Managers or Recruiters: Who Should Make The Contact Call?

Would you like to increase your call-back percentage from “hard to hire” target candidates to 100%? It’s easier than you think as long as you shift who makes the initial contact with these highly desirable but hard-to-contact candidates.


I’m a fact driven recruiter in a world full of “instinct,” ego, and emotion-driven recruiters. Data tells you what works and what doesn’t work.

If you are a fact-based decision maker, here are two facts that might get your attention. One of the world’s largest consumer electronics firms found that:

  • The typical response rate to recruiting calls made by a recruiter into highly desirable candidates with seven to 10 years of experience in a professional field was a respectable 30%.
  • The typical response rate to recruiting calls made by a manager of the same level or higher to the same cadre of highly desired candidates was an astounding 100%!

Other organizations have noted this interesting phenomenon, especially those where demand for talent is approaching all-time highs.

Recruiting is Sales: Manage Prospects’ Expectations to Win

Nearly every organization around the world is recruiting using a process based on administrative needs, not on the basic tenets of human behavior. Recruiting calls of all levels and types are relegated to recruiters, and in many cases junior recruiters who scan, sort, and screen candidates for more senior recruiters.

The processes are based around recruiting as an administrative function, one where work needs to be accomplished in the easiest, most cost-efficient manner possible, even if the approach is not the most effective.

Because recruiting approaches evolve at roughly the same pace as a rock, candidates have had ages to establish barriers to an organization’s attempt to recruit them. Today, candidates have unprecedented visibility into organizations, just as employers have unprecedented visibility into the workforce.

Both parties are armed with data, the only difference being that candidates actually use theirs! Successful recruiting in a labor market that presents numerous options to skilled labor requires that organizations understand the needs and expectations of each unique target candidate.

Because recruiters hound high-demand individuals each month, there is a natural tendency to ignore them completely. The key to increasing the response rate to such calls is to re-architect the process around the factors that would cause these high-demand individuals to return a call from a stranger. It’s simple sales psychology, but smart recruiters apply it to the recruiting process daily.

First, understand the customer, any likely barriers, and what mechanisms exist to come in under the radar. For example, research and practical experience tell us some approaches increase the likelihood that individuals will respond to calls or requests, including:

  • An opportunity to network with a peer in a similar position at another organization.
  • An opportunity to discuss industry-related issues with a highly respected leader in the same profession.
  • An opportunity to chat with a leader from an organization that has a well-known “employment brand” or reputation for great business practices or innovation (i.e., Google, Microsoft, Apple).
  • An opportunity to vent on a day or time where they are distracted, contemplative, or frustrated.

For the Very Best, Learning Opportunities Are the New Professional Currency

The primary reason why the response rate is up to three times higher when a professional calls is simple. The conversation isn’t going to be a useless one that only provides one-party value, but rather a professional discourse.

Even if the call is a recruiting call, and the candidate is not interested, he or she has an opportunity to learn about best practices, discuss emerging issues, and form beneficial networking relationships. On the other hand, a call from your typical corporate recruiter affords little information of value that is not dependent upon pursuing a new job.

An opportunity to learn makes all the difference. Because we are in an incredibly fast-moving world, rapid and continuous learning has become the “currency” of successful professionals. Many professionals place their “professional standing” ahead of their company loyalty. Many view it as a professional courtesy to respond to others at an equal or higher level.

Michael McNeal, who invented marketing-oriented recruiting, took advantage of this approach when he developed the “Friends” program at Cisco in the late 1990s. The program engaged employees to call targeted individuals in their professional area who applied for a job on the Cisco website.

Although many professionals will respond to almost any call from another professional, you can also increase the likelihood of getting a response if the professional has a well-known name or reputation.

This is another reason to make sure that your top employees are “branded” well and included in the professional journals of their field.

When these professionals give talks at conferences and seminars, or provide quotes in industry and professional journals, you dramatically increase the chances of a higher call-return rate.

The “opportunity to learn” phenomenon is not limited to recruiting calls. It’s also effective with websites. Individuals will visit a website on a regular basis if it is an “answer site,” because the very best are constantly looking for answers.

