Category
Recruitment musings

Hiring Managers – How to optimize your contingency recruiter relationship

Image by Flickr user luigimengato

It is important for clients and hiring managers  to understand how contingency recruiters think to get the most out of your recruitment relationship. Let me explain:

After 15 years in sales and sales management, I started a contingency recruitment firm called Glenborn Corp. We focus on filling sales roles for VC-backed companies in Ecommerce and Marketing Technology for the past seven years .

When I started the business, asking for retained search business would have been laughable. Recession aside, I could have tried that route, but without any previous external recruiting experience I was bound to remain idle. Almost by default, I went contingency. But while some people consider retained searches to be highbrow and the pinnacle of recruiting, I disagree. I like the contingency approach better.

Contingency firms like ours are easy to work with. At Glenborn we offer great value and service, plus we work with a great variety of firms which keeps things very interesting. Because of our business model, sometimes we take on clients where we end up outlaying effort for no return. But I think those situations are avoidable.

To help you avoid wasting time with contingency recruiters, let me explain how contingency recruiters think. Once you understand our logic, you can work with firms like mine more efficiently.

Plus, you can avoid a worst case scenario: being fired by your recruiter! Yes, that can and does happen, only it’s likely done so stealthily that you might never realize it.

So here’s your Contingency Recruiting 101 lesson. Class is in session.

Contingency & Retained Recruiting Defined

Contingency recruiting is when recruiting firms find candidates for clients but only get paid when we’ve successfully placed people. Companies don’t pay us for our efforts. They pay for our results. They assume that we put forward “best efforts,” though the interpretation of best efforts varies wildly by recruiting firms and clients.

On the other hand, retained recruitment firms receive a retainer (generally a percentage of the placement fee) upfront for their services. Their fees are typically higher than contingency recruitment firms. Plus, the fee is charged whether or not the engagement results in a successful hire. When retained firms place a candidate, they get the remainder of the placement fee. Typically, retained search firms focus on C-Suite executives. Given that the client has paid upfront, they expect a guaranteed amount of effort will be made. There’s also an implied moral obligation for these recruitment firms to produce a steady flow of good candidates.

What Matters Most with External Recruiter Relationships

With any recruiting firm – retained or contingency – you are ultimately looking for a vendor that has wide and deep candidate relationships and great personal service for you and your prospective candidates.

If you can get those two things from a contingency firm, they’re the better option. You’ll pay less fees, maintain fewer contractual obligations, and remove layers between your company and your candidates.

What Contingency Recruiters Want

A contingency recruiter needs to know that they have a good shot at ROI. They outlay effort and costs in the hopes of a successful outcome. You should give them confidence that if they perform, they will be rewarded. Given that recruiters constantly reevaluate their search priorities based on ROI, your goal is to stay on top of that priority list.

Here’s a non-exhaustive, unordered list of what recruiters think about when prioritizing searches:

  • Quality of current pipeline for the role at hand
  • Length and quality of client relationship
  • Quality of feedback from client (can the recruiter learn and improve from client feedback?)
  • Candidate feedback on interview process (including length) and style
  • Attractiveness of client’s space
  • Attractiveness of client vis-à-vis its competitors
  • Attractiveness of the role
  • Rationality of client’s decisions (important!)
  • Current duration of the search
  • Difficulty of search criteria
  • Contract terms: fee percentage and other items
  • Number of other recruiters working on the role (including internal client recruiters)

Practical Tips for Retained-Level Services at Contingency Prices

How do you stay on top of a contingent recruiter’s list of priorities? Let me tell you.Note: points with an asterisk may sound self-serving but they do work!

Do this:

  • Limit the number of recruiters you use. One is great. Two is fine. Three or more is bad business for everyone. As recruiters trip over the same candidates, they’ll back off their efforts for you. Plus, your candidates will be annoyed by the simultaneous outreach, negatively impacting your employer brand.
  • Focus on the quality of your external recruiters. Did they ask you to demo your platform? Ask them to pitch your firm to you as if you were a candidate. Are they convincing? Later on, ask candidates about their experience with the recruitment firm — both on initial outreach and follow up.
  • Recruiters with misinformation cheapen your brand. Make sure they’re up to date on what’s happening.
  • Provide loads of feedback. Did you like their most recent candidate? Why? Why did you pass on the others?
  • Work on your personal relationship with your external recruiters. When you need more attention, maintaining a good relationship with your recruiter helps get you prioritized.
  • Provide loads of detail on the company and its offerings to help recruiters better represent you and your culture. They are candidate-facing. Turn them into the strongest advocates possible.
  • Update recruiters regularly with any changes in the position’s status, i.e. existing offers. If they provide a quality candidate and the role has been filled, that’s not a productive use of anyone’s time.
  • Offer exclusives and bonus percentage points or bounties for extra attention*. You’ve better aligned everyone’s interests.

Definitely don’t do the following:

  • Hire more than two contingency recruiters for the same position.
  • Hire poor quality recruiters who carpet-bomb the candidate landscape or don’t understand how to represent your company or product. They’ll sully your reputation in no time.
  • Beat your recruiters up on price*. Doing so may affect your prioritization, especially if the other factors aren’t in your favor.
  • Leave things hanging with candidates. It wastes time on all fronts. Move forward or cut bait fast.


If you can focus on the above, you’ll get top-notch service at prices you otherwise couldn’t afford. Good luck.