The war for talent in Australia has the battlelines drawn across all industries and many specialist roles, with marketing and sales no exception. Analytics and direct marketing are marketing niches where the competition for candidates is most fierce, while in sales there is huge demand for candidates with solution sales experience. The professional services sector is also a particularly difficult area for attracting talent due to an exodus of marketing and business development managers into commerce and industry.

Four out of five organisations generally are experiencing the effects of the talent war in their recruitment efforts, according to in-depth client research commissioned in the past six months by LINK Recruitment. Just one in four organisations says it is tackling this challenge, while one in five is not even sure how to.

Many employers recognise they need help in negotiating the fundamental and growing gap between the workforce needs of the market and the supply of quality candidates available to meet those needs, which is the basis of the talent war. This partly explains a growing trend towards the use of recruitment agencies, either as the chosen approach or as part of companies recruitment armoury.

The Buyer Behaviour Survey 2006, bringing together feedback from 660 client organisations nationally, provides some valuable insights into whether, why and how organisations are choosing to use agencies and what they value in their chosen provider. Employers said they value using a recruitment agency because the right one: can access a larger, quality pool of candidates with specialist skills; is able to place people more quickly; saves them time by conducting the initial screening; and can draw on psychometric tools to determine the candidate who is more likely to stay, thereby saving the costs of a bad recruitment.

Responsiveness and ethical behaviour were the agency attributes most valued by clients, followed closely by professionalism.

Selecting the right recruitment agency

As a hiring manager, it is well worth investing time upfront in really getting to know the agency and the individual account manager. Spend at least two hours before you embark on a campaign with an agency to get the fundamentals right.

The following check-list may help you select the agency that will best meet your needs. While its an inexact science before youve had the chance to actually work with a recruiter, this information will create a clearer picture of a particular agency and how it compares with others. Rank each agency Yes, No or Maybe against each question. You may then consider doing trial contracts with the couple of agencies that score the most Yes answers. Does the agency:

  • promptly respond to email and telephone inquiries
  • have an ethical business charter
  • offer access to a quality candidate pool
  • offer human resources support such as psychometric testing and coaching for current staff
  • have a demonstrated understanding of your industry
  • work with you to develop tailored solutions
  • act professionally at all times
  • have experienced staff who are friendly and courteous
  • have the skills and resources to handle bulk applications, and
  • offer value for money?

Prompt response to email and telephone enquiries

First impressions are critical, so think about how that 90-second initial encounter with an agency unfolds when you pick up the phone and call. The way the receptionist answers the phone, how they handle your initial enquiry and answer your questions, whether they keep you waiting and whether they refer you with confidence to the correct consultant are all important. Take note of whether the consultant follows up promptly with information by email or responds quickly to your email query. If theyre falling down on the job at the purchasing stage, theyre unlikely to improve on appointment.

An ethical business charter

An agencys website is a good starting point for all research. Check whether they are members of the industry watchdogs, the Recruitment and Consulting Services Association (RSCA) or Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI). See what they say about their mission and values on their site and ask if they have a conflicts policy.

Access to a quality candidate pool

Given that every agency with any marketing nous claims this, whom do you believe? In todays highly mobile labour market, an agency working in specialist areas should have a database of quality temporary and contract labour candidates. Such claims are less credible for permanent placements. A sophisticated recruiter knows the whole market, whether or not a certain candidate is registered on their books. That candidate may simply be part of the wider pool of people to whom the recruiter has access for a short time: no one good these days is stuck on a database for long. The recruiter who has genuine access to these candidates is probably the one who is out there talking to people, networking at industry functions and is adept at managing a dynamic web of relationships with employers and candidates, past and present.

Human resource support

While you may not be able to try before you buy, the agency should be willing and able to supply you with examples of the tools that underpin these services. Ask for a psychometric profile report or a reference template. I have even been known to send my own profile out to clients so that they can see exactly what it entails. You could also ask to talk to one of the agencys other clients to gauge the service experience. Always check whether these additional services are fee-attracting or value-adds.

A demonstrated understanding of your industry

Test an agencys knowledge by asking what previous experience theyve had recruiting for your industry, for the names of clients for whom they have worked or testimonials from them, or to describe similar projects theyve undertaken in your industry. Have you seen them at industry events – networking, as speakers, sponsors or exhibitors? Does their website or proposal provide evidence of claims to agency or individual expertise in your industry? You should also ask about their specialisation in recruiting for the particular role. A general agency is unlikely to be able to provide the technically astute talent required for specialist roles if they have not worked extensively in that marketplace niche.

Work with you to develop tailored solutions

A good partnership with a recruiter begins with a discussion about the best methodologies to achieve your project objectives. Theres a commonly held belief that all a recruiter does is take a brief, check their database, go on Seek and send you a bill, and that perception is really the fault of our industry for not educating clients. For some assignments, I’ll know that the individual will only be found by proactive networking or tapping people on the shoulder, so what is the point of spending my clients time and money doing a whole lot of other things? As the experts, we need to consult you, the client, about the best solution because it will impact on things like the length of the assignment, the risk and the cost.

Act professionally at all times

Professionalism means different things to different clients. At the most basic level, it begins with the agencys staff being polite and well-dressed, with clean, welcoming offices and efficient business equipment, punctuality to meetings and responsiveness to requests. It is also the sum total of everything on this check-list.

Experienced staff who are friendly and courteous

You are embarking on an important relationship with an agency so ask yourself: do they listen to what I say I need and seem to respect my opinions? Look at individual CVs of team members assigned to your project to understand how long they have been in the business and what assignments they have undertaken. Ask them who you will be working with most in the team and ask yourself: ‘Can I work with this person?’ Have a clear understanding of who has ultimate responsibility for your project if things go wrong.

Skills and resources for bulk applications

A capacity to handle bulk applications mostly lies in an agencys technical resources. The number, calibre and geographic spread of an agencys consultants can also be an indication, although small agencies with great IT and systems can do an excellent job. Does the agency have the IT functionality to undertake online search, for example? IT also contributes enormously to an agencys ability to manage its candidates, whose satisfaction in a tight market impacts directly on the reputation of both agency and client. It can streamline application processing and response, ensure candidates are kept informed and provide them with regular newsletters and updates in electronic format.

Value for money

While the proof is undoubtedly in a successful placement at the end of the recruitment process, you can evaluate value for money upfront before the relationship begins. When organisations are surprised at what recruiters charge they often dont realise what goes on behind the scenes, especially in a market that is getting tighter by the day. More importantly, an agencys costs should be linked to specific, costed stages of a transparent recruitment process that they can walk you through before you commit. If need be, a good recruiter should be able to remove steps in the process and reprice the package to suit your needs.

In a nutshell, you should be prepared to invest and to plan properly for your campaign by working with your recruiter. The more information the recruiter has, the more accurate they can be in the provision of a candidate that meets your criteria. There is also no substitute for great, ongoing communication. At the executive search and managerial levels in particular, the project is most likely to fail because communication has broken down. This may be in part due to mismatched expectations, but frequently because the message and the tactics have not been clearly defined and agreed at the outset.