Providing a More Positive Candidate Experience

Most job application processes fail miserably when it comes to providing any form of interaction that could pass a standard customer service satisfaction test with a decent score.

Unfortunately, this revelation isn’t a new one, nor one that hasn’t been addressed before, yet it continues to be one of the major barriers for firms seeking to upgrade the quality of their applicant base.

Talented people have options much like your typical consumer. When a consumer repeatedly experiences poor customer service from a retailer, they most likely try alternative providers prior to returning to the firm that provided poor service. Over time, this same effect has chased top-quality applicants away from applying online via corporate job boards, and relegated such investments in applicant-related technologies to nothing more than collecting and filtering garbage.

If a firm wants to avoid the rut that has consumed most firms, they must break free from the notion that applicant technologies by themselves can provide a positive customer experience, and actively work to provide a unified set of services and content that actively engages quality applicants and provides them with a value-add for participating in the process. To accomplish this, I recommend you study other well-tried customer service processes.

There are numerous “parallel processes” in other business functions that do a much better job at snagging satisfied quality customers than the HR application processes does. Consider the work of the financial services industry, for example, which has reduced the process of applying for credit down to a simple, user-friendly process that can usually be completed in minutes. (Before you start screaming that a job is different than credit, consider that granting each involves accepting risk, that the decision to proceed is based upon review of a profile, and that both processes produce numerous instances where a customer must be “turned down”).

The key is to think of the quality applicant as a potential customer and maximize the value you provide to them, versus the value such processes provide to you. You can test the customer satisfaction of your application process in several ways. The most common approach is to survey applicants in one or more of the following ways:

  • Survey a sample of every applicant that completes the application process.
  • Conduct a follow-up survey to those who completed the application process at some pre-determined period of time following the initial application.
  • Survey all individuals who are selected for interviews regardless of source and ask them about their online experience.
  • Survey only those applicants whose profile characteristics meet the minimum qualifications for the role for which they applied.
  • Survey those applicants who “walk away” from the application process prior to completing it to find out why. This will require that you capture contact information at the beginning of the process.

Most firms that bother to test the satisfaction of their application process find weaknesses in several key areas. By focusing on those issues that plague most organizations with respect to the type of hiring you need to do, your firm can break out and start to restore applicant satisfaction. The typical challenges most firms face include:

  1. Discouraging marginally qualified and unqualified people from applying. (This point is addressed below.)
  2. Improving the flow of information and feedback back to candidates to prevent them from becoming frustrated because they don’t know what’s going on. (Addressed below.)
  3. Varying the application process for top candidates (that met all the qualifications) so that they will reapply the next time you have a similar opening. (To be addressed next week.)
  4. Identifying which applicants will become appropriate for positions in the near future, and building up a rapport with them that keeps them engaged in the meantime. (To be addressed next week.)

The first two issues identified above have a variety of relatively straightforward solutions available, which are identified below. The last two issues, however, bring more complexity to the situation and necessitate further elaboration. I will address the last two issues at greater length next week.

Discouraging “Less Than Qualified” Applicants Upfront

How do you discourage less than qualified applicants from applying in the first place? Here are some ideas:

  • Put automated self-assessment tools on the website so that they can pre-screen themselves in or out of the process before it begins.
  • Make a list (with specific numbers) of the disqualification factors that will significantly lower (or eliminate) your chances of getting the position. Put them on the website as and warn candidates that they will not qualify if they meet any of the disqualification criteria.
  • Post your average job acceptance/failure rate for applicants so that people know upfront that the odds are very low.
  • Post the actual salary range to further discourage people that are unlikely to accept because of salary.
  • Provide a realistic “job preview” on the website that includes both the good but also the bad aspects of the job in order to discourage people that wouldn’t like the job anyway.
  • Be highly selective in where you advertise your jobs and your website. Don’t place them in general interest publications. Instead, study the demographics of the most qualified people and place ads or job openings exclusively where only the most experienced and qualified individuals are likely to read them.
  • Put a pre-qualifying mini-application questionnaire on the website with simple “yes,” “no,” or numbers as answers. Let the computer automatically calculate whether they met the qualifying score.
  • Post frequently asked questions and answers on the website. By providing these answers, you can discourage individuals that would have not applied had they in advance known the answer to their specific question.

Providing Information and Honest Feedback to Candidates

Keeping candidates in the loop when it comes to the status of their application in the hiring process is critical. Here are some ideas on how to accomplish that:

  • During the hiring process, identify candidates whom you would like to hire someday, but not necessarily now (these are generally individuals with the right skills but who just need a little more experience). Treat these and any interview finalists differently. Take a risk and tell them exactly what they need to do to increase their likelihood of success. You might also consider communicating with them periodically during the next year to keep up their interests but also to further assess them.
  • Spend more time during or right after the interview telling individuals in what broad areas they have failed to meet the company or job standards. In this case, broad areas means broad skill or experience areas.
  • Provide a password-protected website that allows individuals that qualify for an initial interview to track their progress during the rest of the hiring process.
  • If your main concern is lawsuits, identify candidates that you would like to consider again in the future and send them a “positive comment only” follow-up letter. In that letter, I recommend you highlight the things you like about them but don’t mention any negative factors (this is where you usually get into trouble). If they are mature adults they can probably figure out from what you didn’t mention the areas where they need to improve.
  • Even if people understand upfront that they have a minimal chance of landing a job, most still expect some response to their application. Provide them with a “checkbox” on your website, which allows them to get an email notification when the position is closed out. Automate the process so that it takes little effort on the company’s part but does give candidates some “closure” to the process.
  • If you normally send candidates a follow-up postcard, letter, or email, include in these announcements a simple statement that says “we strongly encourage you to reapply” when this position reopens in the future. Select a small proportion of applicants for this “please apply again” notice. I generally recommend that it be sent to individuals that scored in the top 25% of your interviews (but whom you failed to hire).


Increasing the quality of applicants and their satisfaction with your process is nobody else’s problem but your own. Many firms make the mistake of thinking that a new piece of technology will remedy the situation, when in reality technology is nothing more than a tool that enables some element of a much larger system.

To tackle this problem, world-class HR practitioners must manage all of processes, tools, policies, and procedures that create a hiring system. They must manage these elements from the viewpoint of providing a value-add to applicants and themselves, versus just themselves.

The future holds some harsh realities when it comes to hiring systems, so take my advice and solve your problems now. Next week, I will address how to vary your process for top applicants, and what to do with those candidates who are not appropriate for roles now, but who will be in the very near future.

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.

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