The Elements of Applicant Control

On January 3, 1978, I became a contingency recruiter working for a small, highly regarded, two-person search firm (I was number three). This was a pretty odd job to take at the time, since I voluntarily left my spot as VP and GM for a 300-person automotive parts manufacturing company. Somehow, working 80 hours per week didn't seem worth it.

That first morning, Mark, at the time probably one of the most successful contingency recruiters in the country, told me the key to successful recruiting was applicant control. I didn't really know what he was talking about, and I only made one placement in the next five months.

Somewhere in mid-May 1978, I finally figured out applicant control. During the next seven months, I netted $100,308 (in 1978 dollars!), and I never looked back.

Applicant control is the difference maker. If you don't understand it and apply it on every search, you'll never be a successful recruiter. Let me share with you some of the secrets I learned about applicant control in those early days that I've applied on every search since.

While some of the points below might not be applicable to every situation, you'll quickly see how they could help you improve your success rate:

  • Be the most credible recruiter the candidate will ever work with. You must know the job, the company, the market, and the manager if you want to influence a candidate to consider your opportunity and move forward in the selection process. Without this knowledge, you can't effectively demonstrate to a top person that your open position is the best among competing alternatives.
  • Sell on opportunity, not compensation. Someone can always pay more. You'll never have enough money in the budget to pay top dollar. Instead, you must sell on the idea that your job represents the best long-term career move and the one that can make the biggest near-term impact.
  • Recruit on strategy, not tactics. Convince the candidate to view your opportunity as a long-term decision based on multiple factors, not a short-term move based on just comp, location, and title. Convince your candidate that too many short-term moves can quickly short-circuit a promising career.
  • Don't take no for an answer. An early no is usually based on lack of complete information. Don't buy into the "not interested" or "have a better opportunity" excuse. Stand your ground. Suggest that if you could demonstrate that if your spot was far superior to everything else the candidate is considering, wouldn't it make business and career sense just to talk about it for five to 10 minutes? You need to convince the person that the bigger risk is not talking.
  • Stay the buyer from beginning to end. Make the candidate earn the job. If the job is too easy to get, a top person won't want it. Assuming the job is really bigger, you must ask your interview questions in such a way that the candidate needs to convince you she's strong enough to be a finalist for the position.
  • Recruit from beginning to end. Recruiting doesn't start after you've interviewed the candidate; it starts the moment you meet. Early on, suggest that if your open spot is not at least 15% to 20% better than other opportunities the candidate is considering, it's not worth pursuing. But don't limit the definition of "better" to compensation. Also, put into the mix the types of projects involved, the impact the person could make, the opportunity for upward mobility, the company strategy and growth prospect, the industry, the culture, the team, and the hiring manager's leadership skills.
  • Don't move too fast, or too slow, but always move forward. You can't rush a long-term decision. It takes time for a top person to consider various alternatives, but you need to keep the candidate constantly involved gathering more information. Advancing the process is the key concept here. For example, to validate the upward mobility opportunity, have the candidate talk with someone who has been promoted pretty rapidly or is handling bigger projects.
  • Make the candidate earn the right to move forward. Use each step in the selection process (i.e., the next interview) as an opportunity to negotiate parts of a potential final offer. For example, when setting up the second round of interviews, have the candidate agree to a smaller comp increase if the job really offers more significant short-term stretch. Don't forget as part of this discussion that the bigger the stretch, the lighter the candidate is in terms of others you're considering. This is a fair trade off.
  • Get the candidate's personal advisors involved. Top people don't make the decision by themselves. They consult with their friends, family, co-workers, and personal advisors. Provide enough information in order for the candidate to convince his advisory team that your job is the best, even if the compensation isn't. If you ignore this step, the advisory team will focus on the short-term tactical stuff like the biggest comp, the best title, and the shortest drive.
  • Don't make the offer until it's accepted. An "I have to think about it," response is unacceptable. Once you formalize the offer, you've lost applicant control. In this case, you have become the seller and the candidate has become the buyer. Before you formalize the offer, you must get the candidate to agree to every term listed and agree not to take a counter-offer. You do this by testing, testing, and more testing. For example, rather than making the offer, ask the candidate if he'd accept it within 24 hours under the terms listed. If the answer is no, withhold the offer and find out what's preventing the candidate from accepting it. Then, do not make it until the candidate agrees to all of your terms.
While these concepts and ideas helped me become a successful recruiter, I realized after a few years I was still losing searches for preventable reasons.

Most of these had to do with problems with hiring managers and the hiring team. This eventually yielded another important principle, one Mark never revealed to me: client control.

Knowing how to influence your clients and everyone who votes on your candidates allowed me to dramatically increase my billings even further. I'll share these secrets with you in some future article, but for now start learning about and exerting applicant control. Then send me your results, even the ugly ones. I'll send the top dozen a free copy of the 3rd edition of my book, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, June 2007), but the real gift will be a profound increase in your placement rate.


By Lou Adler, reprinted with the permission of Electronic Recruiting Exchange
 BlackDog Recruiting Software Inc.
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