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8 Simple Steps to Improve the Return on your Passive Candidate Approaches

This blog originally appeared here on socialtalent.co

The following is an extract from the "Contacting Candidates" section of our Blue Belt in Internet Recruitment:

To many recruiters, LinkedIn represents the holy grail: an unrivalled database of over 140 million candidates that can be searched for free. Whether you use a premium account with an endless supply of InMails or if you are a more resourceful recruiter who has figured out how to find anyone's email (or pick up the phone!), it is important to remember that the ability to search for candidates and identify their contact details is just the beginning of a long, complicated process that we call Recruitment. For those of you in this business more than four or five years, the ability to find a suitable candidate and obtain their contact details is what you used to do when you opened your email Inbox or the post in the morning. Yes, these days it is an essential skill to start the process and everything else you do is redudant without a candidate to talk to. But, don't fall into the fallacy that finding a passive candidate is the same as having an engaged prospect in the pipeline. It is not.

When you've spent some time crafting the perfect search and come up with a great shortlist, the temptation is to just blast out some emails (or InMails if you are using the LinkedIn Corporate Recruiter account) but it is once again time to pause and think before you act.

You only get one opportunity to make a first impression,and when you are approaching a potentially cold candidate, i.e. someone who doesn't know you from Adam and is likely to receive many approaches via LinkedIn and other social networks (hey, their skills are hot, that's why you're reaching out to them!), you need to make sure that you grab their attention and give them a really good reason to call or email you back.

I've said it before, and I will say it again, but Recruiting is a lot like dating. "Stock" chat-up lines dont work and the same goes for "stock" emails to cold candidates. You need to spend some time perfecting your message and be prepared to constantly measure your success rates and tweak your responses accordingly. What works for one candidate may not work for another candidate, especially if they work in a different profession or they are at a very different stage in their career. If the candidate is worth reaching out to, they're worth spending some time on.

Here's our 8 step plan to increasing the return on your Cold approaches:

STEP 1. Everything starts with the Subject.

When I receive a new email, I have two pieces of information in front of me that helps me decide when and if to open it: the name of the sender and the subject. It is highly likely that the person you are emailing does not know who you are (unless of course you are a master of social influence and your name is synonymous with career success!), so you have to rely on your subject to ensure that your email is opened, read and preferably prioritised.

I have experimented with tons of subject lines over the years with varying success. I thankfully never succummed to the mistake of sending emails that mentioned "Career Opportunity" or "New Job" etc in the subject. Such phrases are highly likely to be sin-binned by spam filters and will likely scare the hell out of prospective candidates. You shouldn't go for the home run when you haven't even got to first base!

I used to use variants of "Private & Confidential" for a while, thinking that this was a respectful way of approaching cold candidates at their workplace, but after chatting to some candidates about this, I realised that most people expected me to follow with something like "Hello, my name is XXX from <Insert War Torn Country Name> and I am in immediate need of a partner to help transfer funds to an offshore bank account"etc, etc.

Eventually I started aiming towards something neutral, as I don't think there is any perfect subject line that is going to grab all candidates and make them leap on your email. The subject-line that tested best for me was simply the prospective candidate's current employer name as my subject line.It means nothing. It neither raises suspicion nor elicits fear. You have to open the email to see what the heck this is all about and that is precisely my first objective!

STEP 2. Personalise your Message:

I am highly sceptical of cold calls and cold emails. I always think that the person on the other end of the communication has a hidden agenda and I rarely believe what they have to say. I suspect that most sales people and recruiters are like me: we've used every line so we know the plays. Treat your prospective candidates as sceptics and you will have a chance at getting through to them. I can spot a generic looking message a mile away. One of my closest friends runs a successful e-learning start-up and has a pretty decent LinkedIn profile and very active social media presence that clearly shows that he is a successful entrepreneur and CEO growing a business. Yet that didn't stop a Dublin based recruiter (who will remain un-named) from reaching out to him via LinkedIn with a rather pathetic and lazy InMail that only served to severely tarnish her employer's reputation in the eyes of my friend. I have attached an image (everyone's names have been taken out, for fear of identifying this poor recruiter) of the original approach herein as an illustration of what not to do when presented with the ability to search the web for an endless number of potential candidates for your vacancy.

I can only hope that the recruiter in question is a newbie and will learn from her mistake. If you are doing this job longer than 3 months and you still send out these type of InMails, best of luck to you. You will soon find yourself on the recruitment scrapheep seeking out an alternative sales job or a "less pressurised" HR role in the near future.

