How to Sell a Retainer

A short while ago, I wrote about the stark distinction between a recruitment consultant’s job title and the role they perform. For many recruiters, maybe even you, there’s a tendency to rely on their title as a badge of honour.

It’s either something you’ve never thought about, or something you think sounds better than ‘Headhunter’. Fair enough in the latter case…

But hey, maybe you do consult sometimes?

Maybe you say no to clients and hold your own?

But I bet there’s one thing you struggle with more than anything else. I bet it’s the same thing the vast majority of recruiters, all over the world, struggle with.

Namely, not working for free.

How many times have you picked up a role from a client, ran straight to the phone and started working like a busy little mouse without any idea of whether you’re going to get the fee?

I’d guess, if you’re a contingency recruiter it happens daily.

There’s nothing wrong with that by the way, contingency recruitment’s the beast we’ve come to know. It’s the evolution of decades of traction, shaping this fair sector like the continuous carving of cliffs next to an almighty ocean.

Here’s the thing however, your clients are really happy with this model.

Working with you and your competitors in this way means they can hold a gun to your head.

Rather than anything sinister, this is more of a starting gun. They pull the trigger and the race to the bottom is ON. You scurry around trying to find the best person for the best package, knowing if there’s a photo finish with a competitor, your rates will be used as a yard stick to justify the spend.

Starting orders

There’s almost no point in me telling you why you’d want to sell a retainer. But just in case there’s any doubt, I’ll reel off a few ideas.

Firstly, your days of working for free on activities that don’t put money on the board will be over. Or at least diminished.

Because of that, your productivity will sky rocket. Like Usain Bolt prepping for another record breaker, everything you do will be measured and honed towards the ultimate goal… making money

I know this is what you think you do now, but if you’re working in contingency, that’s just not true.

In fact, if you were to work out how much time you spend on activities that don’t put money in your pocket, I’d guess you’re not very productive at all?

What would you do with that extra time?

There’s a strong possibility you’ll continue to work.

And with that extra time; your new found productivity and financial accountability, I’d guess your rise up the leaderboard would be jump started.

On the other hand, you might take time out.

Your work life balance is huge factor for long-term happiness in any job. Recruitment’s no different. The easier your job is on your mental capacity, the longer you’ll stay.

The longer you stay, the more success you’ll find, the happier you’ll be.

So why should you sell a retainer? The question’s more a case of why wouldn’t you?

Client’s consideration

We’ve established why you want to sell a retainer… but why would your client buy one?

Why would they give you money up front, instead of creating the bidding war they manufacture at present? Well, to explain why, I’m going to draw on lessons in purchasing from the most basic of buying methods.

In this case… eBay.

Given the bidding element of the eBay system, there are bargains to be had everywhere. The very premise of the website focuses on the consumer getting something for cheap.

Now, as a buyer, you can bid it out. You can go back and forth, with more admin, more hassle, more emotional strain, risking the ultimate quality of the product for a lower price.

Or… you can ‘buy it now’.

On the buy it now system, your mind assumes the quality’s assured.

You’ll get the product on your own terms, at the time you want it.

The price will be higher, sure. But you know that going in, and paying up front guarantees your happiness.

The same emotional transaction eBay created with ‘buy it now’ is the same one you need to sell for a retainer.


When you should sell (and who to)

Do you think eBay would offer you a ‘buy it now’ item, if they had no way of delivering?

Spoiler: they wouldn’t.

If you were waiting for something time sensitive, which you absolutely needed for a certain event, and an email popped up apologising for the lack of delivery, even a full refund wouldn’t heal the wound of discontent.

This is the same principle in recruiting.

If there’s absolutely no way you can guarantee filling a role, you shouldn’t be selling a retainer.

If you’re confident however, here are a few other things on the checklist.

1) Is the client truly committed to hiring?

Has the budget been signed off? Is there space in the team? A lot of clients will say they’re ready to hire. Not all of them are.

If you’re going to try and sell a retainer, you need to know this before anything else.

2) How niche is the role?

If there’s not a difficulty in attraction or selection. If the role’s entry level. If the potential candidates are ten a penny… you’re going to struggle.

Look for senior roles. Or hard to fill roles. Or roles where the skills are simply not that common.

3) Can they offer exclusivity?

If you’re the second, third, fourth recruiter they’ve spoken to about this role, walk away.

They’ve already fired the starting gun, and you weren’t in the blocks. Trying to catch up now would be a waste of both your time.

4) Can you fill it? (Yes you can)

You’ll probably know going in whether you can fill a role. If there’s any doubt and this is the first time you’ve worked with the client, it may be the last.

Sure there will be times you sell a retainer and have difficulty in filling the role. Just don’t do this on the first occasion. You need to have absolute faith in your ability to deliver.

5) Can you sell the benefits to the client?

Contingent search is probably working for the client. After all, they’re only paying for results.

What you need to do, similar to the eBay analogy above, is find three things you’ll deliver over a contingent competitor.

If you can do that, you’ll cement the process and probably the fee.

Try selling the benefits of: i) The quality of your work. ii) The quality of the candidate iii) Their reputation in the market.

Process driven

The process of working on retained searches is different to contingency.

You’ll show the client with almost complete transparency results at every stage. This may mean emailing a long-list, a shortlist, an interview shortlist and coaching each candidate to much deeper levels than ever before.

You might conduct interviews on site, or let the client use your site as a base.

If there’s any chance of the client being disgruntled, selling them a retainer and working as if it’s contingency will amplify it.

Of course, the very best way to learn how to sell a retainer is to work for a business that specialises in it. An employer who’ll guide you to true consultant status. A business at the top of their game, that works with the best of the best.

A business with exemplary training and the know-how to take your game to the next level.

But where can you find a mythical business like this?

Well, if you’re based in London, Singapore or Hong Kong, this might be a good place to start.