March 20 , 2018

The Most Damaging Strategic Omission In Recruiting — Candidate Research

You Don’t Know Jack … About Your Recruiting Targets

If businesspeople ran recruiting … candidate research would dominate! Even though both recruiting and product sales are involved in a form of selling, only the sales function has shifted to a business-like data-driven approach to understanding its sales target. Where they are customer-centric, recruiting is process focused, and we simply assume that we know the customer (i.e. our recruiting targets). The more strategic function, product sales, has a massive research effort which is known as consumer research or consumer marketing. To our detriment, recruiting has nothing like it.

The Product Side’s Approach to “Knowing Your Sales Target” Is Superior

On the product side, everything is focused on knowing your customer so that you can improve your chances of making a sale. No decision related to selling is made without consulting “the data.” They have a formal continuous research process for scientifically identifying everything about the sales transaction … Including the different types of customers, how they buy, when they buy, and what criteria they use to select a product. Customer research gathers this critical information using research tools like surveys, questionnaires, in-depth interviews, focus groups, projective techniques, eye tracking, and A/B tests.

Recruiting Is Stuck in the Past

However even though recruiting is also trying to sell or convince, we simply don’t have anything equivalent to a customer research function. Instead, even though the recruiting marketplace and candidate expectations are now changing at a record pace, we still rely on intuition, past practices, and the historical experience of individual recruiters. This is simply indefensible in an era where every other “convincing process” has shifted to a data-driven model based on research. Unfortunately in corporate recruiting, what should be called prospect research and candidate research is simply not done in any comprehensive and systematic way. 

What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You

Not fully researching and understanding our recruiting targets dramatically damages recruiting results. I estimate that failing to precisely know how recruiting targets search and what they expect in a job/company reduces your ability to attract and sell those recruiting targets by as much as 25 percent. This is because, without prospect research, your job descriptions won’t effectively attract, few of your targets will see your job postings, and you will not provide your top candidates with the right information that they need to convince them to remain in your recruiting process until the end.

Now you probably think that with your x number of years of experience as a recruiter that you already know how to best reach and convince your targets, but you probably don’t. For instance, if you were asked exactly when most new hires begin looking for a new job, you would probably guess, but prospect research would tell you precisely when so that you could adjust the timing of your recruiting (i.e. within a month of their hiring anniversary date).

Prospect/candidate research is defined as … a scientific information-gathering approach. The goal is to map and understand the job search behavior of your targeted prospects to ensure that the most effective recruiting and employer branding information is placed where they will see it. It also identifies the positive factors that cause candidates to say yes to an offer and the turnoffs and deal breakers that discourage them.

Changing Jobs Is Equivalent to Buying a House, So Research the Decision Process

Most in recruiting severely underestimate the complexity of a decision to change jobs. It is a life-changing decision because it impacts the current and the retirement living standards of everyone in the family. Recruiting is selling something that is the equivalent of buying a house or a car. Yet the recruiting function approaches this major sale with a cavalier and almost arrogant attitude that assumes that we know our candidates, even though we have no formal research data to back up those assumptions.

Prospect/Candidate Information You Should

There are three categories of information that you should collect with your recruiting target research.

You start with information about your target prospects, including what factors get their attention and when and how they search for a job.

For candidates who have applied, the most important information to gather covers the factors that they will use to decide whether to accept a job.

After the hiring is completed, you need to collect information from new hires about the factors that caused them to say yes and what parts of the recruiting process need improvement from their perspective.

It’s a sad fact that most of what we know about those who we are trying to hire (recruiting prospects and candidates) is anecdotal and historical. At the same time, both the job search process and candidate expectations are changing at an incredibly rapid rate. These changes are a result of the Internet, social media, and the new technologies that change the way that people look for and apply for a job. In a companion article published on on 1/25/16 entitled “The Most Damaging Strategic Omission In Recruiting – Candidate Research,” I highlighted the many lessons that recruiting could learn from the “customer research” function in the sales and marketing departments. Once you are convinced that recruiting should have its own process of prospect/candidate research, the next step is to identify what information you need to collect. This article contains a detailed list of the information that would dramatically improve both prospect attraction and candidate closing. 

