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The Fordyce Letter

Straight Talk for the Recruiting Profession


Business Development, How-To

Here’s How to Build Key Accounts and Earn The Big Biller Fees


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Paul Millard

Like many of you, I am a student of this business as well as a student of performance and success.

In my 20 years of recruiting, I have had the pleasure of witnessing and experiencing many great billing accomplishments. A few types of performance successes that always gain my attention are the much sought-after but hard to obtain $100,000 billing month, or the $250,000 billing quarter. In analyzing a big month or quarter or even a big year, the one common denominator I have come to find that has the single biggest impact on awesome billings is the presence of one or more “key accounts.”

Defined loosely, a key account is one account that produces 5-10 placements within a 12-month period of time or less. To provide some perspective, there are two recruiters in our firm who completed $250,000+ quarters. One recruiter made six placements in an account in one quarter. The other made seven placements in another account in one quarter. Each had additional placements as well, but the “it” factor was the key accounts.

Some recruiters have key accounts and some recruiters do not. My goal here is to identify what often separates those who gain key accounts from those who do not. In 20 years of studying key accounts, here are some of my observations. If you play your cards right you can use this information to either earn your first key account or gain more key accounts.

Account Conversion

In my experience, key accounts are not accounts that develop instantly. Successful key account developers tend to be patient, straightforward, and strong in following up.  These types of recruiters have had relationships with their key accounts for over a year each before they really became key accounts. This being the case, the recruiters who land key accounts tend to have a bit more of a long-term vision of an account — that is, they do not show up, and speak to a new account one time and expect it to become a key account overnight. Of course they probably tried to do this, but accepted the situation at the time to be the situation. The separating factor here is a recruiter’s ability to convert new accounts into key accounts.

There are times when you call on a new account only to find out they have five recruiters working a search already, or the fee structure is too low, or the hiring manager is not realistic, or the project lacks funding. The list goes on and on.

Depending on your firm’s philosophy you may provide some candidates to clients like this, but as clients they never crack the” A Client” roster. They fall into the “If I have someone I will get them in front of you” category. You may also just walk away from these types of accounts. If you do any type of business development at all, this has surely happened to you.

Two Things Differently

At this point, recruiters that ultimately convert these type of accounts to key accounts do two things that others do not:

  1. They are straightforward about what they will and will not do for the account. They say things like, “I am sorry, under the current conditions you describe I cannot engage with your company at this time,” or, ” I specialize in your market, I cannot go out and conduct a full blown search where I call hundreds of candidates on your behalf, but I will call a few people I know.”
  2. They educate the client on why this type of searching is not in the their best interest. Too many recruiters oversell what they will do for a client, no matter how poor the initial conditions of the relationship appear to be, and many times, in the end, the recruiter just quietly disappears off the client’s radar screen. This makes the client mad and gives recruiters a bad name for saying they will do things they really will not. Key account developers have the uncomfortable conversations with prospective clients, and clients alike. They also follow up religiously with accounts even if their initial experiences were not 100% positive. They realize that things change, and when they do they want to be Johnny on the spot!

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Key account developers are also generally strong recruiters of talent.

In fact, I have seen more than one key account earned when a recruiter made a conscious decision to go head-to-head with other recruiters in the account as a test to see who could deliver the best results. Once they strutted their stuff and found the best candidates, they had a platform from which to change the dynamics inside the account, and help take a step toward making it a key account.

Regardless of the competitive landscape, key account developers realize that they are only as good as their ability to deliver the type of talent the client demands.

Pricing Flexibility

For those of you who only work full fees, I suggest you put on your earmuffs for the following thoughts.

My experience with key account developers is that they are flexible in how they price their services. Rather than get caught up in percentages they look at what is fair pay for services rendered. Again, rather than get caught up on just fee, the key account developers tend to take a more strategic approach to working with the account. There are certain accounts that are worth doing for less, and certain accounts that require more. I can think of many instances where we, as a firm, took less because we valued having a certain account on our client roster, or we saw a certain account as the key to breaking into a new, adjunct marketplace.

Teamwork, Flexibility, and Reach

Key account developers are demanding of their accounts and their accounts are demanding of them. They are collaborators, not dictators. They have a precise process in mind but can bend and flex that process to accommodate their client. In the same breath, they know where they cannot bend.

They are veracious qualifiers, forever affirming that clients are cooperative, realistic, and willing to do what it takes to land “A” talent. If at any point along the way they suspect or witness a deviation in any of the above areas they call the client out.

At the same time they realize that hiring is only one thing their client must do in a long list of responsibilities, and expect that the client will always need to be reminded that we need their cooperation, that they need to be realistic, and that great talent is hard to find, so let’s act on it.

Key account developers also have multiple relationships inside these accounts. They realize having a relationship with only one person in the enterprise is dangerous. At a minimum, they embrace the people who write and approve the job spec (human resources), the person who writes the check (CFO and their team), and the business executive who is making the hire. Many times there are even more people involved. The successful key account developer realizes that some of these people may actually be difficult personalities, yet they find a way to make it work and do not avoid all these relevant parties. Rather, they actually proactively seek them out.

Just like a relationship with a loved one, there are times where things are easy and things click, and then there are times when nothing comes easy. Key account developers are not afraid to work hard through thick and thin to grow a relationship. Key account developers do not shy away from this, and they thrive on the profit and responsibility that comes with these relationships.

Key account developers often arrive before others or stay later than others because they feel like they owe it to themselves and their clients to do their best. They see themselves as an extension of their client.

It is my hope that you can use the observations and suggestions outlined here to think about or re-think your approach to landing key accounts, gain more key accounts in 2012, and ultimately put more dollars into your pocket. Good luck and happy recruiting!