As an executive recruiter, you’re bound to make mistakes. Because of that, you’re also bound to have unhappy clients. Regardless of what makes a client upset, how you handle moments of discontent—and, more important, how you prepare for them—is part of what will determine your success in the field.
The best way to mitigate the risk of an unhappy client is to set clear expectations with them up front and then live up to your side of the agreement, either by delivering results or providing evidence that you’ve been working hard to that end. But there are some other meaningful steps you can take, too. Here are a few of the most impactful.
#1: Always keep your client in the loop on what you’re doing.
As a rule of thumb, your client should have insight into how you’re conducting your search through every step of the process.
When clients feel like they’ve been left in the dark, they assume the worst. That’s completely understandable when you consider the nature of an executive search. Clients hire search firms to complete an important job. When they can’t be certain if that job is being done correctly, they become stressed.
When I was at my old firm, I once worked with my partner on a project where his client had grown displeased with the work we were doing. Things boiled over four weeks into the search, during our weekly status call. Although we’d been working hard on the search, we hadn’t found many candidates who were interested in the role at that time. When we informed the client of this, he wasn’t happy.
“You told me you were going to bring me results,” he said. “I don't see any results. You're not sending me resumes. I don't know what you're doing. What am I supposed to think?”
What he was saying was that he felt like we weren’t working as hard as we’d promised to. The truth, of course, was that we were working hard. We were simply trying to fill a difficult role at an unpopular company.
That part wasn’t our fault. What was our fault was waiting until we had good news to share before giving the client insight into our process. We should have been sharing our findings during every meeting—even if those findings were negative. This, at the very least, would have prevented this misunderstanding about our work ethic that ultimately poisoned the partnership.
#2: Don’t over-sell and under-deliver.
Keeping your clients tuned into your progress does little good if your expectations are misaligned. Yet this is one mistake executive recruiters make all the time: they over-sell their services and set themselves up to under-deliver.
It’s like when you go to a restaurant you’ve heard was great, but it turns out to be just good. The experience doesn’t live up to your expectations. “Good” is good, but you were expecting great, so you feel disappointed. Maybe even angry.
As an executive recruiter, you should do the opposite: be realistic with what you promise clients. Then, do your best to over-deliver.
The experience should always exceed expectations.
What does this mean? Well, if your client is paying you a lot of money to fill an important role, it means that the client should never have to chase you down to get ahold of you, never feel in the dark about what you’ve been doing for them, or never have to remind you to give them an update. After all, that’s what they’re paying you for.
#3: Always accompany your research with analysis.
One sure-fire way to under-deliver is to provide clients with lists of LinkedIn profiles and ask them, “What do you think?”
A list of LinkedIn profiles doesn’t pass as effective research. Instead, your research needs to be accompanied by analysis. You should enter into your meetings with clients prepared to present your reasoning for why candidate X is a good fit or why candidate Y is not. You also need to present whatever evidence you have that supports that reasoning. Only then should you ask clients what they think.
Providing clients with that analysis is a key component of the service you as an executive recruiter provide. Plus, it proves that you’ve gone out into the market, put in the work to find great candidates, and done a lot of the processing and analysis that the client hired you to do in the first place.
#4: Be honest with a client when things pop up.
No matter how well you prepare, life sometimes gets in the way of work. Your kid might get sick, or your car might break down, hindering you from completing the presentation or progress report you’d promised to send your client that day. These things happen.
What too many recruiters try and do in this instance, though, is lie or make excuses. This is never a good choice, since clients can tell when you’re not being genuine.
At the end of the day, you have to make a decision: what kind of business do you want to run? If you’ve made a mistake or missed some kind of deadline, the best thing you can do is simply own it. Be honest about emergencies that complicate your plans, and be earnest when you commit to correcting the mistake.
Clients are people, too. Usually, they’ll understand. If they don’t, you might want to reconsider your partnership.
#5: Document everything.
Just like it’s important to over-communicate with your client and set clear expectations up front, it’s even more critical that you document everything you do through each step of a given search.
That means when you and your client agree on what you’re going to deliver each week, you should document those terms.
When your client details the caliber of candidates they want you to focus on, write that down. Keep record of the job spec you were sent to market with, and document the benchmarks you agreed to. If your research generates unfortunate feedback, document that, too.
There are plenty of ways to easily do this. You can document your efforts and findings by hand in a Google doc or spreadsheet, or you can invest in an online platform like Clockwork that provides you a space and built-in process to document in a way that’s transparent to your clients.
However you do it, documenting doubles as proof that you’re doing the work you say you’re doing. It also eradicates any possibility of misunderstanding. If three weeks into your partnership a client claims you’re not doing what you said you would do, you can point to your documentation as proof that you are. It’s like insurance.
At the end of the day, the quality of your relationships with clients will come down to trust: if they trust that you’re working hard for them and feel honestly that they’re getting their money’s worth—even if the hard results you give them are less than thrilling—they’ll be satisfied.
Given that, part of your job as a recruiter is to always nurture that trust. Design your process so it’s inherently transparent, set clear expectations, and operate proactively to eliminate client concerns before they pop up. That’s how you’ll avoid having unhappy clients.