Business development in 2024 is challenging to say the least.

Between 2021 to 2022, the market was booming and jobs were flowing left, right and centre. For recruiters who joined the industry in this period, business development was nearly non-existent in large agencies who had deep client pools with existing PSLs. The focus was on candidate delivery and account management, it worked.

Shortcuts were taken during training for business development and when the market turned in late 2022, the cracks started to show. Business development is arguably one of the most important skill sets in the market now and if you want to be a successful recruiter, you must push yourself out of your comfort zone to be a true 360 consultant.

Between Feb 2021 to Jan 2023, I built a Tech desk at Vocay from scratch before I returned to the Rec2Rec market. During this time, I managed to onboard and sign terms with over 30 clients, including tier 1 investment banks, international hedge funds, global technology companies, private equity firms and government outfits.

Some of these clients were extremely hard to penetrate as they had strict PSL procedures in place. We managed to get on board with no brand to lean on, only our own approach and slowly building a reputation in the market.

In this article, I’ll talk you through the business development approach that was successful for me without having a brand to lean on.

Researching & identifying prospects

This is a core part of the business development process I feel is not talked about enough. If you target the wrong clients, you’re going to waste your time trying to execute the rest of the steps in this article with little delivery success.

What exactly is the wrong client base? It depends on your desk strategy and approach. You should have a clear idea about your functional and industry focus which gives you the first indication about the type of clients you should target. Are you aiming for high fees, low volume, or the opposite?

The first mistake recruiters make is that they try to target the largest companies or the most attractive brands in the industry first. They’re the easiest to find and the companies that everyone knows about. These are companies that take months to onboard who have deep embedded relationships with other agencies.They have large internal teams and a strong brand to attract candidates themselves so they might not even need the help.

You should look at the larger companies, but it’s a long-term strategy that takes time. Target the small to medium sized companies first who are growing fast, have less internal resources and a brand that is still being built in the market.

Leverage any type of relationship you have within those companies. Do you have a friend from school there? An ex-colleague? Anyone that can help you? Use those relationships first, but make sure you’re contacting the decision maker (or asking for an introduction) because if you’re not, you’re wasting your time.

The most basic research tool to find out which companies are hiring is LinkedIn jobs or other job boards. I’ve onboarded some good clients through this method, especially when the job is newly uploaded for a smaller company. This is the most basic method in the book however, so your competitors will do the exact same thing. Don’t waste all of your time on this.

If you have one client signed already, where did their employees work previously? Are the companies they worked with previously hiring? You need to think outside of the box a little and find companies who employ a similar type of person to your current client.

Research competitor websites and find out if they have any clients for testimonials listed on their website. Check your competitors’ LinkedIn profile recommendations to see who they’ve placed. Use every resource you can to fully understand your market.

Market information is absolutely crucial, especially for industries that are more confidential where hiring is not advertised publicly. If you have a candidate interviewing with a client, where else is that same candidate interviewing? What role is it? Who’s the hiring manager? Candidates are your biggest source of intel. Ask these questions but don’t be intrusive, respect their privacy if they don’t want to share too much.

Cold outreach

There are a number of methods you can reach out to a client cold. The traditional method would be calling, as well as LinkedIn messages, InMails or emails. Marketing plays a part now as well.

My go-to method of outreach was always LinkedIn messages, InMails or emails, but every single one I sent was very customised to the person I reached out to. The number 1 rule – NEVER use bulk emails or InMails. If you do, you’re wasting your time.

I found the most effective approach was a more casual one. I connected with the line or hiring manager directly on LinkedIn with a soft introduction message with the objective of setting up a casual coffee chat about the market.

You’ll be surprised but if your approach is right, most hiring managers want to meet you to get a sense for the market, even if they’re not hiring. Sometimes the hiring manager has a vacancy they have in mind for about a few months down the line, but they’re keen to get a sense of the market today. This is gold dust, because you know about the role before your competitors get working on it.

If you’re floating a candidate and being more direct, ways you can customise your outreach is by talking about recent success stories, such as a recent investment or acquisition your client has been involved in. Crunchbase is a great resource for this in the Tech space, search up the company and look at the news section to find topics to talk about. A good one that shows your market expertise is talking about a recent high profile hire they’ve made.

