Setting Up Recruiting Agencies for Success

In my last post, I talked about how to hire a recruiting firm – in particular, the kinds of questions you should ask, and how you can evaluate the answers.

So now, you have a staffing firm (or six), and they’ve said they’re going to deliver you great candidates, but you aren’t seeing them. Here’s what usually happens when this occurs:

You can do something about this. It takes time and takes putting frustrations aside, but if you have an agency that you think can deliver for you and they aren’t, you can help them be successful. Here are some tips for the care & feeding of your beloved (ha!) staffing agency:

Once they’re hired, they’re your partner, not your adversary. I’ve seen a number of companies treat their agencies at double arm’s length – they don’t respond, they don’t want to share feedback, they sound exasperated. I get it: sometimes hiring an agency (especially for FT help) feels like the last resort, and it feels like a lot of money, so it’s like you’re going back to something you never wanted to do in the first place. Get over it.

You decided to hire this company; they want to make money; you want engineers. You have the same goal. If you really don’t think so, then cut them off and move on, or you’re going to feel crappy and so are they. What’s more, treating the agency well is just smart optimization. Just like the agency wants you to think they’re your most important client, you want the agency to think they’re their most important source, so you see the best of what they see.

Know what you want (or figure it out). From the time you and an agency start working on a contingent position – especially at first – you have about 6 weeks, maybe less, to keep the agency’s attention: if you aren’t making progress by then, the small agency is worrying about opportunity cost, the large agency is worrying about the waste of time, and the recruiter at the large agency is worrying about hitting his quota and keeping his job.

The best way to make sure you’ll avoid the dropoff is to know what you want in the first week. Have a job description and have commentary for the soft stuff you can provide the recruiter (“I haven’t written this down, but this person needs to be friendly and engaging – I need him to talk to partners”, “We’re really fast to make decisions, folks who overanalyze will be miserable”, etc.), make sure you really know what level of experience/seniority you need, and be ready to change things very quickly. If you’re still tweaking on week 5, then we figure you’re looking for a unicorn and are starting to watch the clock. This is another good place to be a partner: we see more things than you do, and will give feedback and try to help. Your company may be a precious snowflake, unlike everything else, but maybe listen anyway.

Fast Feedback. A future post will talk about recruiting as a race, but in short, if an agency sends you something worth responding to, get back to them ASAP (like in 24 hours). That could be “bring her in!” or “she’s almost a good fit, but I’d like to see more front-end development skills and some CSS examples” or “she’s totally wrong: Java and Javascript aren’t the same thing.” It just takes less than a sentence to help the agency refine its target and to show that you’re going to respond – then see above. (BTW, if you say the last thing a few times, or the middle thing a few times more, you have legitimate justification to move along.) The quickest way to lose an agency’s attention is to be slow. 

Adapt your process. Many companies optimize their sourcing process for folks who apply directly through their website. Many modern Applicant Tracking Systems like Jobvite and The Resumator provide easy ways to set up questions and take resumes and cute questions, and there’s at least one company in town that used Wufoo to create its own questionnaire. Other companies have offline or manual processes.

In any case, make sure you know how agencies can play in this process, and make it easy for them to share what they’ve learned quickly.If an agency (like ours) is doing detailed technical screens, pre-reference checks, or has previously employed the person, having them fill out the exact same form without a place to provide that information means you’re losing data and they’re wasting time. You don’t have to jump through a lot of hoops, but saying “just pretend you’re like any other candidate” is yet another way to make sure you aren’t getting good candidates. (Lots of companies do the first three and not this one.)


As so many relationships do, this one just comes down to the words of the prophets Bill & Ted: Be excellent to each other. If you have any other ideas, I’d love to hear them.