Retained vs Contingent: Why retainers work for us

Retained vs Contingent: Why retainers work for us
Published: 15 July 2022

It won’t come as news to you that the recruitment industry is a constantly buzzing environment with candidates changing their lines of work as well as employees changing roles, moving departments, and making big career moves. The novelty of a new position inevitably brings more responsibilities and a change in approach to work. This is particularly the case for recruiters moving from contingent recruitment to retained executive search, a route that many recruiters look towards as part of their longer-term career development. We asked our consultants to elaborate on this journey and what to expect.

Why does Berwick Partners only handle retained assignments? What does this mean for the business and its employees?

Commitment is the first word that comes to mind. While contingent assignments are ad hoc and non-committal, retained assignments are a mutual agreement between clients and consultants where all parties have fully committed to the search. It is critical to delivering great appointments and well-regarded results and ensures we can commit the necessary time to undertake a robust search process.

For the business, this means that fundamentally we have some level of certainty that we are not wasting our time nor that of our candidates. We also work on a retained basis as this aligns with other businesses within Odgers Berndtson. Much of our work is done in collaboration with our fellow search businesses: Odgers Interim, Odgers Connect and Berwick Talent Solutions.

From a consultant’s perspective, the retained environment is more rewarding and thorough than what the typically transactional contingent model can offer. It affords us the time and connectiveness to build real and deeper relationships with our clients. There is also an unashamed focus on quality, value and longevity of relationship both with our clients and candidates. Consultants can regularly win nearly half of their work from one single long-standing client.

What are the benefits of using the retained model over contingent in our areas of practice?

It affords us two major benefits: greater capacity for candidate care and client attention. Overall, we ensure a constructive application process and positive experience for our candidates; we keep them well informed, give valuable feedback and offer support and care if they are not successful. Regarding clients, the retainer enables us to devote our time and functional expertise to their roles. We focus on getting it right rather than getting it done quickly – though, often we do both. Typically, the client doesn’t pay any more for what is a far more extensive process; the fee is simply structured in a different way, asking the client to commit funds in advance rather than on success.

The retained model also lends itself to a more in-depth candidate engagement and affords us the time to conduct a thorough and forensic search. Rather than a sweeping pull of potential candidates from a database or search engine, we mine out the appropriate candidates specifically tailored towards the roles. After all, we are persuading people who aren’t in the market for a new job that they should consider a career move. With greater access to diverse candidates, we are proactively reaching out to untapped talent that wouldn’t normally be approached through passive processes.

We asked our newest consultants what it is like to go into retained work from their history with contingent recruitment. They have shared with us some of the biggest challenges recruiters must overcome in retained search.

The transition to retained work, is a well-trodden path and a natural progression for most recruiters who aspire to work on bigger roles for higher fees. In contingent recruitment you always have work on the go, no matter how likely it is to lead to fees. The biggest challenge in the transition is the period where you have no work on. Pure business development in recruitment can be challenging, but to be credible as a retained consultant you must commit to the model. In addition, the most considerable distinction of retained work is asking your client for money in advance – this takes credibility, confidence and knowledge. You have also made a commitment to deliver; you can’t fail.

This sentiment is summed up by our Head of HR, Basil leRoux:

“The most hindering obstacles, I find, are building your market and establishing relationships. These require time, a long-term mindset and an appreciation that you may take a financial hit in the first couple of years. Second to those, is having the confidence to hold your fees.”

What do you consider to be the most rewarding and most difficult aspects of retained recruitment?

David ThomasPartner, Manufacturing & Engineering Practice:

“Berwick is built on ‘difficult jobs, handled well’. Our mid-level market is challenging so it is incredibly satisfying when a tricky assignment is completed. It’s most difficult when we are struggling to find the shortlist, and the biggest reward for me is supporting someone to find their next career-developing role.”

Simon Walton, Partner, Head of Consumer Practice:

“The most rewarding aspect is the trust and responsibility we have from a client to deliver an outstanding appointment.  We know we aren’t wasting our time and the client is fully committed.  The biggest difficulty however is also the trust and responsibility we have from a client to deliver an outstanding appointment, and not to let anyone down.”

Basil leRoux, Partner, Head of HR Practice:

“The most rewarding aspect is the breadth of clients and candidates I get to work with. I particularly enjoy the work I do with charities, Not For Profits and Public Sector organisations as this reinforces our motto for me: ‘What we do matters’. On the flip side, client expectations are a challenge as they have invested upfront and naturally this puts pressure on us to deliver.”

Jonathan Clark, Partner, Head of Public Practice:

“My practice purpose is to transform the leadership cadre in Public Service to enable our clients to better serve their customers, patients, service users, stakeholders and shareholders. Helping those organisations achieve that is hugely rewarding. I particularly relish the opportunity to challenge client thinking and perceptions, to encourage an inclusive approach and lead them to hire beyond the obvious, securing different talent to take them further faster.”

Elizabeth James, Partner, Head of Education Practice:

“Due to the nature of retained work affording us lengthier relationships, it’s our proximity to clients and candidates that I find the most rewarding. However, clients use retainers on difficult briefs, presenting us with niche and complex assignments; this is what makes our work challenging.”

In summary, our consultants find that the most difficult aspect of retained work is the assignments themselves: new, complex or high stakes. However, they are most rewarded by the wonderful relationships they build and take comfort in the knowledge that what we do matters.

This article is brough to you by Maxane Keogh. Maxane is an Internal Resourcer focused on fee-earner hiring and is based in our Birmingham office. She works with Debbie Sutton, our Chief of Staff, recruiting consultants to join the team here at Berwick Partners. Please get in touch if you're interested in discussing the opportunities we have.

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