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Solving the Seller’s Dilemma in the Talent Acquisition Process
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No matter how great your company or career opportunity is, your open requisition or job board posting doesn’t always automatically “sell you” and bring you the rock star you desire. And unless you have a monopoly — resulting in a “stable, quiet talent acquisition life” — you know that you will likely face competitors. I would argue that selling — and a great selling process — will always be an important piece of the talent acquisition (TA) for the vast majority of companies.

But did you know that selling has radically changed in recent years, resulting in a huge reinvention of sales organizations and processes? I would like to add that this necessary change has come with an interesting and difficult “seller’s dilemma”.

I would like to unpack this “seller’s dilemma” as it pertains to modern talent acquisition and offer some suggestions for solving this challenge.

What is the seller’s dilemma?

Tiffani Bova, respected analyst at Gartner and recognized authority on sales transformation, coined the term “seller’s dilemma” to refer to the tension between staying on top of your game as a seller and hitting your numbers on a quarterly basis.

She cites that most sales organizations lack the flexibility to “reinvent themselves” without placing their quarterly revenue projections at risk. So the default becomes “make the numbers”.

Based on my experience over the years with TA professionals, I would argue that a very similar “sales dilemma” exists in TA. I would state is as follows:

How can TA professionals find ways to efficiently and effectively reinvent their ability to sell prospects and candidates — thus moving from an administrative role to that of a trusted advisor in the hiring process? And how can this radical shift be accomplished without sacrificing expectations related to key metrics (e.g., time to fill, quality of hire)?

I would also argue that when we expect our TA groups to produce different results without radically changing the way they actually “do business” we are setting them up for failure and putting our TA processes at a competitive disadvantage.

How we got here: The huge change in the buying process

Let’s start by looking at the driver in the seller’s dilemma: the buying process itself. Over the past few years, selling as a profession has had to radically reinvent itself. The key driver behind this shift/reinvention has been the huge increase in access to information which, in turn, has produced an unprecedented change in the buying process itself. Today’s buyer is informed and empowered. No longer is it “buyer beware” — it’s “seller beware.”

Some good research suggests that buyers are over halfway through the buying process before ever contacting a vendor. Gone are the days when sellers made 100 cold calls, got 10 hits, and made 2 or 3 appointments — and then drove the agenda (think: “educated the prospect”) with a PowerPoint deck.

Let’s make it personal. Think about the last time you decided to make a fairly major purchase — perhaps a new laptop, appliance, vehicle, or even a smartwatch. What did you do before making your decision to buy? Chances are you did some research.

If you are like most modern buyers, you went online and read the product specifications and paid special attention to what others were saying. You then made your decision based on the extent to which the product met your criteria — AND on the reviews of others who purchased the product.

What’s even more interesting in today’s online marketplace is the fact that you might never even contact a vendor! The entire buying process would be completed without ever encountering a sales person.

In responding to the new buyer, successful sellers have had to radically change they way they sell. No longer is sales a matter of doing a simple feature-to-benefit translation, as I was taught in my early days of consultative selling. Insead, today’s sellers have had to shift from a rather structured selling model to a highly dynamic, fluid, customer-focused model.

New sales competencies and tools have emerged to meet the challenge. Questioning and listening skills are now much more valuable than attempts to demonstrate that you have all the answers. And customers value the insight you provide much more than the benefits of your “awesome” product or service. In fact, you (the vendor) are now the key, competitive advantage simply by the relationship you are able to develop as a trusted advisor with your customers and prospects.

Let’s apply this insight to TA. Prospects and candidates have access to huge amounts of information about your company and marketplace, and they do their homework before ever engaging with a recruiter. I like to say that your brand is not what your website or marketing materials say, but rather what others are saying about you on social media sites.

And think about the possibility that your potential rock star prospect might make actually complete the decision-making process (think: buying process) without ever contacting a recruiter. They might simply conclude that your company or opportunity is not a match for their needs and not be open to even an exploratory conversation with a recruiter.

By ignoring the changes in the way prospects and candidates make career decisions, TA professionals are putting themselves at huge competitive risk. Without adapting to meet the needs of today’s tech savvy and informed prospects, TA will quickly lose any competitive advantage and run the risk of losing out on hiring game-changing A players.

This side of the dilemma demands that successful TA professionals abandon more “seller-focused” processes in favor of fluid, “customer-focused” ones. Gone are the days when the screening process is nothing more than a “qualification check list” where the recruiter merely screens for experience and technical competencies. These “fact-finding missions” have their place of course, but cannot suffice in today’s world of “seller beware”. Prospects — especially passive candidates — have done their homework and expect the same from TA professionals.

A buyer-focused selling process in TA would involve a substantial amount of time uncovering needs, developing unique value, and continually testing for consensus. In addition, TA professionals need to ensure they are adding value to the prospect at every step of the “buying process”.

