Is retained executive search better than contingency recruitment?

John Chaintreuil our consultant managing the role
Posting date: 20 March 2024

A positive candidate experience is essential to the recruitment process and should be a key consideration, especially for senior level positions. But as an employer, if you outsource your recruitment, how do you know that your organization and the prospective job role are being best represented, and that your organization is able to secure the best talent in the most time-efficient manner?

Therein lies one of the biggest differences between retained executive and contingency search. 

I spent several years in high-end contingency recruitment before coming to Hanover and working on a retained basis, so I have a unique perspective when I say that retained executive search has the upper hand over contingency recruitment when it comes to finding top level talent. But first…

What’s the difference between retained executive and contingency search?

With retained executive search, you’ll enter into an exclusive partnership with a recruiter who will map the market for you. They’ll either know or be able to find a pool of top-level talent that fits your profile, before filtering it down to those with a strong cultural fit and the specialist experience and knowledge you need.

Non-exclusive contingency recruitment means that you have a number of different recruiting firms looking for the right talent for your organization. This can result in a diffusion of responsibility, a lack of accountability, and access only to a handful of candidates who are seeking a new role, rather than a pool of talent who could be right for your position. 

With regards to costs and billing, simply put, in retained search, an upfront fee (the retainer) is paid to the executive search firm. This retainer also sets forth mutually-expected goals and milestones on how the search will be conducted. The initial retainer is credited towards the final placement or completion fee. In contingency search, parties agree to terms, but no initial payment is made. Fees are only incurred once a successful placement has been made.   

So why pay now when you could just pay later? Because you’re guaranteed the best partnership between your search firm and your company.

6 reasons to use retained executive search 

1. They are committed and accountable to you

A contingency recruiter may be easily swayed by a more lucrative deal, or even stop working on your role if it turns out that potential candidates are difficult to find. They are motivated by the easiest path to a placement. If there are setbacks or a change of course in your search, it’s not uncommon for a contingent recruiter to cut their losses and move on. There’s no understanding of where you are in the process, and no regular reporting.  

A retained executive search firm, on the other hand, provides a comprehensive, dedicated, and tailored approach. This commitment stems in part from the fact that you pay for retained search upfront. This locks in their services and drives accountability to you and the role you’re recruiting for. You’ll always know what the situation is and where the process stands. You’ll get regular reports and recommendations, and you’ll have someone working closely with you who can answer your questions. In short, you’ll get more attention and commitment from a retained firm.

2. It’s a genuine, trusted partnership

Retained executive search is a bespoke partnership between your organization and the recruiter. It’s not about simply submitting a resumé and hoping for the best–it’s about taking the time to learn about a client’s work culture, their latest initiatives, offer industry insight and trends, and together, identifying what are going to be difference-making characteristics that will drive success.

By working closely with you to build trust, the retained approach leverages global connections and expertise, producing diverse shortlists of only the highest caliber. There’s an increased focus on your exact needs, as well as finding someone who fits your company’s ethos.  

The fact is that these relationships are rarer and harder to build under a contingent search model, especially when employers may be utilizing multiple firms to fill the same role. Job searches and contingency firms themselves are more of a commodity, and the relationships are often simply transactional.

3. You’ll get a true picture of the market

Retained searches produce better candidates because of their comprehensive approach to recruitment. The process itself begins with a full market mapping exercise, identifying a minimum of 50-70 excellent individuals who are then contacted, screened and interviewed. This narrows the pool down to a top-tier selection of five to seven candidates, all of whom you’ll want to hire. 

This is in contrast to the contingency process, in which a recruiter might post a job online and thus attract only those candidates who happen to be actively looking. Those postings may only produce a handful of resumés. 

While the contingent firm I worked at offered a high level of attention and had a very niche expertise, the reality is that the depth and exhaustive retained search process at Hanover offers clients a much more thorough, diverse and highly qualified selection of candidates.   

4. You’ll know any candidate submitted will be of high quality

The contingency search process very rarely contains a face-to-face interview, as speedy resumé submission to a client is more important than the quality of the candidate. This means there’s a substantial risk that the selected candidates who interview will lack the necessary hard skills and thus fail to be a desirable cultural fit; as an employer, you’ll end up losing a lot of time. The incentive for the contingent recruiter is just to get as many interviews as possible, as quickly as possible, and hope that it produces results. 

With retained searches, however, the recruiter will typically speak to every candidate a number of times, including a face-to-face interview. Because of the investment in time spent by a retained search firm in learning about the unique candidate you’re seeking and the process of gaining a more in-depth understanding of your organization, they’ll be more likely to identify the candidates that would be a good fit for the role. This saves you time in the long run.

5. Executive recruiters can conduct unique and specialized searches

Retained search firms can conduct highly specialized searches and even confidential searches if that’s necessary for a particular reason. It’s not uncommon for our clients to share information with us before their own employees for one reason or another (and it can dictate what information is shared within outreach to potential candidates, especially in niche industries with small, close knit communities).   

How executive recruiters go to market and find candidates is very different, and can be entirely tailored to suit what you’re looking for. If your search requires the handling of sensitive information, the deep partnership that a retained search firm provides is paramount.

6. Executive search has more caché with top level talent

As a candidate, being contacted for an interesting, challenging role that has been taken on by a retained search firm–especially when you’re not actively seeking a career change–holds some power. It gets a candidate’s attention and shows them that you, as a company, are really committed to the role.  

Potential candidates will know that there’s a strategic need for the role.  It’s an essential, difference-making position that you’re giving great weight to. This gives passive candidates more comfort and makes the position stand out because of the importance the company is placing on the search effort. This strategy leads to more candidates being brought into the process and, ultimately, a better pool of candidates to select from. 

How Hanover carries out retained executive search

In my prior role working in contingency search, I would often hear from clients about how strong a service we provided; they would go on to share some of the horror stories of other firms that they had worked with. I considered us a high-end contingency firm. Despite being in the top echelon of contingent firms, having now worked at Hanover and seeing the level of service and execution at a retained firm, trust me when I say there’s a significant difference.

There’s a perception that retained search costs more than contingency recruitment, but the costs are simply invoiced differently and the total costs are actually comparable, even if the service is incomparable.  

It’s common for a client to approach us for retained executive search services after trying to recruit through a contingency search firm, only to be unable to find the right candidate. This loss of time (and extra cost) can be avoided by partnering with a retained executive search firm in the first place.  

If you might benefit from a retained executive search partnership, get in touch with me and let’s schedule time for a call.

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