Information That Will Dramatically Improve Your Recruiting Results

A major shift toward conducting prospect/candidate research should be part of the overall shift of recruiting becoming a data-driven function. The shift toward prospect research should begin with a close collaboration with the consumer research or marketing research team. With a little modification, you should be able to use their approaches and tools in order to capture critical prospect and candidate information. The information that you should consider gathering in order to more scientifically attract and sell top prospects are listed below, in the order that the information should be gathered.

Category I — Prospect Information To Gather

First gather information that allows you to fully understand the prospects who you are trying to convince to apply at your firm. You, of course, must know every aspect of job seeker behavior.

  • Identify the expectations of the two categories of prospects — know the differences between the expectations of prospects who are active job seekers and those who are not currently looking for a job. In addition, be aware that data reveals that top performers and innovators also have different expectations and attraction factors than the average-performing worker.
  • Know the demographics of your recruiting targets — you would, of course, want the demographic information that best describes those in each of your categories of prospects. Ideally, for each individual target, you would also seek out information that is often absent when selecting a prospect, their current income, and zip code (from sales leads).
  • ID the job search steps of your prospects — know precisely what specific steps (and their order) that your target prospects actually will take when they are looking for a new opportunity.
  • Know where not-looking targets would see employer branding information — since they are not actively looking for a job, you must be able to identify where they “hang out.” And also, research where your not-looking prospects would likely see and read information about your firm and what it’s like to work there.
  • ID where your active targets would see a job posting — actives are constantly looking for opening announcements, so identify exactly where your active prospects would most likely see one.
  • What content will get their initial attention? — get their initial attention before you can sell them. So learn exactly which job, company, and employer branding content information is required to get the initial attention of both active prospects and your not-looking target prospects.
  • What factors are powerful enough to get your firm on their short list?— beyond just getting their attention. Identify the content factors that would be powerful enough to cause a targeted prospect to add your firm to their “short list” of target firms that they will pursue when they decide to search.
  • When your targets look for a job — identify the time of day, the day of the week, and the months when your targets most likely to be actively looking for a job. Because recruiting is a competitive game, you should also gather information on when the competition for talent is highest and lowest in the marketplace.
  • ID the communications channels that your prospects prefer — you might have to contact your prospects several times before they apply. So conduct research into the favored communications channels (i.e. text, voice, video, email etc.) of your targeted prospects. If your targets are currently employed and are not currently looking, if you expect to get any response, you simply must know and then use the ways that they prefer to communicate.
  • Factors that drive them to apply — you must identify the powerful message content (i.e. the work, the pay, the team etc.) that is required in order to get an initially interested target prospect to actually take the time to apply. Also, you must learn the negative factors that cause your targeted prospects to drop out of an application process (i.e. the time required to apply and requiring an updated resume etc.).
  • Identify the job description content that sells — many who are initially interested in your firm will change their mind after they read your job description. For each key job, you must identify the job description elements that effectively attract. Data can also reveal which job description formats (e.g. short form, long form, or video job descriptions) have the most impact. Using a blind side-by-side comparison test with a group of prospects can reveal which one of the job description from the different competing firms is the most powerful and effective.

Category II — Candidate Information To Gather

Once your target prospects apply, they become candidates. And you need additional information about them in order to effectively sell them on accepting your job.

