In conversation with Colm Buckley, Managing Director of ‘The People Group’.

We all know people are key to success in professional services. The recruitment sector has had a rollercoaster few years. How have things changed for them and the candidates they see every day?

How has your business model changed over the last three or four years?

Overall, I would say that specialist recruitment companies are generally doing better, because they are very focused on their sectors. We concentrate on sales, marketing and more senior management positions, and our strategy has been to become even more of a valued professional service to our client companies. So you could say that, overall, we are working harder and smarter in the current climate. I think the future of recruitment is definitely specialist: you need to be seen as one of the best at what you do and most of what we do these days is exclusive or on a retained basis.

In terms of getting to this point, like any business, one of the first things we did was to look at our costs. During the Celtic Tiger era, costs in the industry did get out of kilter. We have refigured our commission structure to reflect the new situation but, most importantly, we also continue to reward high achievers. At its height this company had 16 people. We are now down to eight but, like our clients, always looking for strong performers and adding to the team.

Has it become a significantly smaller sector because of the recession?

The recruitment industry was hit massively over that period and a lot of people have left the sector. Many recruitment companies went to the wall; there is no doubt about that. Like a portion of businesses in Ireland, they perhaps went a bit wild in the Celtic Tiger years, invested too heavily and didn’t have the reserves to save themselves. There haven’t been many acquisitions or mergers; they have simply gone out of business. Within companies themselves, what you saw is that, as times got tougher, and real business and sales skills were required to bring in new business, and manage existing business, a lot of people got out.

How do you coordinate your rewards structure now?

Throughout the industry, I don’t know that rewards have changed that much over the years, aside from targets coming down. The way we structure it now is that everyone starts with a good basic salary and then has individual targets for their desk, and an overall target for the business. Our people can earn the majority of their bonus if they hit their own individual targets. That reflects the nature of recruitment generally. It is probably the closest you can come to being self-employed in an employee structure. If you have that mentality, you can do very well.

How has the fee structure changed?

Our fee structure has been recalibrated and is down something of the order of 10% to 20% on four years ago. However, we have maintained our high service level proposition so that, while fees have been reduced, we have not been as affected as the industry as a whole, which is down 40% or 50%. Our offer is quality. A client is looking to enhance their balance sheet with quality people. They want a service that delivers that and they recognise there is a price to be paid for it.

How do you resist the squeeze on fees in negotiations?

In a lot of conversations, you are eventually going to be hit with ‘what is your price?’ You have to bring the conversation to a different level. We would ask ‘what are you looking for’, ‘what hurdles did you have to get over to get to this stage’, ‘what is the succession plan for this position’? When you begin asking these questions, price gets sidelined as clients recognise that you know what you are talking about. The core of our business is sales, marketing and commercial management. Everybody in our business comes from a sales and/or marketing background. They understand the environment and they have their connections and networks there. They can talk the language.

Has the industry fundamentally changed the nature of its offer?

One of the things we have always done is offered an opportunity for people to come and have an adult conversation about their career. We get lots of candidates, particularly at senior level, who want to bounce ideas off us. It’s a conversation they can’t have with their spouse or their boss. We do lots of that right now. Our view is that we live in a village and these people will come back to us if they value our advice. Over the last few years, a lot of recruitment firms, particularly in niche sectors made what we would see as mistakes in terms of going into outsourcing, on-boarding, business coaching and psychometric testing. That is the route to being seen as a Jack of all trades and a master of none.

Have the job specifications of your clients changed much?

I definitely think that the word ‘commercial’ has become a given when it comes to the disciplines of marketing and sales. The recruitment process is more and more about quantifying returns: how much of an audience the candidate is going to get for a client, rather than what the creative strategy is going to be. At the end of the day, employers are asking ‘what return are we going to get in this role?’

In terms of market recovery, by early 2009, we would have seen a lot of companies once again looking for really high-quality sales people. Marketing took a little bit longer to recover, as the return can take a bit longer to see. However, it has definitely shown good signs of recovery this year and there is a sense of real intent in companies across a range of industries to reinvest in sales and marketing.

So return on investment has become critical in hiring decisions?

There is no doubt about it. At the end of the day, there is going to be a commercial director sitting at the table in an interview. While they will be interested in a candidate’s background and qualifications, they are going to be asking much more about the bang they will get for their buck.

What about the international dimension – and FDI in particular – are there opportunities there?

We have links with the IDA and Enterprise Ireland. That has worked very well in the past. We also have quite a close association with a UK company called the People Network. If they are dealing with an opportunity in Ireland, they will talk to us and we do likewise in the UK. It’s not only a bridge into the UK, it has given us a reach into mainland Europe too. Social media has obviously helped in that respect and has helped us place people in the roles from as far away as Australia. A lot of the time it is about the diaspora who are looking to come back home.

