45 best practices for working with staffing firms
Copyright 2018 by Will Bachman
There are various terms for firms that connect independent consultants with clients who need external resources.
There are two primary categories:
a) Marketplaces in which clients can post project opportunities and then any consultant registered on the platform can bid on those projects with a proposal
b) Human-intermediated talent brokers, in which a human being has a discussion with the client and then searches through the firms database of talent to find the best candidates, and then reaches out to those select candidates. With these brokers, the talent pool generally does not have visibility into the complete list of open projects
These two types of firms require different approaches by the consultant. Today’s episode focuses on the human-intermediated talent brokers, which I’m going to call staffing firms for simplicity.
The marketplaces will be the subject of a future episode.
This episode is not for every independent consultant
Not every consultant wants to work with staffing firms. If you are generating work through your own relationships – fantastic!
Some consultants love doing the work but just don’t like business development. These consultants would rather wrap up one project and have someone else find the next project for them.
Other consultants aspire to build their own book of business, but when they are starting out, don’t have projects to do. As they work on building their practice, staffing firms are an important channel.
Much of the advice here sounds kind of obvious. I’m going to be tempted to preface each one of the points with “this sounds kind of obvious.” Instead, I’ll just say it once and not repeat myself.
Maybe 95% of what I say on this episode is obvious to you. The 5% that is a new idea to you may be obvious to someone else, and what’s new to them is obvious to you. So I’ll include everything I can think of.
Set up your own consulting practice. You might listen to Episode 15 of this show titled “Will Bachman on 27 steps to set up your firm.” Get a name for your firm.
Prepare an updated resume that shows your current employer as your own consulting firm. This resume ought to be no more than 2 pages.
Prepare a detailed project list – this can be much more detailed. On your project list, include every consulting project you’ve ever worked on. List the dates, the client, the challenge faced, what you did, and the impact. Include the industry and the functional area. You might create a public version that is sanitized of the names of clients, and keep a private version for your own reference. This will come in very handy when a staffing firm asks you to quickly send them two bullets on relevant project experience.
Optional but recommended: prepare some sanitized work samples. If you were allowed to retain any work from previous employers, strip out anything confidential to prepare a sample work product of yours. Or create a new deliverable from scratch – maybe 5 pages of outside-in due diligence on a company in the industry you focus on. Or several strategy pages for a public company that you haven’t served, but are familiar with. It is always better to SHOW rather than TELL. And it is far more compelling to be able to SHOW samples of your deliverables than to SAY that you produce great documents.
Get a high quality professional headshot of yourself. Pay for it. The vast majority of consultants never do this. And so by getting a good photo, you immediately distinguish yourself.
Update your LinkedIn profile with your new headshot and the name of your firm. Were you working at a big consulting firm or at a company? Put an end date to that employment on LinkedIn. Staffing firms don’t like to present you as an independent consultant to a client if on LinkedIn it shows that you still work at McKinsey or Cisco.
Do you have a bare-bones LinkedIn profile, just listing all the places you’ve worked? Add some content – provide project examples or describe in some detail the work you did. Wherever possible, use the story format, that is: we faced this challenge, I did that, and here was the impact. Write a compelling summary that captures your expertise.
Did I mention LinkedIn? Let me mention it one more time: the staffing firm is going to check out your LinkedIn profile when deciding whether to present you to the client. The client is going to check out your LinkedIn profile and probably pay more attention to it that your resume.
Update your profile on all the other alumni sites: college, grad school, the alumni site of your consulting firm
Research the staffing firms out there, and find out which ones focus on the areas of your expertise. Talk to other independent consultants to understand the reputation of the various firms and which ones you’d most like to work with. It is generally free to register as talent, but it does take some time, and you want to focus your effort on the few firms that are most likely to bring you quality projects.
Sign up with those firms. With some firms, you can sign up as talent right on their website. With other firms you need to get an invitation. For those firms, you’ll need to find someone who can recommend you. Or just reach out to their staff via email or LinkedIn.
Some firms let you register for their talent pool and don’t have any interview process. You want to develop a personal relationship with someone who works at that firm. Find a friend who has worked as a consultant with that firm in the past who can introduce you. Get time on the phone or even better, in person.
Clearly articulate the type of projects that you should be considered for. You might be afraid of missing out on opportunities where you would do a fine job. And it may be true that you are an awesome generalist who will do a fantastic job on a wide variety of projects. That’s great. But the fact is that the staffing firm already has hundreds or thousands of fantastic generalists. And before they ever call you, they are going to call one of those fantastic generalists who has done good work for them before. So be specific. Specific is memorable. Be the expert at developing the marketing launch plan for new pharmaceuticals in South America. Or the expert at improving sales in inbound call centers. When the staffing firm has one of THOSE projects, you’ll be on the short list. And once you do great work on that project, they’ll try to find ways to use you again.
