Time is critical in talent acquisition. When job requisitions remain open for extended periods of time, frustrations can quickly escalate. Hiring managers and business leaders expect business results, and those results depend on cost-effective and expedient talent acquisition processes. The cost of unfilled job openings can take a toll on organizations and can easily erode the ability of talent acquisition professionals to maintain critical, strategic partner status.
On the other hand, when talent acquisition is at its best, recruiters are able to quickly qualify “suspects” and convert them into viable prospects. And they are able to effectively convert those prospects into great candidates, and eventually into A-player hires. When this happens, hiring managers’ expectations are met (or exceeded!) and the talent acquisition process is well-aligned with tactical and strategic business goals.
But what about open requisitions that seem to take forever to close? How confident are you that you can accurately and efficiently diagnose the root cause of an increased time-to-fill metric? Are you sure you can pinpoint where the opportunity might be stalled out? Certainly there could be more than one root cause tied to time-to-fill.
However, in our experience working with many great talent acquisition professionals and their managers, we have found that ineffective (or non-existent) pipeline management was a strong contributing factor to increased time to fill. In addition, we often observed that the coaching and feedback (related to time-to-fill and pipeline management) was not specific enough to be helpful and produce the intended results. Let me give a quick example of non-specific coaching.
Early in my career, I coached basketball and had the privilege to attend a coaching clinic led by Hall of Fame North Carolina coach Norm Sloan. During the clinic, Coach Sloan described in great detail how he coached his players to achieve higher and higher levels of performance. He left nothing to chance, and his specific coaching techniques were indeed impressive. Then one person asked him how he coached players to jump higher. He paused, smiled, and said, “I tell them, ‘Jump!’”.
Of course, he was joking. But I think he makes a relevant point in the context of this article. So often talent acquisition managers try to increase performance of recruiters by saying the equivalent of “Jump!” (e.g., “That req. has been open for too long. Get someone quickly!”). But we know that this type of coaching is not specific enough to be helpful in managing performance or consistently producing the intended business results. In this example, that measure would be time to fill.
I would like to offer a sales pipeline management framework for helping diagnose and correct some common talent acquisition pipeline performance problems that contribute to increased time to fill. In addition, I will provide specific coaching tips and techniques. In my experience, much of the friction that slows down pipelines — hence, increases time to fill — is caused by poorly developed pipeline management skills.
The Pipeline: A Generic Framework
I am using a generic opportunity funnel, or pipeline, as my performance analysis framework. The pipeline helps us visualize the necessary steps that occur when moving people in a buying process.
Opportunity funnels or pipelines are common in both sales and recruiting (see Figure 1 below). To make this exercise simple, I break the pipeline into 3 phases: Top, middle and bottom.
Phase 1 is populated by suspects. These are opportunities that have yet to be qualified. In talent acquisition, suspects typically come from sourcing activities and include referrals as well as passive candidates.
Phase 2 includes the suspects from Phase 1 who are now qualified opportunities. These prospects/candidates have made a decision to make a career/job change; however, they have not necessarily committed to your organization (or opportunity). Phase 2 also includes your active candidates (those who have initiated an application for your open position).
Phase 3 includes those who ultimately commit to your opportunity (i.e., accept the offer). Again, these folks can be either passive candidates (who began in Phase 1) or active candidates (who began in Phase 2).
Let’s unpack specific ways to diagnose performance problems common to each phase and include specific coaching tips to help solve the time-to-fill problem in each phase.
Phase 1: Top of the funnel/pipeline
Sales (and talent acquisition) is driven by numbers. And pipeline management demands “knowing your numbers”. If there are not enough suspects at the top of the funnel, and conversion rates are low, then the number of qualified prospects/candidates will be low.
Successful sales professionals know their numbers. They know how many of their cold calls convert into qualified prospects. And knowing the numbers gives guidance to how many cold calls need to be made to keep a pipeline full of qualified leads. And, of course, accurate numbers make sales managers very happy when it comes to accurately forecasting quota attainment.
Diagnosing TOP of funnel/pipeline performance problems
The first step in diagnosing pipeline problems is to look closely at the number of suspects who have either been contacted or who have been identified for a contact.
Issues that strongly suggest top-of-pipeline problems include:
- Low (or no) call back’s (conversion rate) from voice mail or email messages.
- Inadequate number of passive candidates to contact.
- Inability to generate follow-up call from initial contact.
To help coach a recruiter who is having difficulty at the top of the funnel/pipeline, use the following table to help you diagnose and prescribe the correct solutions. I provide here the “Top 3” issues at this phase of pipeline management.
