The Failure of UK Recruiters – A Scientific Study

Expert AdviceI recently conducted a competitor analysis on behalf of a client. I was assisting their business in developing a sales culture that would give them a competitive edge over other recruiters in the same space. Their market is mid range temporary and permanent recruitment within the semi professional arena (accountancy, HR, procurement, marketing, sales and senior administration positions). Rather than focus on their sales pitch (which is important) I decided to investigate how they fared against their competitors. I decided that when it came down to it with a client (company decision maker) one of the real measures of them as a supplier would be their ability to deliver high quality candidates. Unlike being a sales person at Comet, selling washing machines for example, the recruiters are responsible for the quality of their “product” i.e. their candidates. Now, those of you reading this who are recruiters may or may not agree with a candidate being a product (I am also a little uncomfortable with the label) however, a client is going to consider our service to boil down to this – “Can you find me good people in the right timescales?”

Having considered my approach, I decided that I would begin with the candidate experience. With there being such a choice for candidates in terms of recruiters to represent them, the relationship between recruiter and candidate is critical. This is the recruitment Pepsi challenge isn’t it? Which do I prefer? The more discerning (perhaps better quality?) candidate has the greater luxury of being able to pick and choose which recruiter represents them. Those who are less fortunate and under greater pressure to find their next position have less luxury and may need to deal with anyone and everyone. And so began my research and like any good scientist I made sure I was fully prepared and able to monitor and compare the results. My experiment went something like this:


Recruiters in the UK have lost sight of their original goal when dealing with candidates. Given the economic conditions candidates are receiving little or no attention and feeling less interest in them as individuals and what they are looking for. This in turn means that recruiters have little or no rapport or loyalty with their new candidates and are missing out on vital commercial information that could help them stand out from their competitors.


  • A fresh CV taken from a job board of an “in demand” candidate by both experience and expectation. The name changed to avoid compromise and all employers researched to ensure convincing candidate story! Candidate story is that they have relocated to the area from Northampton (location of original candidate) to the location of the business being contacted.
  • Telephone!
  • List of 20 national and independent recruitment businesses across the whole of the UK that consider the candidate background selected is core to their business. Office locations chosen at random by Google, ranging from Darlington to Exeter.
  • Digital recorder linked to the phone to record all conversations for analysis later.
  • Lots of coffee.
  • Bunsen burner. (Joking, just couldn’t resist going back to my chemistry days)


Each recruitment business was phoned, with the opening line:

“I am relocating from Northampton to X and am looking for work. Can you help me?”

It was then left to the recruiter at the other end of the phone to guide the conversation in the direction and to the close that they felt was most appropriate. Each call was recorded and all questions were answered with the same background information to ensure each recruiter dealt with the “same” candidate. Each recruitment business was called one after the other with no results or conclusions drawn until the end of the exercise. The candidate story was:

  • Just relocated to the area
  • Wife is a HR Director who has taken a new post locally hence the move
  • Flexible on either temporary or permanent work
  • Happy to consider anything suitable
  • Has applied and got interviews on 3 other jobs directly with local employers
  • Left last job (in Northampton) 3 weeks ago and they have not managed to find a replacement
  • Have own transport
  • Ready to start as quickly as tomorrow
  • Reference details ready and available

The story above was the same for each of the 20 phone calls to the various recruiters. An address was selected from the phone book to ensure a base postcode and address was available upon request.


The results were staggering. Recruitment Dad felt ashamed with some of the attitudes and approaches of some of those he attempted to register with. Out of 20 registrations there were only 3 that actually came across as genuine professionals who knew what they were talking about (measured in terms of market knowledge, interest in the candidate, job knowledge or moving the initial phone call forward). Out of the 20 phone calls made to the various recruitment businesses the following results were achieved:

