Headhunters Can Survive the Recruitment Evolution (5 Problems 5 Solutions)

An headhunter is calling candidates

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Introduction: Headhunters & Recruitment

The world of recruitment is broken, not working. Every day on our LinkedIn feeds we read stories about the dissatisfaction of candidates, companies, hiring managers and headhunters with the recruitment process. 

Rightly or wrongly in most cases the stories are about headhunters and do not paint them in the best of ways, with complaints with respect to their specific performance and their role in general. The growing dissatisfaction of candidates and customers is leading many startups to try to find alternative solutions to headhunters, and it is probably only a matter of time before someone succeeds in making a disruption in this sector equal to that made by Uber in local transportation, or by Spotify in music enjoyment. 

I do not want to paint a funeral scenario for headhunters, but I do want to warn them and help them identify problems and solutions to avoid or at least govern future disruption.

I also speak from personal experience, in my life I think I have had about 500 interviews of which approximately half were with headhunters, and I must say that I retain good memories of about 15 headhunters for whom I feel professional respect. Quite often I found myself talking to recent graduates who did not have much professionalism and expertise and who did not have the desire to understand my professional profile, ambitions and inclinations, but simply fished in the heap, hoping to be able to present some good candidates to their clients in the shortest possible time. 

I have also had experience working directly with some headhunters as an hiring manager of companies that use them and I must say that I was rarely satisfied with the work they did, very often I ended up with generic candidate shortlists that seemed to be evaluated by a CV parser (on paper the keywords of their CVs were a good match with the role, but only on paper) instead of real experts in human resources research and evaluation who offer real added value.

That is the key to this headhunters survival guide, value-added. Headhunting services are expensive and must justify their cost; they must offer real, measurable value added that they very often do not have today. Let’s look at 5 major problems with headhunting work today and then discover 5 possible solutions to reinvent the headhunting profession in the future and give it the respect and esteem of candidates and clients once again.

5 Headhunting Problems

Let’s go back briefly to those articles or posts in the LinkedIn feed in which candidates’ and clients’ complaints about headhunters (and sometimes, but more rarely, criticisms of headhunters to their interlocutors). What is most striking is not so much the quantity of these posts, but the engagement they consistently generate with dozens and sometimes hundreds of comments, likes and re-shares. 

This great activity and participation is indicative not only of the issue, but also of how it is felt emotionally by the actors involved. Come to think of it, it’s a natural thing: headhunters are expected to interface with and evaluate human beings and deliver those evaluations to clients, and no one likes to be judged. It is an elementary psychological concept: the role of headhunter requires you to judge people with speed, and people very often feel that they are not judged fairly or with the professionalism that such a role requires.

Yours is not an easy job, you are under great pressure from clients (internal recruiters and hiring managers) and candidates, and in a sense you are between a rock and a hard place constantly. A number of issues clearly emerge from this situation of constant pressure:

  • dissatisfaction of customers who often do not see or appreciate your value added and struggle justify your cost
  • dissatisfaction of candidates who often feel pre-judged or not judged according to objective parameters, or worse feel disrespected professionally and personally
  • the impossibility of being superman/wonder woman, a human Wikipedia, all-knowing, all-can-doers
  • the difficulty in maintaining balanced and professional relationships with clients and their constant changes in strategy
  • wrongly selected candidates who fail the probationary period and undermine success fees and relationship over time with the client

Let us review each of these problems in more detail.


Dissatisfied Clients

Often headhunter clients are dissatisfied with the results achieved by him/her and for this reason change headhunting agencies all the time, or request to work with another recruiter within the same agency. 

The truth is that it takes very little to sour the relationship of trust between headhunter and client, even just a failed process or a chosen candidate who turns out to be unsuitable can spell the end of a years-long relationship. 

This happens because of a substantial imbalance between what headhunters today offer and what clients expect from them. 

Clients think that since they are paying expensive success fees to external recruiters, they should solve all their problems and bring solutions (in the form of ideal candidates) that are always successful and winning. 

This is simply unrealistic for a number of reasons: headhunters control only a small part of the selection process and clients cannot feel de-empowered by the final choices made, headhunters are not omniscient all-knowers who can fully really understand the technical characteristics of candidates and finally there is a basic misunderstanding, when it comes to human beings there is no exact science, algorithm that can guarantee infallible choices, not now or ever. 

Personally in the role of hiring manager I have very often found myself evaluating headhunters not positively, but not negatively either, simply in the final debrief with the human resources of the companies I worked for I often found myself saying, ‘I didn’t find much value added in the services offered by the headhunter’ in short I never found myself saving much time through the help of headhunters, except in a couple of cases, using boutique agencies on very specific roles where the external recruiters actually brought specific expertise that was valuable in identifying correct resources. 