Table 1: Top 3 performance issues and coaching tips: Top of pipeline (suspects)
Keep in mind that fear of cold calling is very real (think: fear of rejection) and be prepared to have a conversation about how to help the recruiter overcome the fears. Sometimes simply having the skills and a great plan go a long way to alleviating these common fears.A final word about this phase of the pipeline: “fear”. In our experience working with hundreds of recruiters, one of the top issues is simply fear of cold calling. When coaching recruiters, be sure to have a conversation about what might keep them from picking up the phone and making the calls.
Diagnosing MIDDLE of funnel/pipeline performance problems
The next step in diagnosing pipeline problems is to look closely at quantity and quality of the engagement with prospects.
Issues that point to middle-of-pipeline problems include:
- Low (or no) call back’s (conversion rate) after 1 or 2 calls with prospect.
- Lots of early objections (especially salary objections).
- Lots of conversations without commitment to move forward in the process.
Again, to coach recruiters who are having difficulty at this phase of the funnel/pipeline, use the following table to help you diagnose and prescribe the correct solutions. I provide here the “Top 3” issues at this phase of pipeline management.
Table 2: Top 3 performance issues and coaching tips: Middle of pipeline (prospects)
One other key assumption when it comes to significantly reducing friction during this phase of the pipeline is that recruiters have excellent listening skills. Of all the sales skills, listening is at the top of the list. Recruiters need to be able to demonstrate they can listen and follow up with great questions to help them deepen their understanding of what’s happening on calls.
Here’s a great coaching tip. If at all possible, get an audio recording of a call between a recruiter and a prospect. In our training, we regularly rely on audio recordings to help recruiters actually hear themselves on calls. It’s always a surprise for them to hear how much their own “talk time” is on the calls. You can both listen to the recording and have a coaching session around listening skills!
There’s no magic amount of talk vs listen time on calls, but we like to say that if a recruiter is talking for more than a couple of minutes, stop and check in with the other person. Don’t assume lots of talking = commitment/agreement. We always say, “Telling isn’t selling.”
Diagnosing BOTTOM of funnel/pipeline performance problems
This final phase of the pipeline can be a bit tricky to define. I recognize that many recruiters actually exit the process once a candidate is vetted and delivered to the hiring manager. In other cases, the recruiter plays a continued role in the hiring process — including salary negotiations. Either way, I will try to make points that work in either case (or state my assumptions).
Issues that point to bottom-of-pipeline problems include:
- Prospects asking for long amounts of time to “think about” the opportunity.
- Losing the prospect to a competitor.
- “No call, no show” for interview with hiring manager or team.
Again, to help coach recruiters who are having difficulty at this phase of the funnel/pipeline, use the following table to help you diagnose and prescribe the correct solutions. I provide here the “Top 3” issues at this final, important phase of pipeline management.
Table 3: Top 3 performance issues and coaching tips: Bottom of pipeline
To ensure you have completely and correctly diagnosed the performance issues:Before closing, I want to mention that we have made the assumption that all performance problems are “skill and knowledge” (training) issues. We understand that other factors can contribute to performance problems.
- Check for systems or environmental problems that may also be slowing down time to fill. For example, if it is time consuming or difficult to use applicant tracking systems or other supporting systems that facilitate pipeline processes, those system problems need to be addressed and fixed.
- Ensure that the appropriate motivators are in place. If the pipeline behaviors you want are not rewarded properly, then be sure that recruiters perceive benefit from doing the right things. People need to see a clear path between the desired behaviors and reward systems.
- Be certain that each recruiter receives important coaching and performance feedback. Without coaching and meaningful feedback, recruiters will not be able to develop and master key skills.
Try using a pipeline to pinpoint areas where excess friction is causing time to fill problems in your organization. Spend time with recruiters asking key questions related to top, middle and bottom of the pipeline to be sure you clearly diagnose where problems may exist, and then design the appropriate solution.
Sometimes training is the right answer; other times it may be systems or rewards or coaching that also need to be addressed in order to produce the expected business results.
A final “stretch objective” for recruiting leaders
Develop a “Pipeline Operations Manual” that can build consistency throughout your talent acquisition organization. A great manual would include details of the “buyer’s journey” at each step, as well as what recruiters need to be doing to align at each step. Also consider developing and including target conversion ratios for top, middle, bottom of the pipeline.
With an “ops manual” you will be well on your way to having a “best-in-class” method to ensure time to fill is minimized and contributes to great business results, great candidate experiences, and excellent business partner relationships.