How to Win and Retain Business in Recruitment

A comprehensive guide to business development and sales in recruitment and staffing.

How to Win and Retain Business in Recruitment

Reading time: 18 mins

I’ve had this question a lot recently, so I thought I’d discuss a few tactics that have worked for me before and some that haven’t.


It’s important to have your foundations set in stone. By foundations, I’m referring to your niche, your brand, your offer and associated assets.

Supporting assets are things like a website or landing page, a set of terms, and a rate card.

You don’t need much to win business in a candidate-short niche, as long as you have the foundations above in place. Job-short niches (like the one I chose) are much tougher — there is more price competition, and it’s tougher to stand out. Pick wisely!

Some of these tactics blur into marketing, but I'll focus most on what wins business proactively.

Advert Shadowing

This is what the majority of recruiters will use as their base data for outreach. It’s pretty simple, they’ll track advertised jobs and reach out either with a generic ask or a suitable profile of someone.

In my experience, this is among the weakest of tactics for a few reasons.

Once a company has committed to advertising, they’ve spent on the advert, and they’re most likely already getting response.

They’re also getting the same message from other recruiters as they’ve raised their head above the parapet.

I would definitely avoid a generic outreach as it’s just so weak. You can improve conversion by reaching out with a matched profile but will cost you more time. Some recruiters will fake that they have a candidate, I’ve never done that as it’s disingenuous. You start the conversation making excuses.

Timing can improve things. Reaching out towards the close of the advert makes the response more binary — it’s either already filled or it’s clear to them that they’re struggling.

There are various tools now to give you this info but, if you can access it, so can others.

For me, this is a tactic best automated, as it requires high volume since the conversion rate is so low.

MPC — Most Promising Candidate Emails

The big one. In my view, anyway. The one drilled into me, and I assume many others when you start your recruitment career.

Taking a candidate to market.

This means taking a CV or profile of someone strong in the eyes of the people you think will be interested in hiring them. It’s that simple.

The problem is that it takes time to do well. Most agencies I’ve worked for or know of, spam employers with these emails.

I always hated doing it, so would get told off by line managers for not doing it, even when I was one of the top performers. It just didn’t sit right with me.

My view on it remains the same, I’ve done it rarely in my own business and only ever on a small scale. Highly targeted, relevant to the receiver, and not very often.

You have to consider that huge ESPs like Google do not want you sending unsolicited emails, so you’re constantly trying to stay one step ahead with protecting your domain.

If you’re going to do it, then there are a few timeless principles to stick to.

Use a related domain for any cold emails. This protects the sender authority on your main domain in case your data isn’t accurate.

Keep messages short and to the point. Check out Selling to VITO by Anthony Parinello. It’s an oldie but a goodie — VITO stands for Very Important Top Officer. It talks about structuring your messaging to senior business leaders.

There are 38 principles, but my favourites are:

  • VITO will like me because I am like VITO
  • Because time is so valuable, VITOs don’t treat all potential business relationships equally, and neither should you.
  • When you create any written correspondence that you want VITO to actually process, you’ll have to make it a fast read. A fast read in VITO’s world means thirty seconds.

Basically, get to the point with a succinct value statement — it helps if they’re quantifiable.

Hi #ContactFirstName#,

I wanted to reach out to you #ContactFirstName#, as I recently interviewed an exceptional XXX profile located in XXX who is currently exploring their next step.

Their profile

• Feature 1

• Feature 2

• Feature 3

• Feature 4

Would this profile be of interest, or what profiles would you be interested in hearing about?

In practise:

Morning Jim,

I've had someone approach me who has a proven track record of leading on flagship client wins in the widget space, as well as overseeing large sales teams. Within his current role he has delivered £2.3m in sales with £7.9m currently pipelined. This is all widget making focused with single deal values not less than £150k.

He’s looking for a blended role including both strategy and sales management. I wondered if you have any need for someone like this at present.


I’ve attempted story based as well as lengthening to include suggestions on how they could implement a person into their business.

Short, value-laden emails focused on what they care about work best.

