Overcoming Turndowns and Counteroffers

By Steve Finkel

Recruiting is a terrific business. At its best, which is most of the time, it is challenging, exciting, interesting and highly profitable. But at its worst, it can be heartbreaking.

What is the worst? If you consider it, I think you’ll find that it’s when you’ve done everything from search to offer to acceptance – and a successful counter-offer from the candidate’s employer steals it all away. Right behind that as a frustration, you’ll find the related problem of “turndowns”, offer extended, but not accepted.

How Often?

On the other hand, if you never have to deal with turndowns or counteroffers, it’s a bad sign, too. It means you’re simply working with unhappy or unemployed candidates rather than the high-quality people you might obtain through genuine and correct recruiting.

How often does this happen to you? It varies. But if you add the lost revenue over a career – or even a 5-year period – the amount can be truly significant. And that doesn’t even count the emotional trauma. Depending on your field and various factors we’ll address shortly, it can be overwhelming. I have seen experienced successful recruiters lose as much as 50% of their potential production to counteroffers or turndowns.

Even in a slow market, hiring authorities don’t like to face the time, cost and risk involved in having to replace people. In a strong market, of course, it can be truly tumultuous for them to have to do so. It is easier for the employer to counteroffer. And Newton’s First Law of Motion – an object at rest tends to remain at rest unless acted on by an outside force – applies to candidates as well as less-animate objects. Thus “cold feet” – reluctance to leave the familiar current position to go to an unfamiliar new one – causes  turndowns that should be fees.

The natural tendency under such circumstances is to rely on perceived selling skills – saying the right words to the candidates. It is certainly true that most problems in our business eventually yield to superior selling skills. The best verbiage, however, will not serve if major systemic flaws in the search and placement process exist. A major part of correct selling skills is the ability to coolly analyse that process – and then to make appropriate changes.


Following are the questions to be asked to enable you to do so.

1) Are you selecting the right search assignments?

Working on the wrong assignment leads inevitably to placements that disintegrate. A poor offer, a slow-growth client, an unmotivated hiring authority, any of the 21 keys to selecting the search, if ignored, leads to doom. The first principle of “Making the Sale” is selling The Best Product. Motivating the Hiring Authority – not HR – to work with you properly, which means moving quickly, extending a good offer and selling the benefits of his opportunity, is critical. Selecting the search is where it all starts. In a strong market where it is easier to get search assignments, it is also easier to work on the wrong assignment. In a not-so-strong market, the tendency is to leap at the wrong one.

2) How are you obtaining candidates?

“Recruiters” whose main sources of candidates come from means whereby all others have easy access – ads, job boards, the internet or “social media”, for example – will always lose a high percentage at the end. When many others (including clients) have ready access to the identical candidate, how can all this competition not result in turndowns? The facts are that the internet trainers and software merchants found out long ago that your clients will pay more for their wares than you will. And overseas $2-an-hour internet recruiters are readily available to your clients as well.

Recruitment International, the UK’s leading industry publication, noted in their review of the landmark book Real Recruiting!, “Experienced managers recognize that an over-reliance on the internet significantly decreases production”.

If you are not doing real recruiting as opposed to cheap non-recruiting, you guarantee yourself problems. The “Easy Way” is frequently the hardest.

3) Are you recruiting correctly?

“Target” recruiting on a specific, well-selected search yields serious motivated candidates who accept; old-style “generic” recruiting – “we have many opportunities to help your career” – yields shoppers, accepted counteroffers, turndowns, and fall-offs. “Indirect” recruiting also yields reduced effectiveness. The proper way to recruit in today’s market is directly, professionally, with a strong sales-oriented presentation which answers the prospective candidate’s question, “what will this specific opportunity do for my career?”

4) Are you properly obtaining in-depth candidate concerns?

Working with candidates not actively looking to make a change is very different from doing so with those to be found through ads, job boards or the internet. Beyond the obvious difference in quality is the change in techniques necessary to obtain candidate concerns. What does the person not like about his present position? Without this information, your odds of overcoming a counter-offer or a turndown are remote.

A recruiting call is inadequate if “softeners” are not utilized to thoroughly elicit in-depth total concerns. “Softeners” may be defined as specific scripts which reduce the feelings of disloyalty about disclosing in-depth concerns. A candidate in today’s market must not only be moving to something; he must also be moving from something.

This complex subject and others addressed in this article are covered extensively in my book Real Recruiting!

5) Are you following up effectively after First Interview?

Solid selling skills here will really make a difference. Such techniques as reinforcing positives and eliciting specifics, overcoming objections and reducing concerns, will greatly elevate the perceived worth of the opportunity to the candidate. The foundation of our business is a serious grounding in Classical Selling Skills. Extensive reading and study combined with role-playing, taping and evaluation of these calls will yield a major boost in income. Most recruiters are extremely shallow in this critical area.

6) Are you covering the counter-offer at the right time in theprocess?

The most appropriate verbiage will not serve if used at the wrong moment. The time for greatest results is between the offer being accepted and the candidate turning in his notice. This specific window of time – which may be from an hour to two or three days – is when counteroffers must be addressed, and as thoroughly and as well as possible. It will thus be freshest in his mind should this circumstance arise. To do so earlier is not only to blunt the effect of your script; it can actually put counter-productive thoughts in the mind of the candidate.

7) Are you utilizing the best tools to assist you?

“Third-party references” – the judgements of respected outside authorities – are a proven and effective sales technique. Written material will serve to reinforce whatever you might say. Should a candidate mistakenly accept a counter-offer or turndown an offer and then later call with a tale of woe, have him send you a letter detailing his regrets. Then use it to send to other candidates to warn them against duplicating the errors of others. Supporting your case against counteroffers with articles from industry authorities will also help enormously. Paul Hawkinson, long time editor of The Fordyce Letter, has an excellent article entitled “Counteroffer Acceptance: Road to Career Ruin”. It may be found through a Google search.

Much time and effort is spent in most search and recruiting firms in an attempt to develop verbiage which deals with the totally predictable problem of possible turndowns and counteroffers. It is evident that the best possible script is necessary to reduce the incidences of the occurring. A cool and logical analysis of the entire process, however, will frequently yield major errors which appear earlier. When these flaws are corrected, a substantial improvement in production will be the inevitable result.

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