It takes more time to customise your outreach, but I promise you the conversion rate will be far higher. I found that once you get some momentum, if you reach out to between 5 – 10 new clients per week using this method, it would typically convert into 1 – 2 new quality client meetings per week.

Consistent follow ups

This is absolutely key. I promise you, less than 10% of clients will respond to you on your first outreach attempt. You need to keep trying.

I find that the best frequency of follow ups is to send the first follow up about 2 days after the initial outreach, then leave it for another 3 days for the third one, and then you can do a final fourth attempt about a week after that.

In your follow ups, be polite and make it known to the client that you are trying to build a genuine relationship so they know it’s a long-term approach rather than a transactional quick win for you. Don’t be forceful or passive aggressive. If you’ve tried four times and had no response, move on to the next client but forward plan your next task to follow up with this client in 3 months time. It’s all about timing.

I’ve had instances where I’ve followed up with a client for over a year and a half and only then did I get a response to my outreach asking to go support a search. Don’t take it personally, clients are busy. Be patient and have a long-term approach.

Build resilience into your mindset. Don’t give up if you approach 10 clients and you don’t get a meeting in the first week, this is absolutely normal. It took me at least 3 weeks to get my first client that I billed with and I feel I also got pretty lucky getting a result that quickly.

The initial client meeting

This is the most crucial part of the process. You’ve got the prospect meeting in the diary, now you have to convert them into a client.

You should have a script or guidelines shared by your agency or manager on how to approach a client meeting. If you don’t, be proactive, make one yourself and ask for your manager’s opinion before going into the meeting.

Prepare, prepare, prepare! You spent a lot of effort getting this meeting into the diary, don’t go into it blind. Do your research into the company, recent events, recent hires, try to get a sense of where they’re hiring and ask intelligent questions.

Ask your manager to join you on your first couple of attempts, but try to take initiative and lead the conversation to gain that experience. This is making the assumption that you’ve already sat in a few client meetings yourself and seen how your manager approaches it.

Don’t follow the script completely however, keep the conversation natural and try to move the conversation towards pain points the client has talked about. Ask intuitive questions, listen and get all the information you need in order to quality the role and client.

I always find that by over sharing market information that demonstrates your expertise, it really differentiates yourself from others. You need to demonstrate throughout that meeting that you can solve their problems somehow and I find this helps.

Be ready for objections. The typical objections are ‘your percentage is too high, we work at 15% with other clients’. ‘What makes you different from other agencies we work with?’. Be ready with a solid answer and get your foot through the door.

If you’re facing challenges caused by your agency’s policies, for example your agency is asking you to pitch at 27% and you find that creates barriers, be vocal about this with your manager. Find solutions.

Look for an outcome. You want to leave the meeting with a next step pre-agreed. This should be along the lines of sending your terms for review or working on a new role you’ve just qualified from the meeting.

Be confident but don’t expect to be the finished product of yourself on the first call. You will make mistakes and it’s okay to do that, you will learn from them on your next call. That’s how we learn.

Post client meeting actions

Once the meeting is finished, send a thank you message to your client and write down your key takeaways. Show that you listened during the call and follow up on the expectations you set.

Once you’ve agreed terms, make sure you manage the client’s expectations from here on out in the relationship.

Ask for support in business development

Be proactive and ask others in the company about their advice, whether they’re on your team or other desks. People genuinely want to help and you need to initiate that conversation.

One of the biggest learning curves for recruiters over the past year is being able to fend for themselves more often. Managers are no longer able to provide a steady flow of jobs and the industry has changed.

By getting out of your comfort zone and finding solutions, you can take positive steps forward in your recruitment career.

Build your own personal brand as a reputable recruiter and don’t rely on your agency’s brand. That is a recipe for long-term average performance. Use your personality and capability to really build a niche for yourself in the market.

This is the approach that enabled me to onboard a tier 1 investment bank in Singapore as a nobody with no brand behind me. Use these tips and drop me a message on LinkedIn if it worked!

In the future, I’m considering writing case studies about specific clients I’ve onboarded in the past, such as the investment bank. If you’d be interested in reading these, please express your interest by subscribing to our newsletter below. If I receive enough interest, I will look at launching a case study clinic.