Often recruitment consultants are like estate agents, they're good at the hard sell but frequently fail to deliver. Tim Latham discusses some of the pitfalls and gives some golden rules on how to ensure that you get the most out of any recruitment consultant....

I sold my house recently and having had plenty of previous experience with estate agents (both as buyer and seller), I decided to try and avoid using them and do it myself. I thought I would be saving myself a good deal of money, as well as saving potential buyers the traumas of dealing with slick estate agents.

I wish I could say that I was successful in selling privately, but I had to revert to using an estate agent, who promised the earth in terms of quality service. After I agreed to use him he reverted to type and delivered the bare minimum – but at least he found a buyer.

During the course of many years in recruitment consultancy I have met plenty of clients who see recruiters as akin to the type of estate agent I described above. They promise the earth, deliver very little and then charge a fee that seems disproportionate to the amount of work performed – but they are a necessary evil!

If so many of us have disappointing experiences at the hands of recruiters, why is that? Before I incur the wrath of both the recruitment and estate agency communities, I must point out that I wouldn't want to "tar an entire sector with the same brush" – I know there are very good recruiters, and I expect there are excellent estate agents – I just haven't had the pleasure of meeting one yet.

First and foremost is the issue of sales orientation of the "consultant". If I am selling my house the agenda is normally fairly clear – I want an agent to secure me a buyer that is willing to pay the highest price, in a reasonable timescale. While it would be nice to deal with an agent that has listened carefully, thought deeply about the issues and adopted a consultancy approach, essentially

I am hiring a salesman and the service that he delivers is a sale. Look at advertisements for recruitment consultants and invariably, either in plain language or lightly coded, will be the requirement for a strong sales background or orientation. Compare this with advertisements for most other forms of consultancy and the contrast in the emphasis given to sales experience is marked.

Clearly selling is important, and none of us would have businesses if we didn't make sales but, if recruitment firms employ salespeople it is hardly surprising that what they will enjoy doing most, and will therefore put most effort into, is selling.

So, not only do too many recruiters pay too little attention to delivering a service, but worryingly many appear to view the assignment itself as a sales exercise. While part of what recruitment is about is presenting opportunities "in a positive light" there is a vast difference between that and press-ganging candidates into believing that the opportunity is "made for them".

When conducting a search the degree of "selling" to candidates increases but generally speaking, the recruiter who has to hard sell clients to candidates and vice versa, has failed to cover the field properly and is probably looking to find a quick fix.

The value of experience
Have you noticed how, like policemen, recruiters are getting younger these days? There are some excellent young recruiters around and even some whose entire working life has been in recruitment. However, it must be better that a recruiter has experience of the wider world and to have line management responsibility – otherwise it is difficult to make fine judgements about such things in others. Would you feel happy having your freshest graduate trainee interviewing and making key decisions on the potential new managing director? Probably not!

The "war for talent" is, quite rightly, much debated these days and is probably constantly on the agenda of most top executives. Those who succeed in attracting and retaining talent of the highest calibre need to have many elements in place from recruitment through to development, reward and work/life balance. But any system is only as strong as its weakest link and unfortunately those same recruiters who talk the talk sometimes turn out to be the weakest link.

I have developed my "Golden Rules" for using recruitment consultants. Ask yourself:

  • would you feel comfortable dealing with this person if you were a candidate?
  • does the consultant listen to what you are saying or does he/she give the impression of already knowing all the answers?
  • do they bring genuine experience from outside recruitment – ideally in an area that has relevance to you?
  • how many other assignments are they working on at the moment? Too few – why are others not using them? Too many – unless they are superhuman you are not going to see or hear much of them
  • are they demonstrating that they can add value or is the consultant overly "salesy"?
  • do they have the intellectual horsepower to be seen as credible by you, candidates and others (such as sources) that they will come into contact with during the assignment?
  • do you feel comfortable dealing with them? If the "gut feeling" is wrong either get more information on them, or go elsewhere.

    A good recruiter is an amalgam of estate agent, surveyor and solicitor. They find the appropriate talent for you, assess it objectivity, and delve into the detail to ensure that you don't get any nasty surprises after the purchase. Balancing these roles is what the most skilled recruiters are good at. There may be times when you only want to buy the sales and marketing element – but do so with your eyes open, otherwise you will be disappointed.

  • Tim Latham is the principal of Director Resourcing, a London-based recruitment consultancy – director-resourcing.com.