The lesson here is that if you write articles or post best practices on “answer” websites (i.e., is a learning site for recruiters), the top individuals who are constantly trying to learn will actually contact you, which gives you an opportunity to build a relationship that may someday turn into recruiting success.

Incidentally, the strength of this need to constantly learn and interact with other professionals is a primary reason why employer referrals are number one both in quantity and quality for professional jobs.

So, if you decide to turn your company’s corporate website into an “answer site,” you will also increase the likelihood that the very best will visit, learn answers, and over time, increase their respect and interest in your firm.

Call on the Right Day

Obviously, if anyone makes a recruiting call on a day that your “target” just got a promotion, the odds of he or she returning the call are smaller than if the person was rejected for a promotion.

The response rate is especially high on “reflection” days. Recruiting genius Michael Homula demonstrated this fact by sending 175 cookies to what I call “no, never” candidates and getting as many as 130 positive responses because the cookie was sent either on the candidate’s birthday or on New Year’s day, both prime reflection days.

Again, the key here is to understand candidates’ needs. Other key days or events when “no, never” candidates are likely return calls include:

  • Boss/best friend leaves. If the individual is loyal, and great recruiting targets almost always are, that loyalty changes almost instantly when their supervisor or best friend leaves.
  • Performance appraisals, especially days right after it is completed. The process makes some so nervous that the month before performance appraisal can also be ripe.
  • Bonus/options paid out. Individuals who have to wait nearly an entire year for the next bonus payout are vulnerable.
  • A major layoff is rumored, is soon-to-be announced, or has just been announced.
  • Their long-term project or product ends or is canceled.
  • The longtime CEO quits or a new CEO takes over.
  • News circulates of a major merger or acquisition.
  • The company implements a pay or hiring freeze.
  • The stock price drops dramatically. This is especially powerful when individuals have stock options or stock in their 401(k).
  • A competitor trounces the company in the marketplace.
  • The organization is undergoing a major scandal or legal issues.
  • There is speculation of a plant or office relocation.

Action Steps

If this new approach makes you nervous, determine whether your top salespeople don’t already use a similar approach. Both line managers and recruiters may show resistance, so let them know that professionals and managers will only be used in specific situations.

Explain the advantage of having the line manager making the initial call. To convince them, divide the calls between managers and recruiters for currently open hard-to-hire position and gather statistics on the difference in returned call rates. Unless you work at Enron or FEMA, the response rate will always be superior when a manager calls.

Some other things to consider include:

  • Which jobs and which candidates? Managers can’t and shouldn’t make a majority of the calls, so identify no more than 20% of your jobs to target. Start with mission-critical and hard-to-hire jobs and individuals but especially within these categories, target those who have had traditionally low return call rates within your organization. If you don’t currently track response rates and hard-to-hire jobs, you are already behind where you need to be.
  • Which managers? Not all managers are well-known, and some have horrible sales skills, so consider that when you select a manager or professional. Remember that while the manager can make the initial call, the actual recruiting details can be handed off, with the target’s permission, to a recruiter.
  • How many calls per manager? The best way to get everyone’s cooperation is to have the CEO volunteer to make some calls (several high-profile CEOs do this). Approach managers individually if you expect a high proportion to help you. You will get more cooperation if you tell them in advance that there will be a limit to the number of calls of fewer than five a month. However, once managers see the high result rate, they’re likely to volunteer for more.
  • How do you find out about “right day” events? There’s no magic here, so use recent hires and employees who have worked at target firms to get this kind of information. Don’t be above reading the newspaper, checking “negative” websites targeted to specific firms or industries, or just asking questions and listening to the gossip at local and national conferences. Remember that someone always knows about these “right day” events.

Final Thoughts

Whenever you are having a low response rate to recruiting calls, take a step back and think about candidates’ needs. I have used focus groups and surveys of reluctant applicants to gather what would make them more responsive.

You need to understand their “call return triggers” for the initial call, but it’s also true when you’re trying to get any “hard to hire” candidates to cooperate, you need to know their influential job-switch criteria.

Finally, when it comes to who should call, I’m not saying that recruiters don’t have a role in calling candidates; they do and they should make a majority of the calls.

However, it’s equally important to realize that if you have a Tiger Woods on your team and you want to get another golfer to consider joining, ask “Tiger” to make the initial call!

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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