Customer-is-always-rightThere’s been a lot of discussion about the many similarities between customers and candidates, particularly as relates to  improving candidate experience. It’s a convenient comparison, sure, but before adopting this approach, it’s important to recognize there are important differences between customers and candidates every employer and recruiter needs to consider.

First, let’s start off with the obvious fact that, as a general rule, companies don’t get the luxury of picking and choosing their individual customers.

If they did, employers would quickly find themselves facing a landslide of litigation, most likely a class action suit since this approach would more or less send a sign to consumers that “we reserve the right not to serve you,” and there’s a pretty pervasive precedent showing that this is, in fact, almost never the case. So, from a compliance standpoint alone, the comparison of candidates and customers seems like a stretch.

Then, of course, there are the business implications – sales and marketing work to touch every lead and potential consumer in their funnel, and work diligently to ensure an appropriate level of service and support for anyone who chooses to buy. Few, if any, companies would ever think to turn away (or turn a cold shoulder) potential customers, obviously quite unlike candidates. The sales and marketing functions accept that they have to target, develop and convert those leads into new business in order to keep doing business, not once, but every time.

The customer is always in charge – and at almost every company, that approach alone is quite literally the bottom line. Customers can get pricing and product information before ever entering the store, and know exactly what it is they’re buying (and, for added peace of mind, are generally given a warranty or a window for returning the item, something candidates can only dream of when considering an offer). The customer knows what their friends, family and other customers think before they decide what to buy and from whom, and there’s no more powerful marketing tool than word of mouth.

That’s why if a customer isn’t treated fairly, if their experience doesn’t meet the expectations set BY them (based on available information, prior experience and ‘branding), they’ll take their business – and probably, that of the same friends and family who referred them in the first place – straight to a competitor. Customers don’t necessarily need you, and they vote with their pocketbooks and wallets – and there’s a lot of power in those purse strings.

Companies tend to want to develop, engage and build lasting relationships with the maximum number of potential and existing customers as they can possibly manage during all stages of the purchasing cycle, before, during and after the actual point of sale. The fact that the power in consumer-company relationships primarily rests with the customer is one of the most fundamental assumptions underlying every organization’s basic business model.

Why Candidates Aren’t Customers (Yet).

processThen, consider the case of candidates. Unlike customers, they don’t generally have the luxury of choosing the exact job they want with the exact employer they’re looking to work for.

Sure, they may come across an opening that’s perfectly aligned with their purchasing criteria, but even if they want an advertised opportunity, they have to go through a rigorous application, interview, assessment and referencing process to even hope to ultimately be chosen for an offer.

I’m pretty certain most customers would submit themselves to something similar when buying a product, and almost every company wouldn’t even consider subjecting potential buyers to these sorts of hurdles while actively driving a purchasing decision.

Candidates might be attracted to a particular employer en masse, due to its reputation, culture, mission, vision or values, but even the most informed of applicants generally don’t know much more about an advertised position other than maybe a bullet point list of qualifications and a boilerplate company description.

Seldom do they know any specifics on price (or compensation, in this case), anything about the hiring manager or team, or what it really takes to be successful in the role. Even if they can successfully demonstrate they meet all of the posted qualifications and move on in the process, they won’t know these types of details so imperative to making any sort of informed employment decision until they actually compete for it.

Unlike customers, for whom sales and marketing deliberately casts the widest possible net, employers seldom invest or place any sort of premium on developing relationships with more than a handful of qualified candidates at  any one time. The rest, generally, are widely expected to fend for themselves, and there’s an implicit understanding that unlike customers, all control lies with the company, not the candidates. They’re on their own.

Candidates as Customers: The Coming Convergence

it_s-not-the-technologyOver the past two decades, the explosion of emerging technologies capable of creating, collecting, curating ever larger amounts of data has accelerated the pace of change and driven down costs for everyone.

Employers forget that, just like customers, candidates don’t just have access to an extraordinary amount of information about them, but increasingly, use that information to inform whether or not they even apply.

Candidates have a choice, too.

This data explosion, coupled with the emergence of constant connectivity, real time communication and the ease of sharing information with affinity groups and networks of people with shared personal and professional interests, has effectively worked to slowly, but surely, narrow the gap in the way we define and approach ‘customers’ and ‘candidates’ respectfully.

Truth be told, the needs and agenda of every employer stakeholder, from hiring managers to employees to the frontline recruiters themselves, have become exponentially more visible, increasingly intermeshed and seemingly on an inevitable collision course towards future convergence. It’s only when this convergence occurs that customers and candidates will actually achieve parity instead of just paying this idea lip service.

We tend to refer to the concepts of ‘Customer Experience’ or the ‘Candidate Experience’ as sitting in a silo, but the truth is that the ‘Buying Experience’ or the ‘Recruiting Experience’ have never existed in a vacuum, and every stakeholder has to play a part in these processes to achieve any sort of optimal outcome. This understanding has evolved the way we approach candidates, and ALL shareholders, from executive leadership to third party vendors, recognize the impact of these changes on employee productivity, satisfaction, and overall engagement.