  • Identify their “job acceptance criteria” — the most egregious of all omissions from the candidate selling perspective is failing to identify what they need to see in order to say yes to an offer. Candidates who have multiple choices will use specific criteria to determine which job offer to accept. You can best determine a candidate’s requirements (and any deal breakers) by asking them up front at the beginning of the recruiting process to list their job-acceptance criteria (i.e. pay, job title, responsibilities etc.). With this information, you can then tailor the recruiting and closing process so that you end up providing them with “the right” compelling information that demonstrates that you meet each of their acceptance criteria. And because it may take a dream-job offer to land top candidates, also ask top candidates to list the characteristics of their dream job.
  • Identify a candidate’s favorite channels of communications — effective two-way communications between the candidate and the recruiter is critical throughout the recruiting process. Rather than communicating the way that the recruiter prefers, identify the communications channels that the candidate prefers and that they are the most responsive to.
  • Identify a candidate’s information needs — rather than making the interview process a completely one-sided affair. Instead, ask your top candidates what they expect and specifically who they need to talk to and what specific information needed before they can make a yes decision.
  • Who will influence their decision — candidate research can reveal which individuals (i.e. their mentor, spouse etc.) will likely influence a candidate’s decision to say yes. With this information, you can attempt to influence their influencers.

Category III – After the Hire Information to Gather

Once you have made a hiring decision, there is still more information that needs to be gathered.

  • Why did you say yes? — you can’t improve your selling process unless you know which factors had the highest impact. So during onboarding, ask new hires “What selling factors had the highest impact on your final acceptance?” This allows you to reinforce those effective factors and to improve the selling elements with a neutral or a negative impact.
  • Why did you turn us down? — if a top candidate rejects your offer, contact them after a delay to identify the reasons why they said no.
  • What process steps worked/didn’t work? — once again during onboarding, ask new hires “Which steps in the overall recruiting and hiring process were the most effective?” Also, ask which components were marginal or had a negative impact so that you can improve them.
  • Which source had the highest impact — a great deal of ATS information on “source of hire” is suspect. So ask each new hire “Which sources (i.e. referrals, job boards, etc.) had the most positive impact on getting them to apply?”
  • Who else is good — use onboarding to ask each new hire to identify their best potential referrals.
  • Why did top candidates drop out? — survey a sample of top candidates who dropped out of the hiring. Identify the reasons why see if any of the reasons for dropping out were preventable.
  • Hiring manager satisfaction — the No. 1 factor in recruiting success is the hiring manager. So after each hire survey hiring managers to identify their satisfaction with the process and identify what could be done better. After six months, ask each hiring manager to rate the quality of their hire on a five-point scale.
  • Validate your selection criteria — and finally, after you’ve hired a number of individuals in a job family, see if the selection criteria that you used are the best predictors of on-the-job performance (which factors have the highest correlation with on-the-job success?).

Final Thoughts

I find recruiting to be one of the least business-like functions in the corporation. For example, if a customer service process executive looked at the way recruiting treats candidates, they might break out in a belly laugh. Can you imagine telling a product customer “don’t call us, we will call you?” Or failing to respond with even an email acknowledgment when a customer makes an application? And if you were to invite an experienced business executive to conduct a snapshot analysis of our function, they would likely shake their head in disbelief upon discovering that we don’t do any formal research into an individual (beyond their resume).

Most recruiters believe they know candidates, but when you drill down into their knowledge in specific instances, you realize that the knowledge is limited to generalizations and many stereotyped assumptions. Stop assuming that you know everything about job seeker behavior and the most effective approaches for attracting and selling top candidates. Copying the research approach that has been successfully used for years by the sales and marketing function makes sense, because after all, isn’t recruiting just sales with a crummy budget?

If businesspeople ran recruiting … candidate research would dominate! That is because shifting to a businesslike approach in recruiting would require a shift to a data-driven approach. And that would mean extensive research into prospects, candidates, and the entire search and offer acceptance processes. I estimate that with the data necessary to fully understand the job search process, a recruiting function can improve their results by as much as 25 percent. Replace the current “I think” approach, with a more modern and scientific approach, which is “I know” exactly how, when, and why our recruiting targets look for and accept a job.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.