This article is the sixth of a 12-article series about The Eight Stages of Successful Retained Search. By reading the entire series, you and your search team will learn the overall retained search process, how each role is connected and dependent on the others, and how to most effectively proceed from the first stage to the last.
If you’re new to the profession of executive recruiting, you might assume that the first step in a search process is to immediately start engaging candidates. You’re excited to find a fit for your client, after all. Why not jump right in?
In addition to setting a strategy first, there happens to be a critical step preceding the actual outreach to candidates. One that, if skipped or done lazily, can doom your search before it begins. That step is benchmarking.
Benchmarking is the process of presenting your client with potential candidates—people you haven’t reached out to yet, but who meet the criteria the candidate established in your initial meetings with them. By providing them with benchmark profiles, your client can then give you feedback and help you switch course if needed. It’s like making final safety checks to the search machine that you and your client have designed: you need to make sure the mechanisms look and feel like the client wants before you set out to guarantee a seamless search.
For this reason, benchmarking is a crucial step in the search process. Remarkably, though, it’s often overlooked—even by recruiters who no longer qualify as “new to the profession.” Here’s how to benchmark successfully to guarantee a good search.
You should start benchmarking after you understand your client’s search criteria.
Before you start creating benchmark profiles approximating your client’s ideal candidate, you will need to have centered with your client around what that ideal candidate looks like. Otherwise, you’re going in blind, which will likely result in you either wasting time or upsetting your client.
That centering process happens during the strategy phase of the search. So it follows that benchmarking can only happen once that phase is complete and the client’s candidate criteria has been documented. That way, when you do put together some benchmark profiles, you can present that information to your client in the context of the established search criteria: requisite experience in a relevant role, requisite experience at a relevant competitor, necessary years of experience, and so on.
But benchmarking serves another purpose: it gives you a chance to confirm with your client that the search criteria they set with you hasn’t changed. It gives you one last chance to hear their feedback and tighten up your strategy—to reaffirm what they’re looking for, rearticulate the goals of your partnership, and re-organize your priorities if need be.
In this way, building a phase of benchmarking into your formal process prevents you from causing tangible damage to the search down the line. In fact, if you don’t present your client with benchmark profiles early on, you’re risking three primary things: 1) upsetting your client by presenting them with candidates that they’re not interested in; 2) wasting time; and 3) tarnishing your relationship with the candidate whom you sold on the opportunity.
Now, some clients might push back against benchmarking, claiming that it’s a waste of time. That’s when you as a qualified and dedicated executive recruiter need to stand your ground. Your clients are busy, and often they don’t understand the business of recruiting. So it's incumbent for you as their consultant to be a consultant."This step is part of the process,” you’ll have to say. “And if we skip this step, it will have negative repercussions down the line.”
Present your clients with 10–15 benchmark profiles along with your analysis for each.
If the research strategy is done correctly—meaning, if it’s informed by the client’s search criteria and documented in software like Clockwork, which makes that information available and transparent for both firm and client—you should be able to generate multiple benchmark profiles to present to the client during the benchmarking process.
But more important than it being easy, compiling multiple benchmark profiles is necessary. It gives you the ability to comb through and provide feedback for the researcher around whether or not the profiles are adequate—more data points. It gives your team the opportunity to calibrate internally, which will help you identify whether the benchmarks you’re putting together are stretching to reach the client’s requirements. It will also make generating analysis easier and more seamless, too.
Additionally, compiling multiple profiles is simply a way of showing your client that you’re putting in the necessary amount of work to get the search done—especially if your analysis is cogent and comprehensive. It will be obvious to the client if you’re not putting in the work, or doing it shoddily. And presenting your client with shoddy work is one sure-fire way to make them upset.
Document your benchmarking process—along with your research strategy—to guarantee transparency.
Sometimes, search firms miss. It happens. Your client might say, “I don’t understand why any of these people are included in this report.” And it will sometimes be the result of a certain miscomprehension on your part regarding their needs. In those moments, you’ll have to look internally: did your research team mess up? Did you misinterpret something about the research strategy?
But, other times, you might present benchmark profiles or even identified candidates to a client, and they will react as if you’ve missed wildly, even though what you brought your client matches the criteria they set during the research process exactly. In these cases, having your benchmarking and research information clearly documented will serve as an insurance policy. Invest in software where that documentation can be stored and accessed by both you and your clients. This documentation will equip you with the ability to defend yourself. "Hey, well last week we agreed that the research strategy was X, Y, and Z, and these profiles all match that criteria that we set. So, either we need to add to the criteria, or we need to start over."
Of course, having your research strategy and your client’s search criteria available and transparent for both parties can easily prevent such misunderstandings—which is why documenting everything needs to be a part of your process from day one.
After benchmarking, your research strategy should be amended to reflect the new feedback your client has given you.
One outcome that often results from the benchmarking process? Your research strategy changes.
This change is natural. Benchmarking, and then conferencing with your client about the profiles you’re presenting, will likely reveal flaws in the initial research strategy. By benchmarking and later discussing, you’ll learn more about the client’s preferences and hopes, which might not have been articulated initially—those subjective, more intangible points of criteria.
This change is also an opportunity for you to share your own findings, too, if in your benchmarking process you’ve unearthed certain pieces of data that affect the strategy. And when these flaws and new variables come to light, that’s great, because now you’ll have more information with which to conduct a strong and streamlined search.
Ultimately, benchmarking in a deliberate and transparent fashion ensures that no misunderstandings arise between you and your client. It also enables you to recalibrate your search as needed, guaranteeing your partnership with your client operates like a well-oiled machine.
Stage 3: Strategy – Setting A Strategy
Stage 4: Research