New Frontiers For Contingency Firms

Let’s look at how Referable can help contingency firms differentiate and break into Executive Search.

The Ugly Contingency Truth

Without going too deep, essentially contingency recruitment is about finding the active candidates and shopping them to companies with open roles. These roles are typically quite common mid-career roles that are not what I would call “business-critical”. 

There are no guarantees and loyalties are limited: the client gives nothing and recruiters are expected to make the placement before they get paid. In fact the candidate often has to get through their probation before any refund clause expires. In contingency search the recruiter has very little control over events. (Yet clients often talk of “risk”!)

This lack of “partnership” often requires contingency recruiters to float their candidates to as many potential buyers as possible in order to maximise their chances of a successful outcome. It is a gig that is increasingly being squeezed by reduced hiring, smaller recruiting budgets, and increased competition from in-house and RPO recruiters. Talk about tough going!

While the big guns have marketing budgets to keep up a flow of “active” candidates, many boutique firms I talk to are urgently considering how they can generate more consistent returns. Usually the first option to consider is retained search so with that in mind, let’s explore how Referable can help contingency firms make the step up to exclusive and retained searches.  

A Business Critical Search

You get wind of a role coming up with your client. It is a “business-critical” role so it is important to conduct a successful search with a high quality candidate – nothing less will do. After struggling with referrals internally, the client invites you in to discuss the search. They do the same with your competitors, but this is your chance to shine!

Your competitors will likely pitch their database, research capability and/or track record in the space. Many will float blind resumes to demonstrate that they know the right people for the job. They will hold their cards closely to their chests. They will mostly look and sound the same. The client is quite likely a bit bored. 

Now it is your turn. How can you differentiate yourself from all the other agents?

Take a Fresh Approach 

Rather than do what your competitors are doing, how about taking a fresh approach? I am going to explain some methods that have worked for my teams in the past. 

What if you were able to join the client briefing and immediately present a Long List of all ‘probable’ candidates across the market? What if you even included a bunch of candidates the client ought to have pursued as referrals? 

What if the candidates include former colleagues of the hiring manager themselves, along with the former colleagues of other senior leaders across the organisation?

What if you present the candidates ranked in accordance with a balanced scorecard? For example, most sales leadership roles will be scored on criteria such as track record, leadership experience, career trajectory, and perhaps domain experience, so why not start there?

The Candidate Map

The list – otherwise known as a ‘candidate map’ – could be built from your proprietary IP and/or open web data. While your client has already given up on the referral route, you have an opportunity to collaborate with them to ensure confidence in what might be your first exclusive search with them.

Recruiters should be confident in the knowledge that every single time we have presented Referable shortlists to hiring managers, they have found people they and their team previously missed. Normal referral processes only scratch the surface of 1st degree friends, whereas Referable digs much deeper to identify all past colleagues – much to the delight of said hiring managers!  

Taking ‘In-House’ Outside

Now you and your client are in a position to calibrate the search based on real people and real relationships. Assuming your candidate ownership clauses are solid and trust levels high, you are also able to leverage all available resources to engage the top candidates, if the need arises.

Some clients will not be open to fresh approaches, but this model of collaborative engagement opens new doors for innovative recruiters. It effectively conducts a back door check before any prospects are engaged. This allows you to focus on the highest probability candidates and highest probability outcomes.

Where required the client can even tag their team for help. This could be the fastest way to close the search with the highest degree of confidence in the candidates. This business-critical search is retained and it is all about execution, not about who brought the candidate in. No-one will quibble over fees if the business wins!

This model is very much what the best in-house recruiters already do. Two Fortune-100 tech companies we know built platform that are a basic version of Referable! This model works! At Referable we see a big opportunity for agency recruiters looking to differentiate themselves from the crowd. 

Transparency Wins Retainers

Let me share an example of this process in action. My team pitched for a country manager search in a turn-around/relaunch scenario, the global sales head (aka primary stakeholder) queried us about our capability and track record, after which we presented what we knew of the market so that we could ‘calibrate’ the search. That meant showing the members on the call who we saw across the market ranked in order of scoring by their own criteria. The conversation immediately zeroed in on the highest probability prospect, and after feeling comfortable with the information provided, the client told us to stop in our tracks and wait for them to do their own backdoor check. They came back within 48 hours stating they wanted us to get them in front of this individual – ASAP. Which we did. 

In this case, by providing the client visibility to the candidate map along with our informed opinion on the leaderboard, we were able to collaborate on qualifying the lead candidate. The stakeholder himself had reached out to a peer to verify the candidates qualifications and word came back ‘strongly positive’. I don’t mean to downplay our role in the placement but once the client was ‘sold’, all we had to do was broker a meeting rather than sell the dream. They met, they bonded and nature took it’s course. (That individual took the business from a struggling team of 3 in late 2020 to over 50 people and massively expanded partner sales ecosystem by 2022. It all came from presenting a relevant candidate map!) 

This degree of transparency won’t always work, but with all things being equal a fresh approach to partnering is likely to win more often than not. As pointed out above, in our experience every single time we presented a short list of Referable candidates to a hiring manager they found people they did not think of before, so it is worth exploring as a point of differentiation.

Partnership Secures Revenues

This type of collaborative approach is a great way for contingency firms to win more stable business. Obvious potential exists to expand the model beyond a single retained search to deliver on multiple searches, and to expand the results into a longer term RPO engagement. This is the essence of true partnership and one of the ways boutique firms can escape the contingency trap and generating more consistent revenue streams.

Having the ability to collaborate around a candidate map with your client means that next time you get a sniff of a business critical search or multi-role retainer, Referable users can go in with the right tools for the job. Not only will you win more business, but your client partnership will go to another level. That should mean more revenues, more consistently!

Referable AI has been developed by a team experienced in executive search, RPO, in-house recruiting and HR tech to help both in-house and agency recruiters to solicit more referrals faster than ever. If you would like to learn more, drop us a line at hello(at)

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