A Dear Mitch Special: Dealing With Clients

Mitch Sullivan’s best known for his work in recruitment advertising. 

He runs several training courses, one of which teaches Recruiters how to write better job ads. He keeps a blog that covers the subject regularly. And you’ll find him putting the world to rights in the comments on LinkedIn.

He’s published a book on recruitment. And it’s worth the occasional reminder that Mitch has 25 years experience filling jobs under his belt. Which means he’s seen it all, heard every objection and dealt with more client demands that you’ve had hot dinners.

Our Dear Mitch series is your chance to ask the questions your boss can’t or won’t answer. And in this article, we’ve collected Mitch’s shiniest pearls of wisdom on how to deal with difficult clients.

From securing a higher rate to picking the right clients to partner with in the first place, it’s all here.


“Dear Mitch, I struggle with finding new clients that don’t already use 20 agencies”. Jack, Brighton. 

How many agencies would you prefer that they use?

If it’s one (that would be you), then you’re going to need to sell that. And before you can sell that you need to find out why that particular company feels they need to use that many other agencies.

That will take time and depend on whether you’re allowed to spend any time to develop some clients who aren’t going to give you any vacancies to work on.

If that’s not an option, then my advice would be to go after new clients who aren’t large corporates. SMEs tend not to use lots of agencies and need more help than bigger companies. They don’t get cold-called by recruiters anything like as often either.

The other good thing about doing business with SMEs is they often have a more realistic approach to what type of candidates they can attract.

“I’ve got a client who’s already been a pain in the backside, insisting on 12.5% with a 100% rebate for 6 months, and refusing to schedule interviews for 2 candidates his CEO has shown interest in until these terms are signed. He’s now demanding to see the P60 alongside every candidate CV I submit to him. To me, this seems unreasonable, stretching the process by wasting time, and putting off candidates. Any advice?” Peter.

The only way any recruiter might sign up for those kinds of terms is if the work is always on retained and the jobs are (relatively) easy to fill. And even then I’d want to review it every 3 months.

12.5% is the kind of rate companies pay RPOs – so unless you’re getting volume and exclusivity, I think you should be politely telling the client to not darken your door again.

And 6-month rebate terms are only normally found being offered for the more senior hires where the recruiter’s headhunting guile and candidate assessment abilities came more into play.

The questions you need to ask yourself are:

Do you need them more than they need you?

Is the client easy to sell? It doesn’t sound like it.

Do their competitors only pay 12.5% for the same candidate type?

If the answer to each is ‘no’ then you need to ditch them. But do it politely and offer them a rational explanation how working to those terms make it almost impossible to do a decent job and make a profit.

You’ll probably also need to tell them that they will incur your full fee if they end up hiring either of the two candidates you’ve already submitted.

“Dear Mitch, I struggle convincing a client I am worth more than 15%”. Steph, London. 

Are you worth more?

If you think you are, you’re going to have to be able to tell a client what they would get for the extra 5 or 10% you want to charge them.

When asked why they’re better than their competitors most recruiters respond with things like “I have 10 years’ experience” or “I have a big database” or “I’m great at selling jobs to candidates”.

The client doesn’t care about those things. They only care about what they’re going to get.

In my experience, the two things hiring managers care about the most are:

1) Candidate quality

2) Having as little agency interaction as possible.

The 2nd one is tough for you to do anything about – at least in the short term.

The 1st one you can deal with by identifying what you do (or could do) that would improve the quality of the candidates you send them. Most of those are going to be activities related to attraction and assessment. Is your job ad content better than your competitors? Do you interview candidates against the specific requirements of the client? Do you not send the same candidates out to other hiring companies?

If the answer is ‘yes’ to each of those questions, that should form the basis of your pitch to the client as to why you’re worth more than 15%. If you want 20%, the client is going to want to see a 25% improvement in candidate quality.

Or, you could try and become their friend and hope they give you a pay rise because they like you.

“Mitch, I don’t ever seem to be able to get above 20% agreed. What are the best terms you ever worked with on a role and how did you get them? Can you help me get to 25% regularly?” Anonymous.

I’ve never charged a client more than 25% as I think anything more than that is moving into rip-off territory.

A lot depends on what it is you’re selling.

If you’re selling the ability to engage with and persuade exceptional candidates to come to the client’s interview table, then, given that you can show the client how and why that would happen, most clients would happily pay 25% to have a job filled that is usually deemed problematic.

Where client’s tend to kick-back on fees is when they feel like they’re agreeing to such a high fee with a host of recruiters who are all hoping to get lucky. Their own previous experiences, both as a hiring manager and as a candidate, will have informed much of this attitude.

For me, the best way to get 25% is to demonstrate how what you do will produce better candidates than any other agency – or if they tried to fill it themselves.

The bottom line is that most hiring companies will pay whatever they have to pay if they have complete trust that the recruiter is going to fill their vacancy.

PS… Yes, I can help you get to 25% more regularly.

“Dear Mitch, I struggle with getting my clients to give me full feedback on CVs, which means I can never alter my search appropriately to make sure I find the right candidate”. Rosie, London.

Have you told them this? If they could see a potential future benefit to them, I’d have thought a few would be prepared to give you the kind of truth you’re looking for. Don’t expect them to put it in writing though.

The problem with getting candidate feedback from hiring managers is that they know, that often their rationale for rejecting interviewees is somewhat subjective – and they don’t want to have to justify it. Or embarrass themself by saying it out loud. Then there are others who don’t want to give any feedback for fear of falling foul of any potential litigation issues.

Ultimately, I think the best way to hold a hiring manager’s feet to the fire is to have already taken a good brief that contains 3 to 4 ‘must haves’ on the target candidate profile. If you’ve submitted a candidate who meets each of those must haves, that leaves the hiring manager with nowhere to go when it comes to justifying why someone has been rejected. What you’re left with are character issues, which are very difficult to match – especially if you’re not interviewing these candidates.

Next time this happens, ask the client if they want you to interview all candidates from now on. If they say ‘yes’, that’s a great opportunity for you to get some kind of exclusivity. 


Catch up on the previous articles in this series here. And if you’ve got any of your own questions you’d like answering (anonymously or otherwise) you can reach the man himself at [email protected]