What I try to do is mention both a third party who "referred" the prospect and the name of the prospect's current or previous employer. I also make sure to refer to their current position so that the prospect knows that I have spent some time researching them and am aware of their current position before I propose something new to them. Something like "Hi Jane, I met with one of your former colleagues from <Company X> last week and she recommended you for a <Position you are hiring for> role that we are currently recruiting for."usually has a high response rate. I mention referrals because 1) I ask for them all the time and usually generate 50% of my leads this way and 2) Even if I haven't received a referral for this person, flattery and/ or inquisitiveness usually prompts a response, even from those who are sceptical as to who the referrer is.

STEP 3. Make it short and to the point.

We are all busy; particularly candidates that are "in demand" (or at least you should expect them to be busy!). The person you are reaching out to does not know you and if you have gotten as far as them opening your mail, please don't waste their time. Actually, you don't really get a choice here because the person opening your mail is likely only going to give you 3-5 seconds to get their attention and they aren't going to read an essay! I have seen some exceptions to this, usually when the recruiter is working for the industry leader and hence the weight of their employer's name usually allows for more attention, but for the most part, you have seconds to get to the point, so get to it!

STEP 4. Don't apologise.

I have seen too many recruiters begin with a line such as "I'm terribly sorry for emailing you at work" and the like. Why are you sorry? This could end up being a great move for the candidate. You could increase their salary, reduce their commute, get them the job they always wanted or just get them out of the hell hole they are currently in. When you begin a conversation with an apology, you put their guard up and you lose the upper hand. You do not want your prospect to feel like you are dirt on their shoe - you are a human being asking another human being if they think that a potential career move would be of interest. Worst case scenario is that it isn't. No harm done, say thanks, and move on.

STEP 5. What's In It for Me?

No, I don't mean what's in it for you, the recruiter - I mean what's in it for the candidate?What is the pull point you are leading with? Too many recruiters, whether they use email or cold calling tactics, lead with why they think the candidate is suitable for the job. Of course they're suitable, idiot, that's why you're reaching out to them!

Sales-101 will tell you that you need to focus on why the customer (i.e. the candidate) might want to buy your product (in this case, a career move). It all comes back to your research, which might just be a thorough read of their LinkedIn profile, but it is essential to stand back and look at the opportunity you are presenting and ask "Why would this person be interested in working in this job or working for us or my client?"If you cannot come up with a compelling reason, then you need to either move on to a more appropriate candidate (i.e. stop punching above your weight), or go back to the drawing board and take a proper job spec. So much in recruitment stems from taking a really good job spec from your hiring manager or client, I cannot over-emphasise the importance of this! For every crappy job or bad employer, there is always a worse job or company. Go find someone working in that job or company and target them to work for you or your client.

STEP 6. Close with a Time Specific Call to Action:

OK, so you've got this far and written a really compelling, conscise and personal email that has grabbed your prospect's attention. Going back to our dating analogy, your chat-up lines have worked, things are going well, you have the other person in the palm of your hands. Now, can you close? ;-)

If this is an email you are sending, the only reason you are doing so is to get the person on the phone. If its a phone call (same rules apply!), then you want to get a meeting (feel free to skip the phone call if you think you can get a meeting from an email, btw).

The reason why most people prefer an email contact as the first approach from a headhunter (yes, that's you Mr. Recruiter) is that you can take the time to mull over the approach and reply when you are good and ready. The problem for you is that people are busy and sometimes, even with the best of intentions, people forget to reply.

What is the most common closing line for headhunt emails? "Let me know if you're interested." This is not a good closing line. You need to compel the person to reply to you, right now. A salesman (we are all salespeople at this point, like it or not) does not let the customer leave the store and go home and think about it. Close on the spot.

Again, through much trial and error here, and after seeking a lot of advice from other recruiters, I realised that it is best to close with a time specific call to action. The call to action could be "Can you take a call at 6:30pm this evening to discuss further?" or "I'm going to be near your office on Tuesday - can you meet me for coffee at 12pm to discuss?". Ask them a very specific question and put a time on it. This invariably elicits a must faster and higher response rate. Try it!

STEP 7. Follow up after 3-5 days.

No matter how great your email was, half of the emails you send will get blocked by spam filters and more than half of the voice mails you leave will not be returned. Do not let this put you off. Just because someone did not reply to you does not mean that they are not interested. Silence does not mean No."No" means "no", so chase up the replies until you get one.

Quite by accident, I discovered that if I forward the original unanswered email to the same person with additional text at the top such as "Hi Jane, in reference to my email below from last week, can you come back to me today to let me know if this would be of interest?", most of the time I would receive a reply that suggested that the person either never received my first mail or received both the new mail and original mail at the same time, i.e. it had been caught in spam but the act of forwarding the original message with some new text bounced it out of the spam filter. Again, try it, it works.

The rest of the time, people either weren't interested or they just forgot to reply. Either way, you likely spent a lot of time searching for this person, so rule them in or out before you re-start your search. Your follow-up might be a phone call, or maybe you follow up a third time with a phone call, but you need to know when to stop. I reckon three times is probably enough. Probably...

