1). What is the difference between contingency and retainer search firms and how do I work with them?

Recruiting Firms

One of the most misunderstood aspects of the search process is the role of the executive recruiter or headhunter. While recruiters are extremely important in your search, they are not the be all or end all. In general, fewer than 25% of all assignments are filled by headhunters, though the figure is much higher in marketing and its related areas. Headhunters can be one of the key resources for you as you conduct your search not only in terms of talking to you about specific assignments, but in providing direction for you as well.

Recruiting firms function in one of two ways, either on a retainer basis or a contingency basis. A retainer firm is paid by their client (the hiring company) before they begin recruiting on the assignment. They are working on that assignment exclusively (why should the company pay two fees?) so their responsibility is to present qualified and interested candidates to that company. The drawback from your standpoint is that a retainer firm can only talk to you about assignments that they are working on. In some cases, it will be either feast or famine. Still, as we will see in a few moments, these firms can still be an invaluable resource.

Contingency firms receive payment only if they fill the position so it is not unusual for the same assignment to be with a number of recruiters. Unfortunately, you are apt to run into firms that will say and do anything in order to get you and / or your resumé in front of a company. It requires that you manage the process carefully, that you keep detailed lists as to who talked to you about what company, what assignment and when.


Questions to Ask The Recruiting Firm

In General (Retainer and Contingency)

  • How much of their work is on retainer?
  • Is this particular assignment on retainer?
  • How long has the recruiting firm been in business?
  • How much of their work is done in marketing?
  • Who are some of their larger clients?

Contingency Firms

  • How long have they recruited for this company?
  • How many people have they placed at this company?
  • Which division of the company is the assignment in?
  • What is the specific assignment we’re talking about (ie: VP/New Business)?
  • Who is their contact? If a contingency firm is really working closely with this particular company they should tell you who they are going to present your resumé to. If they can’t give you a name, be careful. They might be using your resumé as an entre into that company and obviously you don’t need them for that. You could do the same thing yourself.
  • Does this recruiting firm understand that your resumé is not to leave their office until all of the preceding questions have been answered regarding each company they propose?

As we already mentioned, recruiting firms can be a good resource for you in other ways. A good recruiting firm will be aware of other things that are going on in the country that might be appropriate for you. As part of your networking effort, try and develop a rapport with certain recruiters. Meet them for lunch. Approach them for advice and counsel. The ultimate goal, of course, is leads. Don’t expect a recruiter to necessarily provide you with advice and counsel, particularly if they don’t have an appropriate assignment. These are the times you need to be creative in order to develop those leads.

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