  • 20 recruitment businesses answered the phone
  • 19 answered the phone within 60 seconds
  • 18 answered the phone within 5 rings
  • 19 asked the candidate to email their CV
  • 18 asked the candidate to email their CV to a named email address (as opposed to info@ or similar)
  • 14 recruiters told the candidate their name
  • 5 recruiters told the candidate they were recruiters (as opposed to receptionists etc)
  • 7 asked the candidate what their name was! (seven!!! Only seven in a people business! How much does “Who am I taking to?” or “what’s your name?” cost?!?!?)
  • 14 asked what type of work the candidate was looking for
  • 7 asked what the candidates background was (yup! 18 say send CV and only 7 know what the candidate can do!)
  • 2 spoke about jobs (either live or recently worked on)
  • 1 spoke about companies in the area that are good to work for (remember, the candidate was relocating)
  • 3 booked the candidate in for a face to face interview (again, this is a market where face to face interviews are the standard and all the business the candidate registered with claimed on their website this was a core part of their service)
  • 3 took the candidate’s phone number (again, 18 said send a CV and only 3 took a telephone number should they need to call them)
  • 3 Asked what salary the candidate was seeking
  • 2 asked the candidate where they lived now
  • 1 told the candidate that they thought they could help them find a position
  • 1 Made the candidate feel confident they had phoned someone who could genuinely help
  • 5 behaved in a way that the candidate would describe as “rude” (perception is reality)
  • 0 asked the candidate why they were relocating
  • 0 asked the candidate if they had applied for any other jobs
  • 0 asked the candidate what their personal circumstances were
  • 0 asked when the candidate had left their previous job (though 14 of the recruiters called also had offices in Northampton)


The hypothesis is correct. Q.E.D. There are thousands of consultants and recruiters in the UK who know how they should deal with a candidate on this “pre-registration” phone call. In fact, I would bet that there would even be those who failed when I conducted this exercise who would say “I would never do that”. There is a massive difference between knowing and doing. That candidate could have been there next placement. The next phone call could have been a client registering a role they were suitable for and they would never know. In fact, I would go as far as to say that if the CV didn’t turn up they wouldn’t remember. If they did, then they would say the candidate was a dick for not sending it in rather than recognise they had put the candidate off sending it. I know all of you reading this will draw your own conclusions. I know that I put in place a development programme that genuinely helped that business change and stand out from its competitors. Their financial results tell the story. So do their candidates, clients and recruiters. How does your whole business fair in this area? I may even have phoned you and you didn’t even know….

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20 Responses

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  1. I am shocked to see the results of this exercise. We all know that recruiters can often be unprofessional, and sometimes downright rude to candidates, but this is unforgivable.
    The gem hidden inside your candidate’s background, is that his wife is an HR Director, who has just relocated to a local company. Now a recruiter couldn’t know this in advance, but asking the right relevant questions would unearth this, and rightly confer extreme importance upon this candidate.

    I’ve seen some terrific recruiters in my time, who seem to be able to whisk the most basic information ingredients into heroic placements, and long standing valuable clients. Conversely, I’ve seen some who are as thick as shit in a bottle, and are frankly an embarrassment to the industry.

    I hope you are sending your report to each of the agencies you called.

    I know who I’d rather employ.

    Stephen O'Donnell 17 May 2010 at 11:59 am Permalink
  2. I agree entirely Stephen. I was shocked and also a little embarrassed on behalf of the industry. Clearly I gave my client a lot to think about as well though! Some of the organisations I polled were also those who consider themselves to be “the best” and their websites make bold claims to their clients and candidates about relationships, care for their candidates and a genuine belief in understanding what their customers want. In fact, one of my initial observations was the fact that every agency claims to have a unique selling point that is the same as everyone else’s! The irony was none of them delivered on it.
    I created the hidden gem you highlighted to be able to separate the truly exceptional from the good. Waste of time when so few people wanted to even know my name. I even had one recruiter tell me to call back in 2 weeks if I was still looking (what?!?) as they had too many candidates and not enough jobs!

    RecruitmentDad 17 May 2010 at 12:49 pm Permalink
  3. Very interesting article. I’d be intrigued to see the survey repeated into a niche market, Law, Engineering or similar and to see the quality of the consultants there.
    Sad reflection on lack of training or poor management? maybe even a combination of both.

    Paul Anderson 17 May 2010 at 1:04 pm Permalink
  4. I’m not shocked – I don’t use recruiters for this very reason.

    To my mind, the industry has a poorer reputation than real estate or used cars.

    G 17 May 2010 at 1:13 pm Permalink
  5. Great article. Sadly, I expect none of us are surprised, least of all Recruitment Dad.

    I run job seeking skills workshops for the Jobcentre aimed at professionals/executives just like the fictional candidate described. Skilled, professionally sucessful, relatively high earners (£££ to the recruiter) and very often not been on the job market for many years, if at all.