It also means that some candidates make for a more alluring MPC than others. A good sales person is easy as you can tie it to revenue outcomes. An auditor, maybe not so much.

So, pick your battles on the MPC front, hopefully you don’t get caught doing them at a scale where you’re forced to work with profiles that you can’t sell.

Furthermore, the more you scale this tactic, the tougher it gets to maintain accuracy and diligence.

Most agencies don’t care, they’ll spam to the hilt. If they get one job from 250 emails, then they’ve won. My view is that they’ve won short term, and it’s costing them down the line. They end up with transactional relationships and low market penetration. As they scale, they just start new desks in new markets and do the same thing again.

Transactional might be OK if that’s what you’re shooting for. It’s not for me, so I’m careful to use MPC tactics carefully.


I’m not sure where I picked up this term, but it’s what I call it!

Owler messaging or outreach is where you track the industry for news and then structure your approach around that news.

A simple example would be if a company raised funding, then reach out to congratulate. Or if they won an award, do the same.

On a basic level, like the examples above, it’s a bit vanilla, so it’s about getting granular and tailoring.

Can you offer or demonstrate value rather than just a vapid congratulatory note?

Here’s an evolved example:

Hey Fred, I spotted your recent investment, congrats. I’ve actually kept a record of hiring activity across 3 of your major competitors that received funding recently. Would you like me to run through the data with you on a short call?

Something like this could just trigger a call where you can demonstrate expertise. It doesn’t have to be job data, lean into your knowledge and find what you can offer.

Cold calling

I won’t lie, I have done zero cold calls since starting my own recruitment business.

In my first recruitment job, we would have two one hour periods in the day — lockdown — when you couldn’t use the bathroom and every so often you had to stand up for the full hour (or until you hit your target).

During this time, we’d dial out, aiming for 20 calls, and 10 call connects. I didn’t dislike it, and there is a power in doing it. It’s initially scary but then perversely confidence building.

Getting used to being rejected is good for you, and cold calling is one of the best ways to learn.

I think cold calling works, and I hate it when people say it’s dead. I do think it is a dying art, though. If you’re interested in cold calling, I haven’t got much to share with you in terms of what works for me, so I’d check out Benjamin Deheney. If I were eager to learn, I’d pay someone like him to teach me.

He has a great, no nonsense style that’s perfect for recruitment, and his free 10-day video course is packed with value.

Flip Calling

I’m not accomplished at flip calls, as they’re not as relevant to the industry I’ve specialised in, but they are certainly worth exploring dependent on your market.

Flip calls are a method of doing business development through candidate networking calls. It’s a tactic to employ with senior level candidates. The premise is that, when you find someone who is happy and doesn’t want to move jobs, you ask them for business.

There is nuance and a skill to segueing the conversation in that direction, and it relies on navigating a call based on responses. Obviously, it can be tougher to make the ask if someone is actively looking due to not enjoying where they work.

A route way into doing this at scale is to get hold of some non-exec or advisory roles and source for those. It’s a reason to call and connect, then you can take things from there.

I’ve occasionally asked people when the conversation has naturally flowed in that direction. For me, it’s borderline on the honesty front, so I’ve never approached this with a campaign mentality.

Account Growth

Why go hunting all the time when you have a warm entry point? There are a few methods I’ve employed previously to land and expand.

1. Find other buying points with the client and ask for an introduction — this means other geographies, departments, managers

Style is important here — the ultimate is to get a direct intro via email. The next best is to be given the contact details, and the third is just a name. Make sure to use your knowledge and relevant impact statements when reaching out.

2. Proactively suggest new ideas, offers, and services.

I’m an idea junkie, so this is a favourite of mine.

Working in the same market in recruitment for years, you have a giant opportunity to spot trends developing. You have to consider that you will have personally spoken to more people across a sector in one year than any of your clients or candidates will in their career.

This privileged position will enable you to generate ideas. These are gold, and I overlooked them for years, not having the confidence to present them to people.

