If you have managed to close one recently, congratulations! Now it’s time to successfully deliver to earn the remainder of the fee.
You have pitched for, and won, the retainer on the back of the work you have done to date, coupled with a valued relationship you have built up with your client over time.
Delivery is vital. Now is not the time to mess it all up. The good news is that you don’t need to. The beauty of retained work, for me at least, is the combination of methodical planning, managing expectations and collaboration.
In this article, I will outline five key steps you can take – drawing upon personal experience – to ensure you perform to the highest industry standards.
Set very clear expectations and deadline dates
Let’s jump back a step. Prior to winning the retainer, you would have conducted some initial research.
I won a retainer to identify a CEO. I won’t mention the sector, but the role was based in Karachi, Pakistan. This was an example of a request from a usually contingent client. They wanted me to research the market, identify a longlist, approach them and then jump on a plane to interview face to face.
Each search has very specific challenges. Research fully and understand what the specific challenges will be. In this one, the challenges were that I would need to connect with individuals who would be very tough to contact and then I would have to jump on a plane to meet them.
In the proposal to the client, be extremely concise but realistic about timelines for delivery, interviews, offers and placement. Are there any major holidays that will delay things? Is your client very tough to tie down to an interview time? Factor all of this in and before you win the retainer. Walk the client through the process step by step so both of you are very clear on deadline dates and expectations for the search. The scene is set.
Prepare the long list before approaching
Assuming there is no real urgency, I always suggest to hold off on reaching out to any candidates until you have completed the long list. I always include in the search brief the need to identify candidates that are possibly slightly too junior for the role as well as candidates who are possibly slightly too senior for the role. Leave no stone unturned.
The slightly junior profiles can surprise you and are often ready to step-up. The more senior ones are usually very happy to refer candidates for the search. I would always approach the senior profiles very honestly and tell them that I am looking for referrals. It works a majority of the time.
When I am working on a retained assignment I am always very transparent with clients, and usually I would request a meeting, face to face if possible, so we can discuss the parameters of the search. Do you both feel, at this very early stage, that the list of search profile targets is on point? It is especially important to call out any surprises based on what the expectations were when the search started.
How long is a longlist then? That is a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question. The rule of thumb is that the list generally ends up being longer than you first envisaged. In the Pakistan CEO example above, I guessed it would have been just ten, but it was in fact around twenty five. Typically, however, my longlists have been approximately fifty to sixty names long. In the Tobacco Country Manager example in the last article, the longlists were massive as the client asked me to target pretty much any FMCG business, and not to focus purely on Tobacco.
Prioritise by identifying those candidates who meet the specifications most closely and then work backwards. This can be a common mistake, and I made it – I did not prioritise Tobacco first. Instead, I took a blanket approach which meant I wasted a lot of time mapping profiles we would never need to contact.
Take a very systematic approach
Take a breath…this is not contingent search! You may reach out via your research team or you may do it yourself. I generally take a three step approach. I put a couple of paragraphs together, outline the job and ask if there is any interest. If there is, I would often send a job description for them to study. If they declined to proceed (and for reasons that I also agreed with) then I would often ask for referrals. If I did not agree with their reasoning or if they were keen, I would progress things to a phone call and eventually face to face if circumstances (hello, COVID!) would allow.
At this point, you have built a significant relationship longlist, you have reached out to the individuals on the list and you are beginning to meet candidates. This soon becomes what I call the long shortlist. The long shortlist is the narrowing down of the most qualified and relevant candidates for the search. In a search I conducted in March of this year, my long shortlist contained around twenty individuals. One third of them I felt were spot on, one third were very close and the final third we were on the fence about. Usually you can safely prioritise the candidates in the order of relevance.
It’s time for the client to meet candidates. If possible, get the client to block off some fixed times in the diary. Ideally, block off a couple of days and set up the interviews. By approaching it this way, you can do a far better job of managing the process, the client is in a similar frame of mind across the interviews and the flow of the assignment will continue. This is far more preferable than having interviews strung out over a number of weeks.
Maintain high energy levels and keep up the momentum
Some retained searches are very straightforward. In my experience, more are than not. Some however can go array. Things can go wrong for a number of reasons, for the most part though, this usually happens if the client’s expectations are out of kilter with the candidate base. This should be identified in the initial research but not always.
The job is not completed until it is completed and the successful candidate has taken the role and has started with the client. Occasionally, a client will suspend the search before it has been finalised. There are a number of reasons for this. I have known of cases where an internal candidate asked to be considered for the role and another where a candidate who had previously declined the role changed his mind. Sometimes the client simply has a change of mind or strategy.
Always keep up the enthusiasm levels and momentum however hard it gets. That is how you win the second retainer from the same client!
Arrange a regular feedback session with the client
A great trick is to arrange a regular call with your client. It helps to keep both parties honest. Ideally this would be a weekly call where you discuss the progress of the search, the problems you are facing and the candidates you are proposing.
There’s a lot to do when it comes to delivering a successful retained assignment, but the more retainers you sell, the more practice you’ll get and the better your reputation will be with your client – to the point where you might want to transition into retained search permanently!
Lastly, if you’re exploring recruitment opportunities in Asia, please do not hesitate to connect with me on LinkedIn for some advice and career opportunities.
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