Has social media changed how you work?

We have embraced it over the last two or three years but it is like any other marketing channel at the end of the day, it works in conjunction with what we do well. There was a Forbes study recently that concluded there are three questions people want answered in an interview: can you do the job, will you love the job and can we tolerate working with you? Two out of those three questions cannot be ascertained from a LinkedIn profile – you have to meet the candidates. We, essentially, play that role. Our process ensures that any client benefits from a thorough search of the market using our own powerful database, a variety of social media and a deep dive into a passive network of candidates who are not necessarily on the lookout but may well be suitably qualified for a client’s requirements.

Is that an opinion of social media that’s widely shared?

One of the trends I have noticed recently is the whole advent of internal recruitment in large corporates. I can understand how professional HR areas would question the fees that they are paying to recruitment agencies and so turning to LinkedIn for talent. But I would also say that about 60-70% of the processes that we are involved in, for blue-chip corporates and more medium-sized companies, would be roles we have exclusively worked for a period of time.

So they recognise it’s not as simple as looking at CVs online?

Exactly. If you give the job to a trusted and expert recruiter, there is an exclusivity about it and a value immediately attached to it by candidates. Then you are also giving the recruiter time to really investigate the market, rather than just taking the best of the first batch of responses. We would often see in the corporate sector, a role advertised for maybe a month and a half. We have candidates coming to us who don’t want to apply for it directly.

What you also find are that candidates, who may have been approached directly through LinkedIn, are a little bit uncomfortable with that and would prefer to deal with an intermediary. They can come to us knowing there is trust and confidentiality in what we do – so we can establish the opportunity and whether to bring it to a formal stage. If they engage directly with the company, it becomes quite formal from the beginning and they don’t know where their CV has gone or who is looking at it. That can be quite a compromise for them.

Is there a process to educating staff when it comes to bringing in new business?

I feel strongly that, to be at the top of your game in sales in any walk of life these days, you need to be able to manage two things: new business development and account relationship management. Developing new relationships isn’t as difficult as it might seem if you are offering a quality service. Every client is focusing on reducing costs but, as the market has settled, quality has come back with a bang to the point where, this year, people are less focused on the cost and more on the quality.

We meet lots of people who absolutely want to be account managers and then people who like the chase, but don’t want the responsibility of looking after it. This is a complicated business and getting good people for recruitment is complicated. You need to absolutely love dealing with people and, at the same time, be opportunistic in terms of putting the right candidate with the right job. You are essentially a matchmaker so, at the end of the day, you need to be commercial, it is not a charity.

So new business development is, in a sense, inbuilt?

We all share information – we have an open door policy. We are constantly learning from each other’s examples, successes and mistakes. There is on-going training in that sense but this is also a business where no day is the same; no HR person is the same; and no business unit or director is the same. There is a sort of pre-qualifying level of maturity and openness in our consultants that brings them here in the first place.

What would you say is distinctive about the way that your company does business?

The reputation of the People Group is something that I cherish very closely. Everything we do on a daily basis, every conversation that we have with a candidate, or interaction with a client, needs to enhance our reputation in my mind. If someone has a good experience, they will go out and tell two or three people. If they have a bad experience they will tell 10 or 15. Confidentiality, reputation, integrity and professionalism are at the core of what we do.

Is there a phrase that you think sums up what’s happening in your sector right now?

When I talk about our area of professional services at the moment, I find the phrase that ‘everything is changing, but everything is staying the same’ resonates a lot. What this company has been doing for 23 years has not changed that much. It is still about providing a solution for a client, understanding their challenges and seeing beyond the job spec. We have certainly got closer to our clients over the past three years and they see us as a true value-adding partner. It’s said that we are six to nine months ahead of the curve in terms of what’s happening in the economy and, if that is the case, I’d be quite optimistic about prospects for an overall recovery.

Do you have any underlying message to candidates about what’s changed in the market out there?

Attitude and fit is everything. This is something I’m very passionate about and it goes to the heart of how we recruit. The whole attitude and fit piece, I would say, accounts for 50% of an interview process. You can have all the degrees in the world but the question is – are you going to fit with that environment and management team strategy and where it is going?

You cannot ascertain attitude and fit over a telephone call, from a piece of paper or online. That’s where I see us really benefitting a client. The whole recruitment process with any serious company now is taking longer – they are looking for people who will be there in the medium to long term. Succession planning is always in the background – they want someone who can do the role right now but also the next role planned for them.

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