I have a few methods to help me generate ideas:

  • Opportunity gap analysis — this is straightforward and linked to direct hiring — where can you future forecast on a client or prospect’s behalf? I’ve proactively proposed new market entry or products hinged around introducing someone before. You can create vacancies and even new profit centres for your clients.
  • Link any new ideas on winning business (growth), saving money or staying out of prison/falling foul of regulators.
  • Empathy modelling — seek other day-to-day challenges your clients have and ideate on those.

Your ideas are valid. Some will land, some won’t. The most important thing is to keep going. You’re almost advocating on your client’s behalf, and they appreciate that, even if you’re off the mark.

Even more significant than uptake of ideas, it starts to shift their perception of the value you can add. You don’t have to generate all of your revenue from recruitment. You can add far more value than that.

New offers and ideas keep things fresh. You also take yourself (slowly) out of the pigeonhole clients put you in when they hear the word ‘recruiter’. This is crucial to long-term success.

3. Re-educate clients who have an inaccurate understanding of what the company does

This is an evergreen exercise. Simply because most managers (hiring, HR, TA) get bombarded by recruiters every day. You have to fight to be seen, and it’s an ongoing battle.

It’s all about perception. They might know you do A & B, but not C. Or they might know you do A, B & C but don’t rate you in B.

Keep on top of their perceptions. I do this by maintaining regular contact. The challenge is in doing this at scale.

4. Divert spend from other firms involved with your client

The obvious one, where do you have leakage with your client? Why? Dig in and get to the bottom of it.


I feel like partnerships should be good, but I’ve always struggled to get them off the ground. It’s perhaps more of a commentary on my niche, but they’ve never worked for me.

The mechanics can involve:

  • Referring back and forth
  • Referring back and forth with a fee (this is better when it's more one-sided)
  • One side subcontracts the other (white labelling)
  • Collaborative offerings (going to market together)

I’ve tried them mainly with consultants who are providing non-competing services to the niche. One tried to fold me into their group and then sought to steal all of my ideas and intel. Most just can’t deliver any leads, or what they do deliver is poor quality. This is down to BD being so tough in recruitment.

These days I mainly refer (for free) to those that have been in the market for years or that I trust to deliver a good service. Some have spontaneously paid me afterwards, which I never asked for, but I’m truly grateful for.

If I’m going to trial a partner, I always start slow — putting potential partners through mini-tests, in much the same way as I do when recruiting. You’re judging everything; quality, speed, and accuracy of communication. Don’t over expose too early with a partner, validate with small pilot projects and then scale up.

95% of people are time wasters, so try not to get caught out or be over exposed. When it becomes apparent that they are, just move on. Never go to market on a joint basis until you’re sure of the value they bring and their brand.

A note on an obvious partnership: fee splitting in recruitment. I’ve never been done it. I’m not averse to it, but I’ve never needed it so haven’t sought it out. Recruitment is about controlling the process to make the best match, and I think you lose that in fee splits. Just focus on what you can deliver.


Can you drive referrals? Of course, you can!

Let’s assume you’re good at your craft, you treat people well, and people like you for it. You’ll get referrals naturally if all of these are true.

To increase your rate of referral, you can proactively ask. Make it a habit to ask everyone on calls, and tack it onto messaging. Different asks for different people and situations. Asking candidates and clients works.

It’s quite common to see recruiters making a commotion about paying for referrals. I’ve seen it for candidates and clients.

I’ve never advertised any paid referral system, and I can’t recall ever paying anyone anything. Not only that, but I just think it’s a slippery slope to go down that route, and it can actually devalue your brand. Paying £500 of a £10,000 fee for a referral makes you look cheap and greedy, not generous.

I’ve sent a gift as a token of appreciation, but I think that’s different.

What I do know, is that I look after people who refer to me. They get referrals back, not just for jobs but for opportunities. They spring to mind more readily than others. I’m inclined to help them. I’m a much bigger fan of reciprocal referrals than token payments.

There is probably a psychology behind referrals that I’m not aware of explicitly. I suspect it’s more related to status than financial gain. Those that refer to want to increase their status with you, and it’s the same for you in turn.