Be a good citizen and introduce other excellent independent consultants to the staffing firm. While they have a big pool of talent, they are always looking for other great folks to add to their pool.
Introduce the staffing firm to potential clients or even better, live project opportunities. Maybe you ask for a referral fee. Maybe you do it as an investment in the relationship. Either way, any consultant who helps them generate revenue becomes suddenly far more memorable.
Attend their events – online or in person. If the staffing firm does in-person events, showing up is a good way to meet their employees in person. And a face to face connection is always more powerful than just being known by them from email or the phone.
When the staffing firm DOES reach out to you with a project opportunity, respond quickly – I always aim to respond within one hour. If you aren’t available, respond with a polite no, and if you think you might know someone who would be a good fit, recommend to the staffing firm that other name. If you are available, then respond right away, and let them know you will send a tailored resume later in the day. Let them know when that day and the next day you’d be available to talk. More than one staffing firm might be working on that same opportunity. They may want to send only one or two candidates to their client. They may not wait to get the best candidates in the universe. They may wait only until they have one or two that are good enough. So respond quickly so you can be included in that group. If you get back to them two or three days later, maybe you are better than any other candidate, but the client already has interviews scheduled and doesn’t want to see more candidates.
When you do get on the phone with the staffing firm, be organized and make sure you understand the following parameters for the project:
What stage is the project at? Very early discussion? Is it a confirmed need with multiple firms pitching? Is it a confirmed need with budget approved and the staffing firm is sole source?
Expected start date
Expected time commitment in days per week
Location of the client site, and how much time are you expected to be on site vs. working remotely
Who is the client? If the exact name can’t be shared yet, at least describe the client
What is the situation – why is the client looking for help? Why now?
What are the desired outcomes?
What will be the indicators of success?
What is the value the client hopes to achieve?
Rates. The staffing firm may have a rate in mind, and in that case may tell it to you. Or they may ask you what you would charge. Don’t give some wishy washy answer about how your rates depend on x, y, and z. Don’t say, well, I’d typically charge somewhere between low number and high number. Because in that case, the staffing firm will say, OK, the low number works. Be confident and know what you are worth. A much better answer is, on similar projects I’ve charged X and that is what I would propose in this case.
Be transparent about your availability. If you’ve got other possible projects in your pipeline – great – that’s to be expected. Let the staffing firm know that before they present you to the client. That way, when they present you, they can say, “This candidate has another possible project she will hear about next week. So if we can confirm this candidate by Friday, she is definitely available. If we wait longer than that, it is first come, first served.” Any intermediary will be quite upset if without any warning, after the client picks you, you back out right before signing the contract.
In the event that you get approached by a second firm for what sounds like the exact same project, do NOT let them present you as a candidate. You MIGHT think this would double your chances. You would be WRONG. Letting two firms present you will make both of those firms look like idiots, and they will both be very unhappy with you. You might think that it would be EXTREMELY RARE for two staffing firms to call the SAME consultant for a project, but in fact it happens pretty often. The right approach is to tell the second firm that you are conflicted with this particular client and you can’t let them represent you. You shouldn’t tell Firm B that Firm A has introduced you. And you shouldn’t go run and tell Firm A that Firm B is also pitching for this project.
We mentioned earlier about preparing a resume and project list. Don’t be the consultant who responds to the staffing firm, “OK, I’ll get you a resume tonight when I get home.” Send those resumes and your project list to yourself so you can access them from your phone, or save them on Dropbox, so you always have them accessible.
Include your phone number in your email back to the staffing firm. Maybe the staffing firm has it in your profile. Maybe not. Why make them look for it. A general rule: if you want people to call you, provide your phone number. My suggestion is: include it in your email signature. Both on your computer as well as on your phone.
The staffing firm may ask you to put your info into their bio template, or to fill out a non disclosure agreement, or some other administrative tasks – maybe a background check. Some industries even require. Be a good citizen and knock that stuff out quickly.
The staffing firm will probably want you to agree to a non-circumvention clause. Their standard clause might bar you from working directly with the entire client company for some period of time after the first project. If the client company is small, that is fair, as you probably would not have ever got connected to them without the staffing firm. If the client is a big company like Pfizer and you are a consultant focused on the pharma industry, then you can usually negotiate a more restrictive non-circumvention agreement, limiting the scope to the business unit you’d be serving.
Let the staffing firm know if you have any conflicts – maybe you serve as an advisor to a direct competitor.
Now let’s say the staffing firm says they will send your bio to the client. Great. Now, it is up to you to follow up with the staffing firm without being completely annoying. Don’t text them five times a day. But do check in on Friday and ask, “Hey, have you heard anything back from the client.” The staffer is human, and busy. The client is human, and busy. Maybe your reminder will remind the staffing firm employee to ping the client, which will remind the client to review your profile, which will result in an interview. Or maybe you’ll find out that the staffing firm has heard that someone else got picked – well at least now you know.
