The Candidate Experience € VIP Service Or Lip Service?

by Ian Randle

Without candidates, executive search firms simply cannot function. While all search firms are client led – that’s where the fees come from – the relationship with candidates is a critical part of the equation. Yet I frequently hear from candidates who feel that they are treated as a dispensable commodity. Most executive search firms extol the virtues of their candidate care, but candidates often deem such claims to be empty rhetoric.

Here are my top tips on what candidates want from their relationship with an executive search firm:


In our industry, confidentiality is everything. It’s important that we establish trust quickly and let candidates know that they can confide in us.

Many executives have no idea how to go about transitioning from one employer to another. Some have never done it before, while others may have lost touch with the ever-changing world of executive search and talent management. It’s our job to be a confidante, helping them design an effective strategy that will secure them the right new role to advance their career.


Honesty must underpin the relationship. Candidates want unvarnished advice and clear guidance, delivered constructively and politely by someone who has their interests at heart. It can be difficult at times, but candidates appreciate candidness. Tell them if they have no chance of securing their desired role, tell them if their perfume is overbearing in an interview setting and tell them if they should be aiming higher for their next challenge rather than playing it safe.

Honest advice, delivered within a framework of trust, keeps candidates’ aspirations realistic and allows them to work on elements that will increase their chance of success, whether it be aspects of their personal style or gaps in their professional development training.   


Executive Search consultants really need to know their stuff. It’s not enough to demonstrate that we understand the ups and downs and ins and outs of finding a candidate their next role. Candidates will quickly know if a search consultant’s sector expertise is wafer thin. We need to convince them that we have a profound understanding of the sector we are operating in and the companies within it, as well as a large network of influential contacts.

When handling an active search brief, we need to represent the client at least as well as they would do so if handling the search themselves. That means getting under the skin of the client, the employer brand and the corporate culture and sharing relevant knowledge and experience with candidates.


Professionalism does not mean that executive searchers have to be overly formal – the best candidate relationships grow on trust, honesty and friendship, so consultants must strike the right balance between familiarity and respect.

Thorough briefing, timely communication and meaningful feedback are rightfully expected. Decisiveness is a must. Articulating a clear, rationalised rejection lets the candidate know where they stand and why, whereas silence and obfuscation is unprofessional and helps neither party. Ethics is also high on the list of priorities; candidates should never be manipulated into roles that merely serve the executive search firm’s agenda and they should be advised if they are excluded from career defining roles due to off-limits agreements rather than matching skillsets.   

Far from being a commodity, the highest calibre candidates are rare. In fact, post recession we are moving into an increasingly candidate driven market. Enduring, mentor relationships are therefore vital in persuading high flyers to leave their current roles and take up new positions. Such bonds do not form overnight. They can only be achieved by search firms investing time and energy in candidate management.

Treating candidates well has certainly paid dividend for my firm, as the majority of clients were once candidates. For them, the candidate experience is an important factor in selecting a search firm. VIP candidate service is indicative of the rigour and professionalism applied to every aspect of fulfilling their brief. In terms of managing reputation, the voice of the candidate is broadcast far and wide these days and, if tongues are wagging, you need to be sure that the message is one of praise, not malaise.