I also think that’s the reason recruiters get tagged in so many looking for work posts on LinkedIn — it makes the tagger look helpful. It always loses its value for me when I’m one of five recruiters tagged, though. I get it, the person is trying to balance out their status game between the jobseeker and the recruiters they like.

What I do think is that there is ample to innovate in this space. You have the likes of HireChain launching a referral-based recruitment platform, and WorkLlama incentivising candidates to refer with tiered payments based on the referral chain.

I once attempted to implement a BirdDog referral scheme. A BirdDog, apart from being a yoga pose and a type of hunting dog, is a referrer of business for an incentive. I picked this up from the automotive sales industry and Joe Girard’s book How to Sell Anything to Anybody.

Joe’s highlights a crucial element of driving referrals. Never forget who made the referral. If you do promise something in return, always deliver on that promise.

My BirdDog scheme didn’t take off. I tried to implement it with 10 consultants who offer non-competitive services, however it just didn’t move. I suspect this is because a £500 referral is not enough to go through the pain of having a recruitment sales conversation. That, or they didn’t trust me enough, as I was only one year into the business.

Maybe I should relaunch it?? That’s my point, though, it’s worth experimenting with your approach to gaining referrals.

Following up

I think this is the single, most under utilised but effective tool in someone’s locker. Diligent, polite follow up.

You’re not trying to win the match with one shot on goal, you need a few.

My inner voice always tells me that it takes on average 4–5 attempts before you win business from someone (or communication in the case of candidates). It’s just about finding the key to the lock, i.e. where can you add value for them?

If you’re diligent with follow up for 5 years in a niche, most contacts will become either clients or candidates, simply due to the average length of service in a role.

As with the other tactics here, you need to build systems to enable your processes. This could be a CRM or something as simple as a post-it on your desk.

Don’t procrastinate in building a CRM task function for this.

I’m a Gmail user, so I regularly just hit snooze to set a custom reminder. It works really well — free and quick. It doesn’t scale, though, so if you’re hitting volume you’ll want automation. You can then add more nuance to your followup tasks.


The holy grail. Inbound is what all recruiters should strive to achieve, but most think it isn’t possible, so get caught on the hamster wheel of outreach.

For this, you need marketing assets that work for you. This includes your reputation and status in the sector that you operate in.

You have to work hard at gaining status as a trusted advisor and thought leader.

Moreover, you must then externalise that value, providing resources and tools to help the people you serve. A portion will convert to become customers over time, especially when you relentlessly turn up and try to add value to their lives.

A word of warning. I’ve fallen into the trap before of doing things in an attempt to add value without a clear sight of business impact. It’s important to remember that you aren’t a charity and whatever marketing you commit to, has a purpose. It took a few reads of Dan Kennedy’s No BS Guide to Direct Marketing for this to land with me. He has an abrasive style, but it’ll feel familiar to those of you who are career recruiters.

To put this into context over the seven years running Bolt so far, I’ve tried:

  • Producing a video series in Dragon's Den studios with industry influencers
  • Ran a free IRL event, 500 people signed up for
  • Produced a book celebrating women in the industry
  • Wrote many short form blog posts
  • Self built 4 websites
  • Produced countless lead magnets
  • Built two newsletters
  • Built a contractor marketplace
  • Tried numerous partnership deals — consultants, news outlets, customers
  • Published news articles
  • Started three communities
  • Ran online exec forums
  • Created and produced a podcast
  • Hired a marketing manager
  • Outsourced all LinkedIn content for 6 months

Would it surprise you that none of this moved the needle in terms of direct revenue or reputation?

It’s a lesson that took me five years to learn. Boy am I a slow learner, that list makes me want to cry.

There is an argument to say that it all contributes to reputation, but none of those had a deep impact compared to the distilled strategies I use to add value now.

Investing time and resources in marketing is hard. Choices are fraught with danger, and it’s always a risk for a small business.

However, you can add value, create inbound and be profitable doing so.