    When I ask them for their objectives for the course, so many people want to understand how agencies work and why it is so hard to get any kind of response to a job application. They experience a lack of due respect from a number of recruiters and this becomes their perception of the entire industry.

    My view, formed from years of experience in the industry, is that recruitment businesses put too much emphasis on getting a cheap sales-person in to the role of Recruitment Consultant. This results in an over-preponderance of commercially inexperience staff who quickly become the big “I am” as soon as they get paid the commission for a couple of decent placements.

    From my own recent experience as a candidate, I was recently contacted by an internal recruiter for a direct competitor to do exactly the same job as my last one. A job where I can demonstrate that I have a proven track record of achievement. At the recruiter’s behest I spent an evening of my life tailoring my CV only for the recruiter never return my calls ever again. Am I likely to want to work for any part of Reed in the future. Well, not so long as I can make a living elsewhere!

    I really hope your customer benefited from your findings and can maintain their focus on customer experience.

    Jason 17 May 2010 at 2:47 pm Permalink
  6. Its really Shocking….
    I am into recruitment for last 10 years.
    Associated With (India,US & UK)….


    Ranjit 17 May 2010 at 3:14 pm Permalink
  7. Its really Shocking….

    Ranjit 17 May 2010 at 3:16 pm Permalink
  8. A very sad indictment of the UK recruitment industry. Thank you once again Recruitment Dad for shining a light on an area where we really should expect better practise. Recruitment business owners will be horrified considering how much effort and budget is put into ‘candidate attraction’. They are calling and we are not making the most of that traffic. Given the experience of the last 18 months can any recruitment business afford that?

    Roy Ripper 17 May 2010 at 4:11 pm Permalink
  9. Just to be crystal clear, I think it’s totally fine to bump a candidate (professionally and ethically) to the kerb, so long as you’ve first made absolutely sure that they are of no use whatsoever to you or your clients.
    That’ll sound callous, and even ruthless, but that’s not the worst motivation to have. Recruiters don’t exist to provide a service to candidates. However, assuming all professional standards are being met, there is serious commercial gain to be had in doing a thorough job. Recruiters would do far better for themselves and their firms, and the candidates will benefit too.

    10 years ago, I founded A key feature was a database of recruiters, which could be searched by jobseekers. In this, they could show off a little, detailing the amount of experience they have, in which sectors, and their qualifications. They could also be rated by candidates. It never really took off, but I still think candidates would benefit from a well used system like that.

    Stephen O'Donnell 17 May 2010 at 9:48 pm Permalink
  10. I’m not surprised either. Recruiters seem to spend 90% of their day on the phone cold calling companies rather than building a database of credible candidates. What’s the point in winning new business if you haven’t the resources to deliver?

    Jo 18 May 2010 at 10:14 am Permalink
  11. I’m not shocked – Standards of service to Candidates and Clients has declined steadily over the last ten years.

    I’m “Old skool”. To me it’s a sales job, one might say telesales. First impressions count.

    I did notice that no one said they couldn’t help – that surprised me as I know I can’t help everyone and I’m happy to refer candidates on. That’s a service.

    I think the industry relies on job boards too much and has got used to contacting Candidates via email – There’s no relationship built and therefore no Candidate control – This means two things;

    1)Round pegs – for round holes only and no lateral thinking or sales

    2) cv shuffling or blatant down loading of cv’s – send them to the client then contact the candidate if the client responds favourably

    It’s just lazy

    Steve 20 May 2010 at 5:38 pm Permalink
  12. I’m saddened by this but not shocked at all. The reason I set up my latest venture – was to try to combat this mindset which is a real problem in the recruitment industry. Contractors and candidates are not given a consultancy service by some recruiters and so feel that the industry as a whole feels like that. In reality there are some good recruiter that actually act as consultants and give a good service to candidates as well as clients. Our site is trying to raise standards by letting candidates rate recruiters and leave feedback which will hopefully highlight bad practice and hopefully encourage recruiters to change their mindset.

    Oliver Urpi 21 May 2010 at 10:26 am Permalink
  13. I’m not surprised either.

    The recruitment agency market isn’t going to change of its own accord either. It is this way because the market allows it to be so.

    Only once hiring companies wise up and start understanding better and demanding more from its recruitment suppliers will the quality of service/attitude improve.