If we can’t provide an exceptional experience when people are first joining the workforce, than we’re setting a standard that seems to set up our people for failure, which is in diametrical opposition to the primary goal of talent acquisition and management.

Key Customer Experience Considerations for Candidates

RecruitersThe tectonic shift in the way we treat candidates, from supplicating peons to partners in the recruiting process and customers of a career purchasing decision is inevitable, and rapidly nearing its next stage.

This next stage will see employers adopt a customer-centric, business results driven recruiting function which treats candidates as educated customers and consumers of work.

A few cutting edge companies have already achieved this, but having this approach be a recruiting rule rather than an exception isn’t far off.

Here are a few key considerations every employer needs to think about to change their approach to candidates today so that they can compete for – and win – the top talent of tomorrow.

  • Educated customers want to know about the long term implications of the material they’re buying, instead of simply being sold on the short term of a single position or open opportunity with the employer. They want to know how long that position is likely to last, what changes they might be able to expect, and what potential opportunities might be next. Candidates will want to know not just what they’ll be doing in a job, but how people who have held similar roles within the company have benefited their careers by doing their job. They’ll want to get a better sense of history in order to make a more informed decision about the future, asking questions about how long predecessors have stayed in a role, and where they went next, before ultimately accepting an offer.
  • Educated Customers want to know the source of the materials in the career product you’re asking them to purchase, and want to make sure that it’s in no way tainted, was accurately labeled and manufactured to a certain standard of quality, and that everything under the hood is as advertised. Candidates continue to ask the same questions:

    How does this job contribute to the bigger business? How does this company contribute to the communities in which its employees live and work? What kind of training will I be given? What is the quality I can expect from my managers and teammates, and what quality will they expect of me? How accurate and complete is the information I have about the work I’ll do?

  • Educated customers know that they’re a commodity, and that when they’re looking to purchase an employment product, the simple laws of supply and demand favor top talent. This market means those with the most in demand skills know that they have options, and are selective enough consumers to be alright with waiting for the next shipment instead of being forced to pick over existing inventory. That means employers increasingly need to keep top talent engaged and actively build long term relationships with their candidate pipeline, because those who are in the shortest supply are going to be right, even if the opportunity isn’t ‘right now.’ Recruiting, increasingly, will be a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Educated customers can decide for themselves what information is relevant, and can assess employers and opportunities through their own perspective instead of relying on the recruiter or generic corporate careers copy. They can research and inform their decision on whether or not to apply to a company or even accept an offer by looking beyond the pretty package presented to them by employers, and increasingly use this screening to do a smarter job self-selecting out instead of as an affirmation for opting in. Candidates are starting to do this, but aren’t completely there yet. That’s why employers have to start educating and providing real value for potential candidates now, so that when they’re actually in the sales process, both sides can successfully close out an offer with as little effort (and surprises) as possible.

Marketers today salivate over the litany of new methods available to measure things like net promoter score, share of voice, customer and market sentiment, leveraging this data’s potential to accurately forecast future sales and growth. They understand that these metrics are critical in understanding where their weaknesses and strengths are with customers, and how to refine their message and experience to drive new business and retain existing customers.

A small, but growing, cadre of employers are hoping to do the same for candidates and quality of hire, using the same predictive analytics and monitoring approach as their customer-facing colleagues to determine the overall candidate market, competitive landscape and quality/source of hire.

Their stories – and what employers and recruiters can learn from these early adopters – can be found on the Candidate Experience Awards website (click here for more)

That we even have these awards, or that some of the biggest brands in the world are putting their money where their mouth is and evolving their approach to candidate experience is an encouraging sign that in business, we’re moving in the right direction, and inevitably building the sort of momentum – and buy-in – to have the customer and candidate experience converge in the not too distant future.

Only a few years ago, even discussing Candidate Experience was largely seen as silly, impractical, and without merit.

Now? I’d say you don’t have to look too far to see that times – and mindsets – are changing. And while we’re not there yet, the progress we’re making is encouraging. But there’s still a lot to do before candidates truly become customers. Good news is, we’re on the right path.

gerry-300x300About the AuthorGerry Crispin, SPHR is a life-long student of staffing and co-founder of CareerXroads, a firm devoted to peer-to-peer learning by sharing recruiting practices. An international speaker, author and acknowledged thought leader, Gerry founded a non-profit, Talentboard, with colleagues Elaine Orler and Ed Newman to better define the Candidate Experience, a subject he has been passionate about for 30 years.

Gerry has also co-authored eight books on the evolution of staffing and written more than 100 rticles and whitepapers on similar topics. Gerry’s career in Human Resources spans is also quite broad and includes HR leadership positions at Johnson and Johnson; Associate Partner in a boutique Executive Search firm; Career Services Director at the Stevens Institute of Technology, where he received his Engineering and 2 advanced degrees in Organizational/Industrial Behavior.

Follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryCrispin or connect with him on LinkedIn.