Get the reps

This was stolen from my PT. Like lifting weights, you need to get the reps to see a difference. It doesn’t happen in week one, it happens over months and years of turning up and flexing those muscles.

As you improve in the gym, you can lift more weight for longer. As you improve in sales, you generate revenue in less time. It takes less effort as you’re more efficient.

I’ve found that when I turn up every day and apportion part of my day to business development, it’s impossible to fail.

Even without any sales coaching or training, you will stumble into business wins through volume.

The hardest part is managing yourself to succeed.

How have I done this? Metrics.

I’d pick a goal and work back from the target.

Here is a simple example:

Target = £30,000 per month
Average deal size = £7,500
Placements per month = 4
Job to placement ratio = 2:1
Job wins per month = 6
Client call to job win ratio = 2:1
Client call target = 12

By client call, I mean a definitive pitch call where you have an opportunity to discuss a vacancy, not a 5-second rebuttal or similar. So, with a target of 36 you can define the outreach required to hit that number. It could be 25 manual emails per client call, or 50 MPC emails.

Your ratios depend on your ability, your market, and your time in that market. If you’re starting out, you just have to make some assumptions on your conversion ratios; they will definitely be higher than the ones above. The same applies if you are making more cold approaches.

Stay tuned — I’ll write about ratios and improving them in a future post.

It’s important to track your activity and outcomes, so you can dial in your performance. I’ve tried all sorts for this — CRMs, custom dashboards etc. but the best method is visual and physical. A trackpad on my desk:

Shout out to Mike Gionta for the inspiration on this one, although I tweaked to suit my business. I have a few hundred of these sitting in boxes in storage.

I had a couple of years of being diligent with metrics until I found I didn’t need to be as prescriptive due to changes in my business model; i.e. I created inbound by building marketing assets.

It’s essential to stick to an activity plan in the early days or any time that you need to boost sales.


For me, networking blurs the line with marketing for me, as it’s not a direct lead-gen strategy. By networking, I mean attending events rather than hosting or ‘networking’ on LinkedIn.

You’re one of many in the room, and the return on this activity can be a slower one. Great to put faces to names, though - there is a power in having met someone face to face.

You’ll know I’m a proponent of running lean and events are time sapping for me when travelling from Newcastle. It’s easier if you’re in London, of course. I like going to a handful of events per year as it’s good for the soul, but they’re not always recruitment specific, more focused on personal development. They might be about job boards, or recruitment or marketing. Immersing yourself for a day is an accelerant to learning.

Which do I choose?

You have to run mini-experiments on your outreach tactics to find out.

Do what works for you. It helps if you enjoy it. You can outsource or automate some or all of it, too.

Nowadays, 90% of my business is inbound through our marketing activity or via referral, which is what you’re looking to achieve, but it takes time.

In all of this, it’s important to focus beyond the transaction. It’s not about winning every piece of business, it’s about diligently contributing to the sector and people you serve.

This plays into your choice of tactics too, I’ve never been a fan of spamming the market, but I know in most agencies it’s mandated that you must send 100s of speculative CVs per day. Just because it works; there will always be some quick wins.

But at what cost, alienating many others? Labelling yourself as another transactional recruiter sending the same emails?

Reputation is everything, so protect it with your life!

Further Reading

There are tons of amazing and cheap resources to learn how to sell better. None of them will replace doing the reps, but they can help.

Tactically, the Ultimate Sales Machine by Chet Holmes is worth a read. I also found listening to audiobooks like Sell or Be Sold by Grant Cardone can help with your mindset and energy levels.

The same goes with Be Useful by Arnold Schwarzenegger — it’ll help you to push through any internal resistance that you have to selling. The audiobook is best.

Attending a Toastmasters meet-up is a good way to learn to speak more eloquently in a supportive atmosphere.

Role play is great, but for that, you’ll want to find a coach or training to attend. I would go to a recruitment-specific trainer on this front, someone like Olivia Galvin.

What now?

Get busy or do some homework first! Just don’t put it off, as you’re putting your business/life on hold until you do.

Did this land with you? I’d love to hear from you.

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