beyond the normal exec. This works particularly well when coupled with some research into the search firm and hiring manager.

Hope that helps! Good luck with your search.