Are Candidates Customers - Or Something More?

December 10, 2013

When asked about their candidates’ experience, most corporate recruiting leaders like to say “We treat our candidates as customers.”

To be sure, there are plenty of similarities between candidates and customers.

Employers want both candidates and customers to have a positive brand experience before, during and, if possible, even after disappointing them (as will happen with about 84 out of every 85 candidates).

Companies definitely want customers to tell their friends about their products and candidates to tell their [qualified] friends to apply.

Employers also want candidates to join their talent communities and customers to become raving, digitally-connected and product-loyal fans. They would love it if candidates and customers returned again and again (although in the case of candidates, only when they are qualified and increasingly competitive).

Despite these and other general examples, the convenient imagery begins to lose focus during the early recruiting stages of attracting and engaging prospects. It’s here that some firms tend to favor sizzle over substance and fail to provide authentic content and respond to reasonable requests for information.

Candidates may have expectations that you are not accounting for

Interestingly the data is beginning to show that candidates, qualified or not, passive or not, are positively predisposed toward the company they apply to. In our most recent study, 53% of the prospects looking for work or responding to a direct contact, claim a relationship with the firm ranging from customer and admirer, to having family and friends working there. But, and this an important ‘but’- this affinity includes specific expectations about how they will be treated. And since these expectations were not established by the firm, they may not be delivered on - if only because the candidate was never asked about them.

Adding to the illusion about what to expect, it is common for employers to claim they ARE treating candidates as customers and tout their “common sense” approach, technology tools and insistence that they are fully informing them about the company, opportunities and culture. Unfortunately, many of these same employers failed to systematically gather information from at least a sample of their targeted candidates to validate those claims.

As a result, it is much more likely that candidates (who, remember, will almost ALL leave without a job) are unaware of crucial information, and harbor unaddressed and unrealistic expectations.

Does it matter?

Does a customer’s experience matter?

“Is your candidate experience really like the customer experience” checklist

The real question here is whether a candidate’s good (or bad) experience matters as much and is as measurable as a customer’s experience? Is there a business imperative we are not measuring? What exactly is the cost of a poorly treated candidate, and can a positive experience add a measurable edge in competing for talent?

Before considering an answer, read these simple but specific customer expectations below and ask yourself how often you have seen the candidate equivalent mirrored, measured or even delivered in a corporate recruiting model:

-        A customer [candidate] expects to see a price tag [Compensation] on every product [job] upon entering the store [Career Site Search Page Results]. Often, Sometimes, Never

-        A customer [candidate] expects to communicate with customer service [HR/Recruiting] to answer a question before checking out [applying]. Often, Sometimes, Never

-        A customer [candidate] expects a clearly written, understandable description about the product [job] including whether it is likely to fit before trying it on [applying].Often, Sometimes, Never

-        A customer [candidate] finding the rack [job search results page] empty, expects to know when you’ll get your next shipment [opening]. He or she wants to be approved (in advance) to have the product [job] when it does come in. (He or she doesn’t want unrelated jobs offered but would appreciate your offering a link to competitors who do have what they want.) Often, Sometimes, Never

Today’s customer [candidate] is learning about the importance of sustainability and expects to know before they buy [apply]…

…where and when the ‘materials for this product’ [former employees in this job] were sourced?

Often, Sometimes, Never

…under what conditions was this ‘product made’ [job performed]?

Often, Sometimes, Never long will this last [average position tenure]?

Often, Sometimes, Never

…what happens when the product is worn out [employee is ready to move on i.e. Where do people go once they leave the position?]

Often, Sometimes, Never

…if the product [position] actually makes a difference in the lives of others.

Often, Sometimes, Never

The companies with best candidate experiences actively solicit and analyze candidate feedback

I bet many people reading the list above are tempted to explain Why they answered ‘Never’ - offering a rationale that one or more of the expectations cannot be translated or deployed because....

The truth is that every firm is resource-poor, saddled with compliance requirements and loaded with folks who are risk-averse. Every firm can easily explain Why they are not adhering to practices they aspire to.

And yet, there ARE companies, a growing list of companies, who treat candidates well- very well. These are firms who are rising above resource limitations, compliance fears and much more and, even with limited data, making a solid business case for reinventing recruiting.

Which brings us to what we’re learning about the practices of the employers that are treating their candidates as customers and even more- as investors.

These are firms learning to accept the candidate as a partner willing to invest their time and talent in a job, a career. They provide deeper information about the position, the hiring manager and the team they would join– even before a person is willing to apply- even if the answers are awkward. The firms realize they are engaging candidates, better quality candidates, who ask questions. And if they don’t get truthful answers directly from the employer they’ve targeted, they have other ways to obtain the info they need.

Candidates, qualified or not, active or passive, are also willing to give feedback, in fact they are driven to give feedback – if the employer will listen. Some employers are systematically collecting and analyzing feedback to impact their conversion rates, retention, quality of hire, willingness to re-apply, referral rates, how frequently candidates influence others or their willingness to continue to purchase the firm’s products and services, etc.

In one effort gaining traction, dozens of volunteers and hundreds of firms participated in a 4-month experiment in each of the last three years to dig deeper into the connection between recruiting practices, candidate attitudes, candidate behavior, and company performance.

The Candidate Experience Awards results

In 2013, the Candidate Experience Awards or the CandEs, as it’s been named, included 90 firms and 46,000 of their candidates who responded in detail about how they were treated during the recruiting process. Only 20% of the 46,000 respondents were hired.

We know now that 62% of the tens of thousands of candidates whose experience was positive would “definitely apply again” (and only .06% would not) and 62% of the well-treated candidates “would actively encourage others to apply.” What’s more, 39% said “I will increase my purchasing power” in the company they specifically assessed.

We know now that 27% of the candidates whose experience was negative would “definitely not” apply to the firm again (although 6% still would), 27% would “actively discourage others to apply” and 31 % said “I will take my purchasing power somewhere else.”

We also know that large numbers would tell their closest friends whether the experience were positive (82%) or negative (65%).  Publicly, 50% would share a positive experience and 32% would go public with a negative one. It is worth noting that these responses have steadily increased year over year.

None of these results are surprising. What is important is the numbers are not opinions of recruiters, community managers, conference speakers or journalists but the stated intentions of real candidates applying for real jobs at real companies. Data we can cut by age cohort, type of job, applicants who went no further or finalists and much more. Oh, and it’s being done with volunteers passionate about the subject, underwritten by sponsors committed to better products and free to employers.

These are firms learning about what transparency means from the perspective of the candidate.

These are firms learning to ask at every stage of the recruiting process,

“Have we supplied you with what you need to go forward?”

and, equally important,

“Have you been provided with the chance to communicate all you want about your ability to do the job?”

These are firms who set expectations and disclose them to the candidate early in the process, deliver on them, and then ask the candidate whether they got what was promised.

These are firms who hold their recruiters accountable because they measure their candidates’ experience.

These are firms who are building a business case for a new generation of investors. They know how to calculate the $ value of a candidate.

There is a few more years of work remaining to connect the dots on Candidate Experience. When this year’s analysis is published next month we’ll post the whitepaper and publish a follow-up summary here on LinkedIn. Meanwhile, last year’s whitepaper is available at There is no cost.

Gerry Crispin, SPHR is a life-long student of staffing with a long resume of service to the profession of recruiting. He is one of the co-founders of the TalentBoard, the 501c non-profit, that is driving the research surrounding the candidate experience with a growing number of practitioner, vendor and consultant volunteers. Gerry’s day job is Chief Navigator and co-founder of CareerXroads, a peer-to-peer network of corporate recruiting leaders who share practices and strategies.