Is It Really That Difficult to Get Retainers?

QUESTION: I had one retained search of $50,000 last year. I want to get more, but my thinking is it’s tough to get retainers on anything that is not the director level or hire. Do you find this to be true? 

ANSWER: As long as you think it is tough to get retainers, it will be tough to get retainers.  Now, are retainers simple? No. It is an art. I really got involved in getting engagement fees in my business in the mid-1990s in a space that never paid retainers because “Mike, you don’t understand.  Nobody pays retainers in my niche.” Hogwash! Whenever I am doing a public presentation I always ask the group for the reasons people are going to pay a retainer. Hands go up and they say, because they are paying for my time. No one cares about your time. What I find is recruiters are very me-centric. While this is true, it does not benefit the client.  

Retainers and engagements work really well when you have a really good recruiter that when the client gives them an assignment they are going to see great talent. I have found to sell retainers I was reference checkable. Before I ever sold a retainer and somebody wanted to check my references, you might ask how they checked references on retainers if you have never sold retainers?  

They checked my references with clients I did contingency and that I did fulfillment with. I just told the clients, do not share what our financial arrangement is. It is none of their business. Tell them anything you want about my capability, my knowledge of the space, my ability to deliver, the timing, the quality, all that stuff, open, fair, talk about it. However, we were at our peak 97% engaged in a niche that rarely paid retainers at staff level positions, meaning frontline salespeople, frontline engineers.  

The key to getting retainers is asking really, really good questions and having them understand the consequences of them leaving the position open. You cannot tell them what the consequences are. It is a simple series of questions that requires some knowledge in their space.  

So what happens, Mr. or Ms. Hiring Manager, if this position is still not filled in July or August? What is going to happen inside your organization if this position remains open?  

My experience when I have asked that question is they are not really sure. You have to stay there with them. No pain, no retainer. People buy retainers, invest in retaining you, because (1) you have created clarity on what the consequences for them not filling the position, (2) you have demonstrated phenomenal knowledge about their niche by asking really, really good questions to qualify the search, and (3) there is something you have said in your prescription, meaning your process, that shows them you are going to be able to find 3 or 4 people within a month.  That is really the core of it.  

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