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How to Evaluate Which Search Firm is Best for You

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

“Human resources are like natural resources; they're often buried deep. You have to go looking for them, they're not just lying around on the surface. You have to create the circumstances where they show themselves.” -Ken Robinson

When you realize it is best to have someone dig deep and create the circumstances where you can attract the right talent, you are probably considering a search firm or recruitment firm to help.

Maybe you have one on speed dial or maybe your considering working with someone who really gets you and your position.

There are so many different types of firms, so who should you work with?

I know I wasn’t familiar with the different types of firms until I joined the industry, though my dad was an executive recruiter working with an executive search firm when I was growing up. Shh… that is our little secret.

I also noticed through the years, many clients would ask about our services and ask questions around why we do our work the way we do as a head hunter.

As a hiring manager, you know how difficult it is to find the right talent. In order to make this easier I wanted to share some information to help, because not all firms do the same thing and you need to find the one that best fits your needs. Before you evaluate a firm, it is important to understand what each firm does.

Recruitment Firm 101: To start, here is an overview of the types of firms that can help:

  • Large Retained Firms- Big brand name search firms that typically help big brand name companies or larger companies hire their executive teams. They do work on a retained* basis.

  • Boutique Retained Firms- Smaller search firms that typically help companies of all sizes hire executive and leadership teams. These firms typically work in a niche area and are retained* by their clients.

  • Large Contingency Firms- Big brand name recruitment firms that work with companies of all sizes, in many different industries, and work contingently* on placement of a finalist candidate.

  • Boutique Contingency Firms- Smaller recruitment firms that typically help companies of different sizes, hire executive and leadership teams. These firms typically work in a niche and work contingently* on placement of a finalist candidate.

  • RPO- Recruitment Process Outsourcing- A firm that provides a team of recruiters to a company. This is an outsourced recruitment team that gets paid a fee based on different factors, including the size of the team needed. This recruitment is typically done on a volume basis.

* What is the difference between a contingent firm and a retained firm? Check out the Comparison Retained versus Contingency

Also something to consider, within all the firms listed it is important to note that:

  • Some firms might be publicly held (stocks held by shareholders).

  • Some firms may be privately held (equity typically held by partners).

  • There are firms that embrace many industries.

  • There are firms that have a niche… or two.

So, what is really important when considering what firm will work best for you?

It is important to consider your business needs and what your expectations are for your talent acquisition strategy. Then it is important to interview the firm you are considering.

It’s important to focus on the consultant's ability, not just the firm’s reputation

When considering any firm, it is crucial to interview your main point of contact.

  • Your company is hiring a search consultant and their team, it’s important to focus on the consultant's ability, not just the firm’s reputation. Ask questions around how the team works and get to know the consultant.

  • Good consultants are able to understand your business strategy and how it aligns with your products and services. First share a bit about your needs; then interview the consultant as if they were joining your company.

  • Ask the consultant about their process. For example, how do they do their work? This will show you how the consultant will partner with you and how they bring success to the table.

To make sure you get the best service it is important to understand what areas the consultant has worked in and their methodology.

  • Is their experience related to your industry or will their experience complement the search?

  • If your company needs very specific skills, does the consultant/firm have experience with niche positions or positions that are hard to fill/specialized?

  • Find out who will be engaging in the initial targeting strategy and what you can expect from the firm regarding the strategy for your position.

  • How will the consultant represent your company’s interest to the market?

We do want you to find the right firm. You may be wondering, “why should I choose a boutique agency when I can choose a larger executive recruiting firm?” There are many advantages to both, but we want to share a little about the advantage of working with a retained boutique firm.

So, what are the advantages of working with a boutique firm?

  • The consultants within boutique firms typically take on a smaller number of searches than a larger firm or a contingency firm, giving each search personal consideration and allowing for less “conflicts of interest” in serving their clients(a conflict of interest for a firm means they are doing business with a competitor of yours and can’t hire anyone from that organization)

  • Since boutique firms tend to focus on specific industries or functions, the consultant's knowledge of an industry is vast, and their niche expertise helps the process to run smoothly.

  • Boutique search firms also allow consultants to grow and develop in a way that is different from large firms. A boutique firm’s environment allows consultants to develop their skills in a way that is focused more on the client needs, with less worries about a company’s shareholder’s need. Larger firms tend to be public or have several partners.

  • Smaller firms tend to have an all hands on deck strategy. Though the main consultant or partner acts as a liaison between the firm and the client, in a smaller firm the main consultant typically is more involved in the targeting and sourcing strategy.

What outcome should you be looking for?

  • When considering a firm, it is important to find a consultant that will represent your company's interests and maintains your brand.

  • Choose a search consultant that is a partner in your business and does everything to find a successful candidate that creates a return on investment quickly, and for many years in the future.

  • When talking to a good consultant it is easy to notice if they pride himself/herself on knowing how to implement a solid recruitment process, that they understand how to engage interest in the market for specific positions, and they can understand the overall business impact a successful final candidate will create in your company.

Here’s to a successful search!

TLR Search helps energy and chemical company hiring managers gain talent market share by bringing strong diverse talent to their door, while inspiring potential new team members to picture their future possibilities; especially with hard to fill positions. We are people experts with a specialization in energy and chemicals. We’re a woman-owned recruitment firm that partners with clients to assist them in placing decision-makers at executive levels, supervisors in functional management positions, and experienced professionals in technical roles.


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