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What’s Wrong with the Search Consultant-Client Relationship? Who is in Charge Here?

Posted on 06/02/2015

This article by Chris Molloy, CEO of RSA, first appeared on Recruitment International on 3rd February 2015.

I just heard a senior exec say that a long-established recruiter had berated them for choosing a different firm to run a search. Discretion requires me to withhold the names, but hang on a minute. What? In which other professional service business would berating your client about their loyalty be anything other than either corporate suicide or subject to excuses of accidentally mimicking Monty Python?

Is it a credible business practise to retain a client by making them fearful that perhaps they will get overlooked for that once-in-a-lifetime role or perhaps that if loyalty is not given a ‘seek-and-remove’ sign will be placed on all their senior staff? And if that is the relationship management style in this industry it is hardly a shock that clients have a jaundiced view of the entire industry. Can you imagine the manager of the Ritz Carlton only giving you a basement room with no windows just because you have a Four Seasons tag on your luggage? It’s bizarre, and it got me thinking.

At a time when we should all be adding value for our clients and thinking on their behalf, highlighting our professional skills and innovation, do we really understand what future successful business relationships will be?

For those of you who think that establishing the fear factor in senior clients works, stop reading now and save yourself time. Good people will always be found by other firms, so a good exec should never be fearful of a search consultant. For the more confident among us, let’s examine how strategic outsourcing of professional services has evolved, and what we should learn from it.

We have lived through a time of massive outsourcing/offshoring, cost-reduction and globalisation. History tells us that this goes in a hype cycle. It starts with a heady race for low unit cost, either through insourcing or distant outsourcing to reduce the perception of external spend. Once the generic areas are commoditised, there comes the realisation that low cost and high quality are rare bedfellows. What then follows is a manic search for a wide portfolio of niche specialists to fill the gaps. Once trial and error have been performed in equal measure, what establish themselves are a small number of strong strategic relationships built on trust, respect for each other’s contributions, joint investment in the long-term relationship, and shared successful business models. Whether in telecoms, finance or hi-tech R&D, this model repeats and repeats. We are seeing this in the talent sector, too, and must look to where history tells us the future will be, rather than trying to protect the past or adopt a model suited only to what will be a passing phase.

As professionals we must think about the longer-term needs of our clients, and how to adopt 21st-century business models and methods to serve them. This means changes in how we do our work, how we charge for our services and how we work with our clients. Just look at how the IT, publishing and healthcare industries have changed from big-ticket into service models, and you’ll get a picture of the seismic change in thinking that is needed to ensure that we innovate to support our clients for the future.

The relationships we build in our specialist markets are, of course, critical to our success. However, the nature of the client relationship will also change. As longer-term strategic partnerships become the norm, talent advisory and other, more innovative professional services – not simply the mechanics of recruitment – will be the norm, too. These should exploit the deep knowledge and networks of the best talent firms and include managed services for long-term talent provision, in-house versus external talent analysis, and strategic advisory on long-term global talent trends and locations for expansion.

Finally, it’s about professionalism. As a hiring exec and board member for 25 years before leading a specialist talent advisory firm, I developed concern about the level of professionalism in the senior recruiting industry. If we as an industry are to change that perception and have a strategic seat at the table – as peers, not providers – we need to start acting more like our clients and less like their predators. For as long as some people adopt a fee-hungry, threatening posture, that is exactly how we will all be perceived. Our services can be transformational, valued and strategic when well partnered, and that is the future for the best firms, specialist and general. Relationships will reflect the fact that both parties have their own skills to the table for a joint-ownership of the problem and a share in the success of finding and placing great talent. In the meanwhile, a little bit of sunlight, and some new talent in our own sector may serve as a good disinfectant for everyone…

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