How to Sell a Retainer on an Existing Search

  By Michael Gionta  |    Monday October 30, 2023

Category: Columns, Expert Advice, Productivity, Recruiting


The advent of internet research has made recruiters lazy in asking for referrals. When I was on a desk, back in the old days, we did not have access to a human being that could put together the personal email address, cell phone number, name, and title of clients and candidates. Back then, a name was precious because it was tough to get companies to reveal any information. They were wise to recruiters. So, I looked for qualified referrals whenever I got a candidate on the phone. That process is equally compelling today. 


The Referral Goal 

My goal was to get two candidates from every candidate conversation, whether they were interested in the opportunity or not. People are going to tell you no. In theory, if you get two names for every person you talk to, you will always have another person to call. Again, it is statistically true that you would never run out of names if you got two contacts for every candidate you speak to. Now, no matter how good you are at this, some candidates will not give you any. Some will provide you with three or four. But based on my experience, you can average two. 


Qualified Referrals Step 1: The Approach 

Let’s assume you spoke to the candidate. For whatever reason, it’s not the right time, not the right company, not enough money, or they are generally not interested in the opportunity.  

I would say: 

Hey, candidate; obviously, the timing of my call is off for you right now.   

You want to use that line because it signals to the candidate that you have stopped selling. When you signal to someone that you have stopped selling, they will relax. If you can see them, you will see their diaphragm relaxing, knowing that you are about to get off the phone. So, take advantage of it.  

My approach was never: Hey, I am working with this great company. They are growing a bazillion percent a year. They are the most outstanding company in the widget industry, and you have got to work for them. My conversations were always very consultative. Hey, candidate, I have no idea if you are looking to make a move. I just wanted to see if you are open to hearing about something that could be potentially stronger than your current situation. What are your thoughts on that? And I would engage them in a conversation. I only talked about the opportunity once I fully developed at least some motive for them to make a change. So, I did not just pitch. I hate that word, but I use it on purpose because it makes us commodity brokers as recruiters if we throw things at people and have not fully adopted a diagnostic process.  


Qualified Referrals Step 2: Dealing with Tire Kickers 

Some candidates will say to you, look, I do not have time for this. I will not continue this conversation if you cannot tell me about the opportunity. Obviously, then, Mr. or Ms. Candidate, the timing of my call is not good right now. You sound thrilled with what you are doing. Because if this is just about this current job and not about identifying what you want to hear about, you are probably just curious, and I can appreciate that. I am going to let you go then. The human being that is really interested in making a career change, or even remotely interested, will stop you. The tire kicker is going to go, fine, goodbye.   

For those who live in the RecruiterU world of metrics, it still counts as an RP. It still counts as one presentation, even if it was that quick. I found early in my career, when I capitulated to those types of people and told them about the opportunity, almost none of them were interested. Then it just switches the dynamic of the relationship. From that point forward, the candidate knows that if they threaten you with removing themselves, they will get what they want, and that is not the way I want to start, or I suggest any of you start, a relationship with a candidate.


Qualified Referrals Step 3: Securing the Referral 

Obtaining the referral all starts with the diagnostic approach. Is the candidate open to conversation? What are they interested in hearing about? And do they have the motivation to pursue an opportunity at this point in their life? The reason to get the referral comes when you have determined they are not interested.  


The Script 

Obviously, the timing of my call, candidate, is not good right now. You are well situated, or this is not the right opportunity. Before I let you go, real quick, who do you know – not do you know – who do you know that excels in this role?  

They’ll likely respond with: I don’t know anyone who’s looking.  

I understand. The person that you are probably thinking of most likely is not looking. But in my experience as a recruiter – I don’t even get into if they talked to me and they might change their mind – my experience as a recruiter is the guy or gal I am going to place is buried four or five deep, meaning I am talking to you, who is going to pivot me to somebody else, who is going to pivot me to somebody who might pivot me to somebody who is ultimately interested. The benefit, Jim, is that I will keep your name out of it and have the call I had with you. Are you open to hearing about something potentially stronger than your current situation? As you said, they are not looking, but I might have something they want to hear about three, six, or nine months from now, a year from now, and then they might know somebody who is looking.    

See, when you take out that filter of, don’t know anyone who is looking, it opens their field of vision. When you ask for referrals, you cannot just ask who do you know. When you ask who do you know that excels, it is still too big of a window for their brain to scan quickly. Who do you know, maybe somebody that you used to work with at your existing company that moved on? Does anyone come to mind? Anyone at one of your former companies that you worked with that you respect who comes to mind? Anyone of your competitors or people you have seen at a trade show who comes to mind?    

As you are narrowing the field, you are narrowing the silos of where their mind can go. Because they can easily scan people they work with at their current company. They can easily scan several names of people they worked with at a former company versus opening up their whole universe. I found that to be really, really effective.    

If they stay stubborn, look, you know, yeah, I have a couple of people. Let me talk to them first. I go back to that other line. It is probably not going to happen. You are too busy. It is not your job. I will keep your name out of it, Jim. Unless you want me to use your name, I will keep your name out of it. 

This is challenging. I would even go as far as to say: Did I put any pressure on you on this call to make a move? Was I at all a pushy recruiter, grinding you to send me your resume, like other recruiters? I asked if you were open to hearing about something, and you were not, and we discovered why. You gave me a few bullet points of the things you would want to be kept aware of. That is exactly what I am going to do with the person you are thinking of. So, candidate, who is that person?  

That is how persistent I was with it. You will build a really, really good network of candidates if you have a goal for every candidate conversation to get two referrals. 

I appreciate the question, it is an area that I know people are struggling with. 

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