1. Test their industry knowledge. How well connected are the search firm’s recruiters to your industry? What kind of talent network do they have set up? And what individual experience does each recruiter bring? As recruiting guru Dr. John Sullivan recently stated, “One of the biggest problems facing [corporations] these days isn't the shortage of applicants, but rather the shortage of great recruiters.” Look for a search firm with deep connections inside your industry. Moreover, the best firms employ recruiters who have worked inside companies, have experience working on significant hires, and who are well respected in the industry.
2. Determine what priority will be given to your search. Is the search firm capable of providing you the resources you need, when you need them? An independent headhunter may not be able to take on additional searches at the time that you need them most. A large firm may not be able to assign their star recruiters, if you aren’t one of their key accounts. Smaller firms often take a more personalized approach and work to create fewer, but deeper, client relationships. Judge a search firm not by its size, but by its capability to provide the best partnership and most recruiting power when you need it.
3. Grill them on their process. Ask the search firm to explain its process for filling positions. The search firm you work with should have a proven process for consistently locating and attracting the best talent. The firm should offer both a comprehensive search strategy and an effective candidate evaluation methodology. You also want a search firm that’s communicative and provides frequent updates on its progress throughout the process.
4. Determine their level of accountability. Establish how accountable the search firm is by asking for some guarantees right up front. Will the search firm guarantee it will provide a specified number of “qualified” candidates? Will it promise a specific timeframe for the search? What is your financial obligation to the search firm if the referral ends up coming from someone within your company? And what if you hire a candidate for a position other than the assigned search? Make sure all of these questions are answered to your liking before signing any agreement.
5. Examine their track record. In general, the best predictor of a search firm’s future behavior is its past behavior. How many jobs has the search firm filled in your specific industry or discipline category? Of the searches it’s begun in the last one to three years, how many has it successfully completed? Reliable sources indicate that “name” retained firms achieved 65 percent to 75 percent completion, while for contingency agencies it can be as low as 5 percent to 10 percent. Is the firm attracting repeat business? Be sure you thoroughly review the search firm’s track record. Also, make sure to always check multiple client references.
6. Look for added value. Evaluate the firm’s placement guarantee and final product. Some search firms deliver a final report that includes all information generated as a result of the search. This may include the recruiting strategy, the position marketing assets, research on industry talent, resumes generated, candidates presented and reference checks. A firm that isn’t willing to share this data may be depriving you of significant lasting value that was collected on your behalf.
If choosing an executive search firm feels like a defensive move rather than a positive consultative experience, you may be selecting the wrong firm. Before signing on with any search firm, make sure it is set up to help you locate, screen and hire the best talent around, while providing you top value for your money.