Talent Acquisition

When You Should Tell a Client: You’re FIRED!

The most satisfying scene in The Apprentice occurs when Lord Sugar looks at Dave, the cocky 22 year-old with a 2:2 in Social Marketing from Thames Valley University (who performed very poorly in this week’s sausage-making contest), and tells him, “you’re fired!”. It is the absolute expression of power: telling the unlucky Dave that he doesn’t deserve to work with Sir Alan.

Because firing is an act of power, I believe that many recruiters don’t think that you can fire a client. After all, a recruiter relies on the client to provide roles to be worked, and can only bill when a role is filled. This seems to put the power deep in the client’s court: surely they can fire the recruiter, but how or why would the recruiter fire them? However, there are a number of good reasons why it makes sense to deploy Lord Sugar’s catch phrase – with my top three below:

How many agencies?!

I recently saw a woman on Twitter complain about receiving emails from 10 recruitment agencies for the same job (it was very obvious who the client was). She directed her complaint against the agencies, and didn’t think about who was actually at fault here: the client, for farming out its requirement to too many agencies. However, it was the agencies who suffered the reputational damage.

One of the most annoying phrases a recruiter will hear during business development is:

We’ve got a PSL (Preferred Supplier List) for recruiters.

I think clients like to think of PSLs as a carefully organised and vetted list of agencies, but in reality, many are not. I remember targeting a medium-sized company (c. 250 employees) to get onto their PSL for their IT requirements. When I asked the question, “How many agencies do you have on your PSL?“, they replied “Oh, about 70 – with about 20 IT agencies out of those“. That answer stopped me dead in my tracks. 20 agencies, when they have about 10 IT requirements a year?! Not a chance. I said a polite thank-you, and put the phone down.

When a client uses that many agencies, there’s no point. You will be competing against far too many other agencies, making it hard to find decent candidates and very hard to talk to the hiring manager, so you will never build a decent relationship with them. In my opinion, there’s no need for a client to ever engage more than 5 agencies (preferably no more than 3). Although it’s great to win new business, if the client has already handed that requirement out to a dozen other agencies, it won’t be worth your while. Fire them, and focus on clients where you can build a relationship, because, as I have argued elsewhere, that is the key job of a recruiter.

Is it a horse or a unicorn?

When a client sets out to hire, they may think they know what they want, but actually don’t. Frequently, it is only after they start recruiting that they decide precisely what they want, which is why job requirements often change during the process. This is ok, but in some cases, the client ends up with such a convoluted list of requirements and needs that, despite the fact the say they want a horse, what they really want is a unicorn – i.e., a mythical creature that doesn’t exist. I used to see this frequently in IT recruitment:

I know we said we just wanted someone good with Photoshop, but now we need someone who knows front and back-end development, along with DBA experience and knowledge of the Oracle E-Business Suite”

I noticed that this was more common with smaller companies than larger ones. At a smaller company there is less division of labour, with each employee typically covering a larger spectrum of work than would be the case in a bigger company, so it makes sense that they want to hire someone with a broader spectrum of skills. Furthermore, hiring in smaller companies is often done by the company owners, who have both financial and emotional investments in their company, so are more picky. However, unicorn hunting is no fun for anyone, and if that’s what your client wants you to do, then the first stage is to sit down with them and tell them that they are being unreasonable. If they refuse to budge, fire them – you will end up putting far more time and effort than is reasonable into the requirement, sending over great candidates only to have every one rejected. I remember working a unicorn role once, and had an amazing candidate rejected who had everything bar one minor skill (which could have been learned in a month), as he wasn’t deemed to be ‘perfect’. Needless to say, I eventually stopped working with that client.

Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle is a rule-of-thumb otherwise known as the 80:20 rule: 80% of effects are attributed to 20% of causes. In studies it has been shown to be reasonably consistent and applies across a range of fields: 80% of all complaints come from 20% of users, fixing the 20% most commonly reported bugs will solve 80% of your problems, and 80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients. This last one was certainly true in the agency I worked for, and is probably true in your agency.

If we apply the concepts of Lean to recruitment, then we cut costs by eliminating waste. Waste is defined as anything that doesn’t add value to your processes. In recruitment, value is essentially your billings, so anything you do that doesn’t lead to a billing is waste. If we think about that 80:20 figure again, we know that the majority of your clients are responsible for a tiny fraction of your billings. However, you will still spend an awful lot of time working with those clients, all of which creates cost, e.g. your time, buying job board adverts, racking up phone bills etc. Furthermore, if 80% of your clients are generating 20% of your billings, then in all likelihood the majority of your clients aren’t making you any money at all, despite the time and effort you spend on them.

Here’s a tip: do a client audit. Rank all your clients by the amount of money you have made from them. Draw a red line through the bottom 20% and fire them, and then dedicate the time you would spend on those accounts to your more successful accounts. It is hard to do this, because you have to get past the little voice in your head saying, “but I worked hard to win those clients! And what if I suddenly make a lot of money from one of them?”. Trust me, though – quality is better than quantity. Dedicate more time to the accounts that deserve it, and it will pay dividends.


Although it may sound counter-intuitive for an agency to fire a client, I would expect a good agency to fire clients from time to time, as it shows they take their work seriously. Sometimes, it can be an absolute pleasure (such as with rude and difficult clients), but for the most part, it should be done because you value your own time and efforts. There is no point wasting your time on unproductive roles when you should be focusing your efforts on building relationships with clients who do add value to your work. Lastly, these are just three of many reasons to fire a client – feel free to share your own reasons or stories in the comments below.

By Andrew Fairley

Andrew Fairley has recently completed an MA in Management with The York Management School, focusing on strategy, innovation, HR, and organisational behaviour, and has just begun a PhD investigating the UK internet startup industry. Prior to this, he spent 2 years as a Recruitment Consultant, working with clients from SMEs to blue-chips, sourcing IT staff.  You can find him on Twitter or LinkedIn.