Always remember to be transparent with respect to what you can actually offer your clients, follow the saying ‘under promise and over deliver’ because much of the disappointment and frustration of clients comes from incentivized wishful thinking and unattainable promises that are made at the beginning of processes by many headhunters. 

I remember a mid-level CRM manager position that we could not fill with internal recruiting resources (we were only receiving profiles that were too junior or too senior) we turned to a headhunting agency that promised us quick success and to have candidates ready for us, the reality that the candidates in question had the same characteristic (too junior or too senior) and for this reason we stopped using this agency that only made us vain promises.


Unhappy Candidates

Let’s start with a principle: always remember that you have two customers, one who pays you directly and one who allows this payment to happen (the candidates). Some headhunters forget this for the simple reason that there are so many candidates and therefore it is easy to think that ‘one is as good as the other’ having done this reasoning the next step is simply not to have the due respect for candidates and to treat them as a number, a mere interchangeable means to achieve their end, pocketing the success fee. If you are among them, stop reading this post; nothing will save you.

The truth is that headhunting is not for everyone, there are basic skills that seem trivial and obvious, but that not everyone possesses, it takes: organization, respect, accuracy, punctuality, constant study (updating), professionalism and communication skills. 

How many times have I been approached for roles clearly unrelated to my professional profile? How many times have I received invitations to online calls without the link to the meeting (or with the link but with the headhunter not showing up and not warning)? And how many times have I been called in emails and LinkedIn messages with a name other than my own?

Too many.

These are the basics of earning the trust and respect of candidates; everyone can make inattentions, but it is important to admit them and apologize. 

Candidates often complain that they feel they are treated like numbers, like cannon fodder by inexperienced headhunters, they also feel that they are treated with a kind of implicit exercise of power (I can decide your professional future) that results in the worst cases in a behavior of condescension and haughtiness toward candidates. It goes without saying that this should not happen and that, although in many cases it is only a figment of the imagination of the candidates themselves, you headhunters must always remember that you are evaluating people, not numbers, and this causes inevitable emotional reactions.

I remember one headhunter who always contacted me for positions lower than my current one (both in seniority and salary), while he never responded when I contacted him for positions that he managed that were of interest to me and represented real career advancement. After a few years, upon yet another request to participate in a selection process for a disqualifying position, I came to my own conclusion: this headhunter thinks I am a second-rate candidate and only offers me positions that he cannot fill, so I explicitly told him that there was clearly no proper assessment of my professional qualities and that there was no basis for collaboration now and in the future. The headhunter in question lost a client, a valuable candidate, who has earned six figures headhunting success fees over the years, but his agency also lost a potential client, since every time they appoint me the famous headhunting agency at which he works and for positions for which I am the hiring manager I refuse to work with them (always remember that today’s and yesterday’s candidates are tomorrow’s hiring managers…).

Let’s close the topic related to candidate satisfaction by remembering that we are no longer in the 90s, any mistake, any disrespect, any impropriety or simply no response can become a trending topic on Twitter and LinkedIn and destroy your reputation and that of your agency.


Headhunters Are Not Superheroes 

As we have mentioned, very often clients and candidates demand a lot, perhaps too much, from headhunters.

Let’s face it once and for all, headhunters are not superheroes who can do everything; they do not have a magic wand to solve problems instantly. 

Where does this misunderstanding come from? 

On the one hand, there are unrealistic expectations on the part of clients and candidates who think or delude themselves that they are interfacing with dedicated and exclusive resources who spend the entirety of their time taking care of them and their recruitment projects. Obviously, this cannot be the case and this causes frustrations: candidates would like continuous and personalized updates, hiring managers would like to dictate the timing and manner of the process (even when they have clear shortcomings about their responsibilities and activities to be carried out in the processes) and this is not feasible for headhunters who often find themselves working on parallel projects with the same client and different ones.

On the other hand, there are also promises made by the headhunters, or by the contract sellers that are unrealistic and in part nip these expectations in the bud (especially in the client).

Added to this is another fundamental problem, the headhunter in the vast majority of cases is not a technical expert in the positions he/she is called upon to work on, he/she may have a cursory and high-level knowledge, but not a specific and professional one of the different roles he/she follows. And it is perfectly normal for this to be the case, no one is a living encyclopedia with all human knowledge infused into him or her, however, an underlying misunderstanding has been created over time that leads candidates and clients to believe that headhunters are knowledgeable in the subject matter of their search, they simply are not (except in very rare and expensive cases) and it is not right that they should be.