If you get selected to meet with the client – congratulations. Now it is your time to be a closer. Don’t just go into the discussion with the client as if it were a resume interview. Prepare! Spend time on the staffing firm to make sure you understand the full context of the project. If the staffing firm has staffed any other consultants with that client before, ask to speak with the other consultants. Prepare as if it were your own client and you were going to pitch. You wouldn’t just show up to be interviewed – that’s what I did on my first few interviews arranged by a staffing firm. Over time, I realized that I ought to put some pages together, because the one who brings pages to a discussion controls the discussion, as all consultants know. Even if you just structure an issue tree, and even if you are mostly wrong, the fact that you are bringing paper to the meeting will distinguish you.
Try to get real work done in that first meeting with the client. Honesty, they really don’t care about your resume. They care about their problem. They don’t even care about the big success you had solving the same problem for some other client. So don’t talk about yourself. Ask questions about their problem, like “What have you tried so far? Why hasn’t that worked? What other ideas do you have that you haven’t tried yet? What approach would you suggest we take?” Let the client talk and she’ll think you’re a genius. Rather than declaring that you know the answer to their problem, instead involve the client. Try something along the lines of, “I can imagine a few different approaches that we might take..” Sketch out some pros and cons of each approach and get the client involved in selecting the one that she likes. Make it her idea. No one likes to hire a consultant who is a know it all and will walk around telling people what they should be doing.
Whenever possible, do that first meeting in person.
After you meet with the client, send the staffing firm an update. Let them know how the meeting went, and if the client mentioned any next steps. Did it seem, on reflection, like the client had any concerns about your profile that you weren’t able to adequately address in the meeting? Provide some evidence to the staffing firm that addresses the concern, and they can pass it on to the client.
If you hear directly from the client about some next steps, a second interview, or whatever, then keep the staffing firm point of contact updated.
Maybe you don’t get selected for the project – total bummer. You were really counting on it. Take it in stride – that is part of the game and will probably happen more often than not.
Let’s say you get selected for the project – nice work! Ask the staffing firm to what degree they want to stay informed of how things are going. Some want regular updates. Some just want to hear if things are going wrong. Be sure to at least meet their preference. No one ever hurt their reputation with a staffing firm by communicating 20% more often than the minimum requested.
When things are going great, maybe not so important to keep the staffing firm informed. But if there are any issues or the client isn’t happy with your work, you want to be the one who tells the staffing firm first, before they hear about it from the client.
Invoicing: every staffing firm has their own system. Maybe it is annoying and cumbersome. Sorry. Be a good citizen and get your invoices and expenses submitted exactly on time. Don’t gum up their processes by being late or making them chase you. Also: it helps if your invoices are accurate. If you didn’t actually work on Thanskgiving Day, then don’t invoice Thanskgiving Day because you are in the habit of invoicing every Monday through Thursday.
As the project is getting towards the end, keep the staffing firm updated on what the chances of an extension are. Note: if you get extended a couple of times, the staffing firm’s opinion of you will go up each time.
Don’t share with the client the rate that the staffing firm is paying you. Yes, the client is paying the staffing firm more money than comes to you. But sharing the numbers isn’t going to make you any happier or the client any happier.
While you are on the ground at the client, keep your eyes open for other project opportunities that the staffing firm could help with, and let them know. If you can help them find and staff an extra project, you will improve your reputation, to put it mildly.
Understand the resources that the staffing firm has available. Some have established relationships with various research services or PowerPoint production. If you can use those resources on your project to deliver more value to your client, do so. That shows the client a greater value add by the staffing firm, which makes your client happier, which makes the staffing firm happier.
After a project is over, discuss with the staffing firm how the two of you will stay in touch with the clients whom you’ve built relationships with. You don’t want to step on their toes given that they quote unquote own the client relationship. But you’ve build a closer working relationship with the client than they have, so agree on how you will work together to maintain the client relationship and possibly generate future opportunities to help that client.
If a client calls you direct some time after the project is over and asks for your help, then get the staffing firm involved if you had established a non-intervention period and you are still within it.
After you’ve done a project through a staffing firm, keep them updated from time to time with new skills that you develop via other project work.
You don’t want to ping the staffing firm all the time – that makes you look desperate – but whenever you are 2-4 weeks away from finishing a project, you might drop them a note to let them know what day you are becoming available. That helps keep you top of mind.
The people who work at the staffing firm are human – think about building a long term relationship with them. Maybe send them a holiday card. If you are visiting their city for some other reason, see if you can meet in person. If they leave the staffing firm, stay in touch and see if you can be helpful to them. It is a small world.
I’d love your feedback – what did I miss? And what questions do you still have?