But let’s face it. In sales — and in TA — metrics count. Whether it is making quota or lowering “time-to-fill”, both sales and TA professionals must deliver. Hence, the second side of the dilemma.

The second piece of the dilemma: Making your numbers

How is it possible to both meet the short-term numbers expected by your customers, while at the same time “radically reinventing” the way you approach your prospect and candidate screens? Stated another way, how willing are you to place your bonus — or performance evaluation — at risk, while mounting a difficult learning curve that you know is mandatory for your long-term prosperity?

So many of today’s TA professionals are effectively held hostage. They realize that a change in selling process is needed but can’t risk the short-term disruption. Selling (and TA) are effectively “always on”. Unfortunately, there is no realistic way to hang out a “temporarily closed” sign or slow down productivity for the sake of change — even necessary change tied to long-term survival. And adopting a whole new way of “selling” or talent acquisition can seem daunting at best.

Some have described this dilemma as the “monkey challenge”. When observing monkeys navigating from branch to branch in the jungle, monkeys typically don’t let go of the branch they are holding on to — until making contact with the next branch. But in business, this “monkey strategy” is not effective. In fact, change management research would tell us that by holding onto the existing branch inertia can set in and the pull of the familiar branch can keep a person from making the leap to the next one — the leap that is needed to keep moving forward and changing. A leap that is necessary to maintain competitive advantage in today’s difficult business environment.

So what is the solution? How can you reinvent the way TA professionals approach the selling process — while still hitting your numbers? Let me provide some ideas that I hope will be useful in solving this dilemma.

I suggest a two-level approach. The first level involves things that the TA’s themselves can do right now that will help move them toward buyer-focused selling, while not sacrificing key short-term metrics.

The second level is for TA leadership and speaks more to strategic and system-wide activities that will strengthen and support efforts related to the seller’s dilemma.

For recruiters: Create small wins

I’ve found that small wins, small projects, small differences often make huge differences.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Try starting with small “wins” to solve the dilemma. I’ve selected three “small wins” that can be tried almost instantly — without sacrificing critical metrics. Hopefully these small wins will give TA’s the confidence to “let go” of the “comfortable and familiar branch” they are hanging onto, while making firm contact with the next one.

Small win #1: Set a collaborative frame – and start with active candidate screens

To help TA professionals get in the “customer-focused” mindset, I would suggest starting with the screening process for active candidates. These conversations are typically the least stressful for most recruiters and, in turn, can be the most comfortable environment in which to introduce change.

A simple “purpose-benefit-check” statement can help. Simply start the conversation by saying something like, “The purpose of this call is to help me better understand what is important to you with regard to your next career move and answer your questions. I am hopeful that we can use the information from our call to help us both make a good decision and take the next, logical steps. How does this sound?

This is a simple and non-threatening way to help TAs begin to make the leap from a seller-focused screen (think: comfortable branch) to a buyer-focused collaboration (think: next branch to grab while moving forward!).

Once you are comfortable setting this collaborative frame, begin using it (or a variation) with your passive candidates. Remember, your passive prospects are highly informed and connected. They won’t have time for lame “product dumps” (“I have an awesome opportunity I’d like to tell you about..”). Instead, they will respect you if you have done your homework and frame the conversation with a collaborative start — signalling you are curious and genuinely interested in them.

Of course, once you set the collaborative tone for the call you need to deliver. You must be sure you include key questions that help you uncover what is important to your prospect/candidate. Which brings me to the second “small win”: ensuring you are asking the right questions.

Small win #2: Conduct a question audit

One of the most important parts of a great customer-focused sales process is the “discovery of need” phase. Great sellers — and great TA professionals — know how to identify and clarify what’s important to the prospect or candidate. They know that the discovery phase is the foundation upon which a great sales call is built.

One of the things we have found over the years in working with recruiters is that they typically do not conduct a question audit. Instead, they can become very comfortable asking the same questions in the same way over and over.

Unfortunately, most recruiters find that the vast majority of their questions tend to be simply “qualification checks” or verification questions. We call these “fact-finding” questions. Make no mistake, these questions are critical during candidate screens. But they are only part of the equation.

A very valuable process — leading to another  “small win” is to make a list of your commonly asked questions and simply audit them for their relevance and their importance in the screening process. Eliminate those questions that you can easily answer by doing a bit of homework prior to your call. And think about reducing – or eliminating — questions that may not be producing valuable insight into the key drivers (aspirations and afflictions) of your prospect or candidate.

Although there is no “perfect ratio” of fact-finding questions to problem/pain questions, be sure you have inserted enough “problem/pain questions” into your screen to give your prospect adequate time to describe what is important when it comes to making a career decision. For a little more on question audits, check out this brief video.