    If companies didn’t use them, they wouldn’t be in business.

    mitch Sullivan 1 June 2010 at 11:10 am Permalink
  14. Hello from over here Recruitment Dad! I’m afraid you missed one category of result that would most certainly be required should the very same experiment take place in the US……that being “realized from the get-go this was a sham call”……which would be the category I’d fit into nicely!

    You see as recruiters we must rely on our 6th sense of things. Off the bat you’d most likely be telling me about your reason for the move being your wife’s new HR role. I’d ask about that a bit. Not planning to have anyone go much deeper – a few questions down that path would have my suspicions up. Once that takes place I’m not going to schedule an in-person, most likely won’t need your number and won’t be making any commitments to help you out.

    Am I way off base here?

    Jerry Albright 3 June 2010 at 8:28 pm Permalink
  15. Hey Jerry! Having recorded all of the calls, my recruiter 6th sense would have picked up on their recruiter 6th sense thinking it was a “sham call”. My part of the candidate was particularly well played and I was no different as if I was a candidate. I don’t think that going from me saying “Hi, I’ve just relocated to the area recently with my partner and I’m looking for a job locally, can you help me?” to the recruiter saying “Send me your CV and I will give you a ring if we have anything suitable, my email address is…” was in anyway because they thought I was scamming them. Purely down to ineptitude. I am reticent to share the recordings as it may cause me issues with the DPA (data protection act). No one asked about my reasons for relocating – my story was well rehearsed and prepared without any need to as no one questioned me – on anything. A sad state of affairs really.

    For a quality recruiter like you Jerry – No you are not way off base. For those who I spoke to on that day none of them asked enough quesitons to even get close to allowing that 6th sense to kick in.


    RecruitmentDad 4 June 2010 at 11:55 am Permalink
  16. Very interesting indeed, I worked as a recruiter for a well known firm in London. I was recruiting for ibanking sector and have to say I was fortunate enough to work with some exceptional consultants. However many were still not professional and treated candidates like dirt, I also noticed within the industry in general that many recruiters do not think beyond round pegs to fill round holes and often qualify out some excellent candidates simply because they fail to really understand the candidate and what he is capable of. They also do not educate the client on and just except what the client says rather than actually quiz the client to drill down to what he/she actually needs. I have had this argument many times with fellow consultants since they were rejecting some of the best candidates because they did not have ibanking experience for example yet I found the candidates outside the industry were of higher quality than those already in it and as such when I successfully filled that position the hiring manager would ask for more people like X. You see most roles require a basic skills which are transferable from one industry to another and any capable candidate can pick up industry knowledge and quickly learn industry specific skills. Hiring managers often mistake this as an issue but it’s not provided you have a smart candidate with the right attitude. In fact the candidate will often add value immediately with new ideas and fresh thinking from his/hers previous industry. Many recruiters are not smart enough to see this and fail to educate hiring managers who often only think they know what they are looking for. Moving stale candidates around in a given industry in not very clever instead look outside the box and recruit talent from other industries to fill the positions in your niche. Successful recruiters already know this and do this every day because they understand the candidate and the hiring managers know they will deliver and will look beyond just the CV which is all poor recruiters rely on. If more recruiters worked this way not only would it give good candidates more opportunities but also inject some fresh thinking and life into any given industry. So in short when resourcing for positions look beyond those that just seem to be an obvious fit, why are they moving around in there industry so much anyway? ibanking is particularly guilty of this and I am sure it’s not the only industry to be so, poor quality candidates moving from one bank to another by ignorant recruiters rather than actually filling positions with quality talent outside the industry. Recruiters are often not good at helping strong candidates change industries and fail to educate hiring manager of the benefits. THIS IS WHAT DEFERNTIATES A GOOD RECRUITER FROM THE REST. This is really just common sense I think anyway but does require more work from the recruiter.

    Bryan 17 February 2011 at 2:28 am Permalink
  17. An excellent post, thank you for sharing and for all the comments so far. Customer service is everything in this job.

    Alana Carroll 22 February 2012 at 10:54 pm Permalink
  18. I think this article and some of the comments provide excellent insight.

    As a candidate myself, looking to break into the recruitment consulting industry, I have found the companies who encompass recruitment CONSULTING and those that just want to pass me on.

    I’m glad recruiters like Brian look past X experience and really divulge into a candidate’s CV and skills; and I hope to do the same when I secure a graduate role.

    Rochelle 17 January 2013 at 3:37 pm Permalink


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