QUESTION: Mike, I have been trying to get into a retained search with my existing clients who I have had a lot of success with for the past 3 years.  One of the things they are looking for is a team of recruiters, but I am only a solo recruiter as they all know.  Any advice to re-create the image?  Any success stories regarding solo recruiting running a retained business?  Thank you.  – Alex, Boston

ANSWER: Most of my solo recruiters get retained business.  I am just going based on what you have, so I will be a little bit generic.  With an existing client I know what they are thinking is, “Why should we give you a retainer because we are giving you contingency and it is working?”.  One of the things I always teach is enter the conversation going on in the prospect or the client’s mind.  They are thinking, “Why change?”

When they buy a retainer, what are they really buying?  When I ask that question to prospects, they usually come up with, and these are all true, they are buying my expertise, they are buying my time, they are buying my effort, my ability to go deep.

Secondary truth, what has occurred is they have created something in the conversation that pretty much assured, with a small amount of risk, that the position would be filled.  They are going to send you $5,000 or $10,000 on the front end.  You have done something in the conversation vis a vis doing a diagnostic on what is not working for them right now and what you are going to do to fix it that convinces them that your way of doing business is superior and worth the greater up front investment.

I began selling retainers before I had recruiters on my team.  I am not sure why they wanted team recruiters.  Now, if they want to fill five or ten openings in sixty days, which is probably real difficult to fill as a solo.

I would ask the question and the following conversation occurs:

“What is it that you think you are going to get with a team of recruiters that you not going to get with me, where this is what I worked day and night on your behalf if it is one opening.”

“Well, we think we will get more people working on it.”

“So is it your perception that if a firm has multiple recruiters they are going to have three, four, or five people drop what they are doing and work on your assignment?”

“Well yeah.”

“Did you ask them if that is what is going to happen?  When you talk about using multiple recruiters or a firm with multiple recruiters what exactly, specifically, and precisely did they say the process was that they would attack your opening with?”

“Well, I did not ask.”

“I am not saying they are not going to put a team of recruiters on it.  I am saying, here is what I am going to do.  I am going to put together a list of eighty to ninety individuals that can do this job.  I am going to email them.  I am going to leave voicemails for them.  I am going to give seven attempts over a course of three to four weeks.  I am going to have conversations with about 75% to 80% of that list.  After seven attempts, 20 to 25% of that list is not going to get back to me.  One thing that is going to scream at me pretty clearly is that they are not making a move right now.”

Take them through the whole process that you are going to do.  Is there anything I have not make clear as to why that process will not be a great process, not necessarily a better one, to get this position filled?

People say how do I sell retainers all the time?  It is a really good question.  You do not without doing a phenomenal front-end interview/diagnostic set of questions.  Clients that are going to pay you money up front need to understand something about the way they currently do business or how they work with recruiters now is flowed.  I cannot walk in and say, “Alex, the way you are doing business with recruiters, if you are the hiring manager, is flawed”.

One of the things I ask when I am doing the diagnostic (we have not quoted a fee yet, we have not quoted a retainer yet,) “Tell me what you have done so far to fill this vacancy.”  This question is ideal because it is hard sell a retainer when they already have a candidate flow. The dialogue usually continues as follows:

“Well, you are the first recruiter I am talking to.” Which means they plan on talking to other recruiters.

“When you have had positions more recently, tell me about what worked and what did not work in the process.  Who supplies candidates?”

“We have an internal recruiting department that posts the position.  We do all this in-house.”

“How did those sources work?  How long did the position take to fill?”

“It took six months to fill.”

“If I am hearing you correctly, you put multiple recruiters on it.  You put your internal recruiting team on it.  They were looking through LinkedIn.  They posted it on the website.  They put it up on a job board, and it took six months to fill?  So is that your goal with this one?”

“Well no.”

At this point I dig deeper.  What I want to do, as part of the evaluation process, and part of the diagnostic is sensitizing them to pain.

“Let me ask you.  In the last year or so, did it happen at all where you made an offer and they got turned down?”


“Did it happen at all where you made an offer, even worse, and it got accepted and then the candidate did not show up for work, meaning they took a counteroffer or took a competing offer in the interim after they accepted?”


“Did you ever ask the recruiters, if it came from external recruiters, what their process was to not only find and identify the candidate, but to ultimately procure the candidate because it is one thing to get a candidate to an offer and that is a feat in itself.  It is another thing to get the candidate to show up to work and you are seeing elements of that because of the candidate tight market.”

You are getting all that pain.  You do the whole search assignment and at the end you go through your process that is going to eliminate that, and you say for me to do all that represents an upfront investment of $____.   Other than yourself, who else do we need to authorize to approve this?

The way you “sell” retainers is phenomenal questioning on the front end, a great diagnostic.  If you do that with somebody and they say that they hired 3 recruiters and are open to hiring a fourth.  We pay them 17%.  If we give out the opening on Monday, we have 6 people that we view as fantastic to interview on Friday.  We will interview them the next week and we will hire 1 of them.

People have asked me, and I am exaggerating the situation, how do you sell a retainer in that environment?  I ask them to tell me what is broken.

Maybe the client is not telling you the truth, but if that is their perception of what is going on there is no way to sell a retainer there.  They are happy.  You are not going to do that well.  You are not going to provide 6 candidates in a week and they are not going to have that candidate hired in 3 weeks.  I am making an exaggeration to make a point.  For one to invest in an engagement with any recruiter, there has to be something that is broken.  The beauty in this market is finding talent is very difficult and it is not hard to find parts of their process that are broken.

Great diagnostic.  Then great prescription.  Great question.  Thank you.