Small win #3: Listen more, talk less

Of all the “selling skills” the ability to listen is probably the most important one to master. But sadly, the temptation for many sales professionals — and recruiters — is to talk too much. Natural enthusiasm for a product, company, or opportunity is fine. But remember, the new selling journey is about the customer, not about the seller.

As a recruiter, you can put this “small win” into your calls immediately. At a practical level, take note of your own talk time. Generally, if you are talking more than 2 or 3 minutes, stop yourself.

Some research indicates that a 50-50 split is desirable on sales calls. In other words, you should be talking about 50% of the time. Personally, I am not as concerned about percentages as I am about making a conscious effort to be sure you provide adequate time to allow your prospect or candidate to fully articulate key aspirations and afflictions.

Also be aware of how many times you ask a follow-up question. Do you seek clarification of what the prospect or candidate was saying (or meaning)? If not, make a point of taking time on each call to ask at least one clarifying question. For example, if a prospect says they are looking to be part of a great team, ask what a great team would look like. Listen for these key words or phrases and seek to understand and avoid assumptions.

If you are really serious about taking your listening game to a new level, consider recording your calls and then checking to see how well you were listening, vs. talking. Sometimes it can be quite revealing to hear yourself on a call. We often are not aware of how we sound or what we are doing unless we take time and record ourselves.

For Talent Acquisition leaders: Turning “little wins” into huge differences!

If you are a TA Vice President or HR leader with responsibility for talent acquisition in your company, here are some things that I believe need to be “givens” as you attempt to solve the “seller’s dilemma” in your own TA organization.

Start by clearly and concisely communicating the vision for your group. Using all available channels and methods, be sure your groups (including hiring managers) understand not only what you are trying to accomplish, but why you are moving in this direction. Leave plenty of time for questions and feedback. Listen carefully and respond with candor and care.

Learning agility is a key, competitive advantage. As your recruiters and managers begin to put the “small wins” in place, be sure that you continually and visibly support the learning process. Encourage your teams to experiment with great collaborative openings and reward those who are serious about conducting their question audits. Gamification can provide additional incentive for trying new behaviors and can make the learning process fun and engaging.

Perhaps try having a contest to see who can develop the best “purpose-benefit-check”. Provide a visible and meaningful way to reward those who are working hard to improve. Remember the old saying, “you can expect what you inspect”. Be sure they know your are watching!

Ensure that your marketing department continues to work closely with your TA group. If you have not had a history of the two groups working closely together, then it is important to establish the case for a great partnership. In our experience, marketing can learn a lot from listening to the concerns and hopes/fears of the TA group and vice versa. When the two groups develop a level of trust and respect, company messaging becomes much more seamless and consistent. In addition, when everyone is on the “same page” the customer ultimately is the winner.

At some point, as a leader you need to assess the extent to which you need to retrain your existing staff, or perhaps revise your hiring criteria for your TA group. But be careful when assessing this need.

Research has shown that if you are not getting the results you expect (e.g, not seeing the skills and knowledge happening on the job), then you need to conduct a performance assessment. Here’s a quick way to help you diagnose performance problems.

Here are four questions you can ask to help diagnose performance issues:

  1. Does staff have the skills and knowledge needed to perform the job? (could they do it if their life depended on it?) If not, then training is the solution.
  2. Are the reward systems in place to reinforce the desired performance? If not, then be sure to realign reward to ensure you are encouraging and reinforcing the right behaviors.
  3. Is the team receiving coaching and feedback? If not, then be sure your managers are equipped to help develop talent in their groups. Without coaching and feedback, people will easily flounder and likely default to “old habits”.
  4. Are the systems supporting the desired job performance? If not, then you might need to invest in the right tools, systems and processes to help ensure the desired performance is aligned.

In summary

Today’s buyers are informed and digitally connected. They are less loyal, more critical and better researched. They demand sellers who understand their buying journey and who know how to add value each step of the way.

In a world of shrinking differentiators and increased competition, companies are touting the value that their people bring. No doubt, people do make a difference and indeed can become key differentiators. However, companies often face an uphill battle when trying to develop and deliver new competencies throughout the TA workforce.

I suggest three “small wins” that can help the transformation process and start the necessary radical reinvention of TA from administrative function to trusted advisor status. I believe these small wins can be accomplished without sacrificing key metrics.

And finally, the assumption is that leaders are doing their part to ensure the success of the effort to solve the “seller’s dilemma”.

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About The Author
Nancy Parks
Nancy L. Parks, Ph.D. founded HRPartnersplus, specializing in customized recruiter sales skill training. She has over 40 years of experience in business and education -- including 10 years in sales and sales training at a Fortune 500 company. She believes in learning -- not education, and that learning agility is a key, competitive advantage. She also believes in "pull" instead of "push" with regard to learning content, and in giving learners a "compass" instead of a "map". HRPartnersplus customized training has resulted in an average of 91% increase in selling skills as well as solid productivity gains (getting better information in less time).

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