TalentLab Builds a Brand

Purple Squirrel By David Enders – November 2000

Focusing on relationships helped this Ottawa recruiting firm grow 400 percent in its first two years.

George Burns knew a thing or two about successful relationships. The cigar-smoking straight man’s showbiz career spanned more than 70 years. He married partner Gracie Allen in 1926 and the two performed together for 35 years in a business where a marriage is discarded as easily as a bad script. He lived to be 100.

What was his secret?

Alan Kearns and Doug Martin, co-founders of the Ottawa-based high-tech recruiting firm TalentLab, just might have the answer.

"When we started the company two years ago in September, we decided we weren’t just going to build the Doug and Alan show," says the 36-year-old Kearns. "We were going to build a brand that meant something. We were going to build a team that is focused on the client’s needs and not on the salesperson’s needs."

The company is on track to net about $5 million this year, Kearns says, and has experienced 400 percent growth in its first two years, which includes a second office in Toronto. Kearns worked as a technical recruiter for TES and Ward Associates in the United States and Canada before teaming up with Martin in Ottawa. He had a pretty good idea of how much recruiting companies depend on good relationships with both corporate clients and technical talent.

The first and last rule of relationships, stated simply: You don’t get much without giving. To that end, TalentLab donates 10 percent of its profits to World Vision Canada earmarked for "projects that make a difference," and features an internal Giv-ing Back Day program which requires all staff to donate at least one day a month of service to a charity.

Kearns says leading with a giving hand is just good business, but what they are interested in giving most is a quality experience to both clients and candidates. "We thought there was an opportunity to build the Starbucks of this industry: a premium category with excellent service and one-to-one relationships versus the commodity model. If you look at our industry, it is run very much like a commodity."

About 80 percent of TalentLab’s business is acquired by referral, says Kearns, and the company chooses to work exclusively with its corporate clients. "We’re not going to be all things to all people. We’re choosing a few protocols and we’re going to do them really well, and we’re going to treat people like human beings through the process." Like Starbucks, he says, they focus not on moving product, but providing a quality experience: "We’re not selling $1 coffees, we’re selling $3 coffees.

"Because we work exclusively with our clients, we can take the time to better understand their needs and their culture," Kearns says. "The client is willing to do that because they are more committed to the relationship. Instead of working on eight projects at once for one hour each, we’re working on one project for eight hours. That’s the big difference."

In any relationship, actions speak louder than words. "Quality is communicated to the market through an experience," says Regis McKenna, author of Relationship Marketing, "and the communication most valuable in establishing a qualitative position is in the service experience."

TalentLab pays attention to detail in creating a positive service experience with each visit from a client or candidate. "Our offices in Toronto are in a loft of an old Toronto landmark. So the whole experience starts when you arrive at the building and the concierge takes you up on this crickety elevator," Kearns says, "and he knows your name because our team has told him you were coming at 10. That’s just one example of making an experience."

Continues Kearns, "When we started this business, one of the first things we saw was that clients and candidates were desperate for a quality experience. Sure, there may be people in the market whose main concern is whether they get a dollar an hour more, but we’re not after that kind of relationship. In this new economy, the differentiation, especially in service companies, will be cultural."

Even the company Web site is configured to address client and candidate needs. About 3,000 visitors a day can automatically post openings, and candidates can post résumés on the TalentMatch system. Candidates can get automated updates on positions of interest through the AutoScout system. Premium content, such as free guides, articles, and a personalized TalentQuote on what your skills are worth in the market, is offered to capture that all important e-mail address. "So many recruiter Web sites today are not thought out from the user perspective," says Kearns. "They are thought out from the corporate perspective of what would we like to say and not from the perspective of what would our clients like to know."

Les Banks, one of 15 TalentLab technical recruiters, all under 40, says much of his time is spent developing a thorough understanding of his clients’ and candidates’ needs, before any placement is made. The Talent-Match automated system may narrow down the field of potential candidates for a given position, but only after a one-to-one relationship is established can a successful match be made, Banks says. Active listening to clients and candidates is essential. "We are train-ed to listen for the small things that may deviate from what they are saying, and how to pose more behavioral questions, as well as technical questions, that may give you a little more insight."

The relationship doesn’t end with placement. The TalentLab Community system, Kearns says, uses the same formula for both clients and candidates for keeping in touch at appropriate times throughout and after the contract. Birthday cakes, cards on important anniversaries, and congratulations on a promotion are some ways recruiters like to keep in touch, Banks says. "We try to be there in the key times when it is important to be supportive. You may not like getting older, but you always like to be remembered."

Trust is key to building strong relationships. As part of the Giv-ing Back Day program, Banks donates time every week in the Mentoring Schools program. "I work with a child who has had both academic and personal problems and I try to help him work through that and maybe bring some stability to his life."

The Giving Back Day program is part of the attitude of service at TalentLab, Banks says. "You can’t go every week and work with a kid and fake it, especially a young kid–almost a teenager. They know if you’re there just going through the motions and they know if you are there because you care."

Melissa Pinpin, a TalentLab candidate working at OSS solution provider Eftia in Ottawa, says the personal touch makes all the difference. "I truly do believe that TalentLab takes the time to get to know their candidates," she says. "I also feel that they really work as a team. I find that I do not have to repeat who I am, what my story is, and what I am looking for to every person I speak with in the company. I really appreciate that."

Client retention is the ultimate goal of relationship marketing. According to Frederick Reicheld’s The Loyalty Effect, raising customer retention rates by as little as 5 percent can increase the average value of that customer by 25 to 100 percent.

Making every client and candidate an advocate is the final stage of a relationship cycle that sustains itself, Kearns says. Having lunch with a marketing director who had recently been placed by TalentLab, Kearns says the candidate told him he had expected the worst, but had been pleasantly surprised by the recruiting experience. "He told me he really felt his inter
ests were being taken care of. If you do that for people, you will have no problem building a great business, because so few people do it in any business."

That is what a quality service experience is all about, he says. "An interesting thing about the service business is that you can have a great Web site, a great logo, a great philosophy, a great marketing strategy, but unless your service delivery team really ‘gets it’, it all falls apart."

In his book on relationship marketing, McKenna recalls watching a televised interview with George Burns in which the interviewer asks, "What made you and Gracie so successful?"

"Our audiences did it," was Burns’s deadpan reply.

For once, he wasn’t kidding.