The customer is always right

It is a well-known saying in customer service circles that if someone has a good experience, they might tell one or two people, but if they have a bad experience, they will tell nine or 10. In recruitment, this wisdom is just as important. Treat someone badly in the hiring process and not only will you put them off wanting to work for you, they may shy away from buying your products or services.

“When I was HR director at Deutsche Bank, I used to say to the recruiting team: ‘The people you will see might not be good enough for us, but they might be our customers one day’,” says Stephen Brooks, partner at PA Consulting. “When applying for a job, people remember what recruiters say to them.”

So what can organisations do to make themselves attractive, not just as employers but to potential customers?

Common courtesy

An obvious first step is to treat potential employees with the courtesy and respect an organisation should already be giving to its customers: easy moves such as making sure applicants are not kept waiting for a reply or that staff are helpful when they come in for interview or assessment.

Recruiters also need to be aware of the emotional investment candidates make, particularly when it is a job they really want. An automated e-mail response may save money, but will not be as well received as a short phone call with some feedback.

“Candidates take umbrage at receiving an instant electronic rejection, so we are building in 48-hour delays,” explains Robert Peasnell, managing director of recruitment advertising consultancy, Barkers London.

“It is also good manners to provide candidates with constructive feedback if they are unsuitable for the job; after all, they could be perfect for the role one day, and you don’t want to lose them as a customer now, or in the future,” he adds.

It is equally crucial that an organisation lives up to the expectations of candidates and customers.

“Everyone thinks John Lewis and Waitrose are honest brands and that you can trust us,” says Andy Street, director of personnel at John Lewis Partnership. “So we have to make sure that we do what we say we will, whether that is to call you back in three weeks or to stick with the pay rate we said at the beginning. It might not sound radical, but it is difficult to do time and time again.”

Companies with a reputation for recruiting and retaining the best staff often have a strong brand presence. Branding is no longer just about influencing whether customers choose to buy from a company; it also determines who wants to work for them.

For example, the strength of the Virgin Atlantic brand – and the entrepreneurial spirit of its leader Richard Branson – ensures that it repeatedly receives more job applications than many of its competitors.

“You want to be the spontaneous choice for a prospective employee,” says Simon Howard, chairman of recruitment services provider, Work Group.

Maintaining the brand

The difficulty comes in ensuring an organisation’s brand is maintained consistently throughout the recruitment process, whether on a recruitment ad, online, in store or at an assessment centre.

“We have a set of values that run throughout the candidate lifecycle,” says Martin Thomas, head of recruitment for BT Global Services.

“These are [to be] trustworthy, helpful, straightforward, inspiring and [to have] heart – which is about believing in what we do.”

A recruitment advertisement might be the first place a candidate interacts with a company, so the brand messaging needs to be clear and consistent. It sounds like a clich, but it is also important that employees are seen to live and breathe the brand.

“If a customer sees an ad on TV featuring happy employees, but when they visit the store and see all the employees are miserable and chatting to one another, there’s no consistency,” says Colin Shaw, founding partner of Beyond Philosophy, a consultancy that specialises in customer experience. “People notice this at a subconscious level.”

Where third parties are involved – for example, an outsourced recruitment provider – the logistics of managing the brand can become more complicated. But there are ways to avoid sending out inconsistent messages.

“We have to liaise with corporate communications, from checking whether we can use the logo to including the messages they want us to say,” says Katherine Hogbin, director of recruitment outsourcing firm, Origin HR. “Having a third party doesn’t make much difference because often we are so embedded in a client’s organisation, with people working on site, that employees turn native.”

Individual brands

If an organisation is inviting candidates to an assessment centre, it can be difficult to offer an experience unique to the business because many organisations use the same providers. But with a little imagination it can be achieved.

“We did some work with the Home Office, recruiting drug intervention workers,” recalls Peasnell. “We built three sets at the assessment centre and created a scenario for each. The first set was made up to look like a prison cell and we had actors pretending to be crack addicts. The second scenario was more formal and the candidate had to take a briefing with a police sergeant. In the third, the candidate was in an alleyway and had to write up his notes, as workers in this role are often unable to do so in an office.”

When branding works well, it differentiates an organisation from its competitors and makes it a place that people not only want to buy from, but also work for. McDonald’s recent advertising campaign for ‘McJobs’ would not have been necessary if its brand had not become associated with low-paid work. “We have to accept that this association exists and correct it,” admitted David Fairhurst, UK vice-president, people, at McDonald’s, at the campaign’s launch.

In a competitive market – where good candidates and loyal customers are scarce – employers must take every step they can to ensure that the recruitment process does not turn candidates off working for the company or from becoming a customer.

Case study: Vodafone

Vodafone is one of the most recognised mobile brands in the world, partly due to the emphasis it places on maintaining its brand essence – ‘red, rock solid and restless’ – at every customer touch-point.

“The whole idea is that, at the attraction stage, a customer recognises the brand in the same way they would commercially,” says Andy Hill, head of resourcing at Vodafone UK. “For example, we have incorporated our ‘Now’ consumer campaign into our recruitment ads and messaging.”

Throughout the recruitment process, Vodafone aims to guide the customer to where it controls the branding, whether at its website, recruitment microsites (such as voiceofvodafone.co.uk for call centre staff), call centre or assessment centres (branded as Vodafone Experience Days). “We treat them like customers and use the same words in a telephone interview as we would in an ad so everything is familiar,” says Hill.

This also means treating potential new recruits with the same respect it gives to its customers. “Getting a job is a very personal and emotional time, and simple things can upset people,” he acknowledges. “We have to keep promises to people, and if someone’s not right for the job, explain that: ‘It doesn’t mean Vodafone doesn’t like you, but these are the skills we are looking for.’ A phrase we used to have was that ‘you can’t reject, you redirect’.”

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