Mind you, headhunters should inform themselves and have a generic, first-level knowledge of the subject/area of expertise they cover, but they can never become true experts, for one simple reason: they don’t have the time, they do another job!

Again, there is some malice in those who sell headhunting services, often the team specializing in an expertise is sold as a team that can assess technical skills and this is not true, nor should be the purpose of a headhunter’s work.

I was recently working for a startup in gaming and needed to expand the team by hiring very vertical and technical figures specific to the world of online mobile gaming. I find an agency that specializes in these types of figures that promises me the ability to select candidates for whom I honestly do not have the technical skills to make a meaningful assessment. Weeks later I find myself with junior candidates discarded by other companies and speaking stunted English, the real area of expertise of this headhunting agency was speaking Russian and then offering me candidates from that area of the world, nothing more and nothing less. Of course we closed the contract.

Our startup, ExpHire is in the business of providing companies, but also smart headhunters, with qualified Technical Experts in the same area of search as a role, but with more seniority, who can thoroughly assess the hard skills of candidates. ExpHire allows you to offer a new and more qualified service to your clients.

Clients Don’t Know What They Want

So far we have analyzed problems that are mainly related to headhunters’ attitudes toward the work they are called upon to do, however, there are also problems they experience that affect the perceived quality of their work. 
Truth is headhunters have to deal very often with clients who change their minds and direction many times in the selection processes as they go along, and this can become very frustrating. 
Managing the relationship with clients becomes in this scenario, very complex, always torn between two fires: always and in any case satisfying their requests and as pandering in this way to their undecided attitude, or risk losing the client by remaining inflexible or little permeable to requests for changes in profiles, candidate seniority and available budget.

Generally, headhunters choose to pander to the client in their indecisions and changes of direction, but I believe this approach is wrong and somehow disqualifies the entire category, which loses its autonomy and prestige to become a kind of lapdog of internal recruiting departments and hiring managers. 

Asserting your professionalism is important to establish and reaffirm its existence first and to avoid becoming a toy in the hands of clients.

There is a famous saying that goes: clear pacts long friendship. Sometimes you are asked to start selection processes in too much of a hurry, without doing the due work of analyzing and mapping business needs in general and those related to the role sought in particular. 

Typically the client is in a hurry and the reason they very often hire is simply to replace someone who has resigned; the headhunter is also in a hurry, because the sooner they start the sooner they finish and pocket their success fee, but haste is always bad advice.

Haste has as its first consequence the running change of direction in personnel searches, ideas become clear when the process has already started, sometimes when it is about to end, and this negatively impacts the professional and in some cases personal lives of headhunters.

We have been working on the ExpHire Recruitment Canvas, a summary document that is the basis of every recruitment process and that identifies and makes manifest, by sharing them, all the main elements of each hiring search. This document comes even before the job description and may result in the actual need not to hire staff. I realize that this is very risky for headhunters, but let’s be honest, how many times have you arrived at the conclusion of a recruitment process to be told by the client: ‘we decided not to hire and to divide the duties of this role among internal resources’, or to assign it to an already employed resource, the result is the same, only it comes at the end of hard, unnecessary work that you will not be paid for.
We recommend adopting a template similar to our ExpHire Recruiting Canvas (which we make available to everyone) to start each project with clients in the best possible way and as a reference point and compass for the entire selection process. The document, once drafted, must be shared and approved by key stakeholders, and if changes really need to be made, they must be shared and approved by everyone, including the headhunter.  

Candidates Who Fail the Probationary Period

The terror of headhunters are the candidates who do not pass the probationary period and who were chosen from the shortlist handed over to the client.
The first reason is that very often headhunting contracts include a clause to pay a part of the success fee only when the trial period is passed, or provide for compensation for part of it (when failure happens), or compensate with a new recruiting process for free or heavily discounted.

Added to the economic problem is another of greater importance: client trust.

As seen headhunter clients are very fickle and even one unsuccessful recruitment process can easily erase the history of many successful past ones.
Clients have short memories and if dissatisfied look around for alternative recruitment solutions. In the client’s eyes and in practice hiring a person who fails the probationary period is much more serious than not finding an ideal candidate for a position. 

The concept of blame comes into play: someone has made a bad decision that has wasted the company’s time and money and will require more to start over. Blame has a characteristic, it always has to find a home, it always has to be associated with a name, and as you can easily see it is convenient for everyone to put the blame on the headhunters.
Here’s the usual solution: the headhunter got the selection and shortlisting wrong, and that’s why the the decision we made to avoid such problems in the future is to change headhunting agency.