STEP 8. What would make you Respond?

Every candidate is different, and this extends across professions, levels of seniority, industries and countries. I am going to generalise now, but senior candidates tend to respond better to phone calls than emails. Candidates in the Middle East will go out of their way to give you referrals and really value being asked to provide a recommendation. Lawyers will not reply to your emails, ever. Heavy Tweeters will ignore your emails, but jump on your mentions. Put yourself in the candidate's shoes and read your emails or phone scripts: would yourespond?

Above all else, test and test again -the art of first-time communication is a science that requires experimentation, measurement and constant tweaking.

The above steps are lessons I've learned, and I have found that they mirror most recruiters experience. But we are not all vanilla, the world is full of raspberry, chocolate, lemon, mint and plenty of pecan nuts! Go crack them!

Jonathan is delivering breakfast briefings on using LinkedIn, Mobile and Twitter in Recruitment on behalf of APSCo in London and Manchester this week and next, and will be delivering the Blue Belt and Orange Belts in Internet Recruitment during February in Dublin, London and Online. More details here.

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Tags: Emailing, approaching, better, candidates, cold, email, emailing, emails, inmails, lines, More…linkedin, marketing, prospects, responses, return, subject, using, with

Comment by Andy Stanczyk on February 8, 2012 at 11:04am

This is the best article I've read in quite some time.  Finally, someone who not only says THAT you should do something, but what specifically has worked after much trial and error.  Great post.

Comment by Christopher Perez on February 8, 2012 at 1:04pm

Personalization is key, and it is easy if you just stop and think a minute. There had to be some reason that a person's background jumped out at you in the first place-- mention that! Treat it the same way you would if you were meeting someone at a networking mixer or in any social setting. Tell them why you thought it would be interesting to have a chat. It might be a shared discussion group on LinkedIn, a colleague's high praise (only use this if it's true, obviously), the school they attended, or any of a number of other openings.

For some of us it is easy and instinctive to see and leverage these openings in a very natural almost subconscious way. If you're the type who has a hard time making small talk...MEANINGFUL small talk, then approaching someone in email gives you every advantage you could ask for: the ability to practice your overture and the chance to study the person in advance to identify the hooks that might work without insulting them.

For the record, another of my pet peeves is when I get a LI invitation that uses the stock wording and not a personalized note. This is a cardinal sin in my opinion. The only time I'll forgive it is when it is from someone I know well. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and figure that they felt no need to win me over and may have been in a hurry. But when it is from someone new to the business world, I have been known to accept, but then respond with a gentle but firm tutorial on the finer points of networking. I did this to the daughter of a tennis buddy a few months ago. She is a college freshman and her marketing professor assigned them to create a profile on LI and build a little network of a few dozen people (this triggered the predictable rush to parents' connections which is fine). When I got Shannen's stock invitation I gave her "the talk". It must have registered because she told her dad that I really must be a pro at LI because I knew what I was doing! haha, as if it's rocket science, but she's a kid. Shannen must've told a few of her classmates about me also because I now have at least 3-4 Univ of Miami freshman business students in my network! Bless their little hearts.

+1 for the post, Johnny.    Chris.

Comment by Johnny Campbell on February 8, 2012 at 1:17pm

@Andy Thanks dude, we all know we should do something, thought I'd take the time to put my two cents up!

@Chris, great additions to the post my friend. One the "stock invite", I do send it to people I know, but it's normally an hour or so after we've exchanged cards and agreed to connect. The recruiter habit of using "Connect" to send an unsolicited mail about a job is just a bad idea, even if it sometimes work (I admit to doing this for my first year on LinkedIn!). Its much easier to make a connection by phone or email and then send the invite when you truly do know them. Loved your story though, great illustration.

Comment by Christopher Perez on February 8, 2012 at 1:34pm

Johnny, I have use the Connect button on LI for a blind introduction in the past, but only when all other means of tracking down a person had been exhausted and time was short. When I do that, I take even more care than usual to "make up for it" by creating a compelling reason for the intrusion. But to your Step 4, I never apologize. My hope is that there is an implied acknowledgment of the intrusion in how I word it, but I don't apologize for that, just let them know that I realize the outreach may be a bit atypical and then move on.

I have to say that even when I send a connect invitation to someone after we've spoken and agreed to a Link-up, I still include a quick personal note. It only takes 5 seconds to say "Hi Johnny, great speaking with you just now. Thanks for agreeing to connect here and let's stay in touch!" I heartily recommend this approach as a best practice in online networking. 

Comment by Johnny Campbell on February 8, 2012 at 1:35pm

You're right Chris, I can't deny it. Need to take my own advice more!

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