Problem solved…

How can you minimize these situations? We believe that in most cases there are two reasons that lead to a failure to pass the probationary period: lack of the candidates’ specific technical skills (which for whatever reason did not come up in the interviews) and behavioral issues of the new hires. 

ExpHire offers Technical and Behavioral Experts to support selection processes that greatly reduce these undesirable eventualities, the help of these figures, which you can resell as headhunters to your clients helps you not only to increase the value of each and every recruitment project, but to retain clients over time due to the increased level of long term hiring success.

Two recruiters interview a candidate

5 Ways to Reinvent Headhunting

The problems are many and complex, we have analyzed five of them, but we now want to focus on more proactive aspects, on creating together with headhunters a new profession that can satisfy clients more and be perceived by all the actors involved in the recruitment process as bringing added value and worthy of professional respect and esteem.

I want to focus on 5 aspects that can help bring greater dignity and prestige to the role of headhunter and ensure longevity and safety from possible disruption:  

  • sell only what you actually do, under promise and over deliver
  • introduce a new way of paying for your professional services
  • coordinate with real experts to support clients in selection processes
  • increase the average spending value of clients and their LTV 
  • reclaim the relationship with candidates by defining their area of expertise early on


I am going to detail each of these activities designed to reinvent the position of the headhunter.


Repeat Until You (don’t) Get Bored

Corporations work on very large projects so very often individual employees lose the big picture and can find themselves feeling like a cog within a large machine, there are contexts in which this factor is mitigated by corporate sharing of information and collaboration between different teams, but also contexts in which for reasons of secrecy it is forbidden for employees in one area of a company that is working on a new product to talk about it with colleagues not involved. Some companies allow information to be passed on a so-called ‘need to know basis,’ you are informed only if you really need to know and be exposed to a piece of information. This lack of project overview can be frustrating for some people who feel over time detached from the company’s strategy and loose their passion for what they do. 

Typical work in large companies is very repetitive, you are called upon to fill a role and do it to the best of your ability for a few years, until you are eventually promoted to another role with a different and new specific purpose, but still with the same repetitive approach. Rightly so, great companies have become such because they pursue excellence and achieve it through the use of very specialized and focused human resources. It must be recognized that the combination of adjacent excellences is the basis of the success of large companies, and it is also worth remembering that if work were not managed in this way it would be total chaos, in other words in a complex machine there are not 2 gears doing the same thing, it is not efficient, and if such a situation arises the machine could break down. 

Given these elements it becomes a priority to identify people who have specific passions and who intend to stay in the same very defined role for at least a few years, people who are passionate about a project or part of a project and who do not have the continuous need to have an overview, and above all people who are not easily bored. 

There are also those candidates who have a specific passion and who are good for filling a role for 3-4 years within a large company and then continuing their career path elsewhere (you should not exclude such candidates because they can also be a great asset for large companies in filling very specific and technical roles). 

You need to be able to identify these characteristics in candidates, and usually you should rely on the analysis of CVs and the length of tenure in individual companies and positions in the candidate previous career path, but you need to go beyond that by trying to understand during interviews the specific motivations behind each change. 

Large companies also need to be very frank and transparent, not promising, dynamism and overview, cross-functional projects and variety of work for tasks and roles that do not inherently have these characteristics, no one likes to be deceived…



Don’t Sell Smoke

Over the years, due to competition among different headhunting agencies there has been a tendency to promise and sell clients more and more, to raise their expectations regarding the use of headhunting services. This needs to stop, we need to return to a more realistic approach to the actual scope of work and real responsibilities of headhunters, we need to humanize the headhunter and sell him or her from the outset as a fallible being who makes mistakes in judgment like everyone else. Based on this premise, customer disappointments disappear, in favor of greater process cooperation: together we can help reduce the risk inherent in every new hire (not eliminate it altogether).

I worked in a company whose mantra was surprise and delight, always find the world to surprise and delight your customers, it’s not a game of lowering expectations, it’s about agreeing on credible and achievable goals and surprising customers from time to time by achieving something extra or unexpected than the set goals.



Change Business Model

The current business model of headhunting agencies in almost all cases involves a success fee model, in which each recruiter is paid a percentage of the annual salary offered to the chosen candidate (usually between 15 percent and 25 percent). I believe this model is at the root of many of the problems in the recruitment world and the bad reputation that headhunters have.

A model structured in this way inevitably pushes headhunters to be in a hurry to close selection processes in order to pocket their fee and focus on other roles and clients. Candidates feel they are treated as numbers and perceive haste, clients likewise want to avoid being victims of haste and often change the scope of their selections, aware that this does not have a cost consequence (the work done by headhunters up to that point is simply ignored).

This business model also has a more subtle consequence: it disqualifies the work of headhunters, who are measured on a single parameter (success or failure) and not on the work done to achieve it.

It is time to question this business model and treat professional recruitment like any other professional consulting service: those who use a service pay according to the time and seniority of the resources used, simple as that. At the limit, a small success fee can be provided if the candidate who is actually hired is identified from the shortlist of candidates presented by the headhunter. 

I realize that I am proposing a Copernican revolution in the business model and that this may represent too great a risk, but I am certain that it is one of the ways to reevaluate the professional figure of the headhunter and at the same time guarantee its existence over time.


Become a Recruitment Owner

As we have seen, being an expert all-rounder is not possible, and trying to sell an experience and expertise that one does not possess as a headhunter is not productive in the medium to long term. To each his own role and task.

Headhunters are not technical experts in a specific subject nor are they professional and qualified psychologists, they cannot and should not be called upon to judge the technical skills and the attitudinal and behavioral skills of candidates. 

Headhunters, however, have the experience to be able to put the pieces of a puzzle together, that is, to coordinate recruitment processes and make sure that all elements are considered before the client makes a right decision. 

In the corporate world, there are product owners who interface internally and externally with the team to make sure that the product is released as expected (by the company, the team, and the end consumers). 

The headhunter should do something similar for recruiting processes: be the point of interchange between technical, behavioral, hiring manager, and internal recruiter experts to certify that each element of the candidates has been validated and to add their subject matter expertise in guiding final decisions. The headhunter draws the recruitment map together with the other stakeholders and ensures that the treasure is reached only after going through all the intermediate steps.

ExpHire is willing to collaborate to achieve this goal, the redefinition of the very role of the headhunter from a simple sourcer of profiles to the owner and coordinator of the entire process.


Get Happier and More Valuable  Clients

The current headhunting job can become very stressful, always having to chase the changing demands of clients, having to work in parallel on several projects, the risk of not collecting one’s fees, accompanied by the inability to be a technical expert can easily cause burn out. Everything is simplified with the proposed solutions because they give more perceived value to clients.
If you want to differentiate your offering from the competition you can offer, the technical and behavioral candidate assessment services offered by ExpHire in a completely transparent manner to your clients who will perceive you as an innovative and unique headhunter. Ancillary, but key, advantage is that you can top up your margin on the ExpHire services offered your clients, increasing the average value of your revenue per position (even if you want to continue working with the success fee model). 
Your customers’ satisfaction increases because the search result improves and the perceived added value of your services increases. This leads to greater loyalty of your clients over time and a lower churn rate, which not only allows for a better work-life balance (you won’t have to constantly chase new clients), but also allows you to increase the average lifetime value of your clients while improving your profits over time.

Re-Establish a Good Relationship with Candidates

In this renewed view and interpretation of the role of headhunter as an owner of the selection process and not just as a sourcer of profiles, candidates will have reasons to rebuild the relationship with you.
It is important to communicate to candidates the complexity of your new role, but also the fact that in this new process, you are no longer the gatekeeper, the person who arbitrarily decides whether or not candidates are shortlisted. your assessments are now supported by technical and behavioral experts and shared holistically in the selection process, which becomes more fair and impartial to candidates.
You become the guarantor of the process itself and the person who ensures that the best informed choices are made by client companies.
This puts an end to the endless string of LinkedIn posts denigrating headhunters, who in this new meaning become the allies and supporters of candidates who prove to be truly the best for a given position.

Conclusion: Lesson Learned for Headhunters

The problems in the world of recruiting and its processes are many; often, rightly or wrongly, headhunters end up becoming the barrel dumper, the ones with the buck when selections do not go their way.

It’s time to change the status quo; it’s time to give new luster to the headhunter profession and redesign it with the needs of clients and candidates in mind, but also your own. You need to enhance and define your job, before chronic problems, criticism, and low esteem at the moment make it obsolete, we think many of our proposals can be a good place to start. 

What problems do you encounter in the daily practice of your work as a headhunter? What solutions are you putting in place to avoid the inevitable disruption?

ExpHire: White Label Solution for Headhunters

ExpHire may be viewed by headhunters as a competitor, and partially we are, but smart recruiters are able to see that we also represent a great opportunity to increase headhunters’ earnings and reputation. The old saying goes: if you can’t eliminate them, join them, and that’s what we propose. Take advantage our Experts to offer your clients a unique and distinctive service, earn more money and retain each of them over time through our white label services

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