You Can’t Just Say “Smaller is Better,” You Have to Prove It

This case study is based on conversations with Pat Friel and Liza Wright, Managing Partners with Lochlin Partners, a boutique retained executive search consultancy.

1. Big is Great. Until It’s Not

After decades with the big four global executive search firms, Pat Friel and Liza Wright knew what they enjoyed—and didn’t enjoy—about working in large organizations. Eventually their experiences led them on paths that converged at Lochlin Partners where they joined Mike Kirkman to grow a best of breed retained search firm that emphasized a personal, high touch, customized approach.

“There’s nothing inherently wrong with the big firm model of setting top down annual revenue objectives and then giving all the partners sales targets,” said Pat Friel. “But eventually the client suffers because the pressure on partners to chase new deals ends up taking precedence over servicing existing searches.”

2. We’re Used to Selling on Size

Lochlin leveraged its partners’ relationships, built over decades in the market, to win deals against the global firm based on personal trust: decision-makers had prior experience with the partners and knew they’d get the job done right.

But in trying to scale beyond the audience that already knew them, Lochlin found itself trying to look and sound like the big firms, who were their primary competitors.

“The global firms had their long list of huge Fortune 1000 clients and giant candidate databases,” said Liza Wright. “Our muscle memory was telling us to try to sell by sounding big, when that’s not the identity we wanted. So while we won our share of deals against the big guys, it was still based on existing relationships, not a consistent brand.”

3. What Would the Customer Think? (WWTCT)

“Lochlin Partners had a challenge that’s very common for smaller, service-oriented firms,” said Bob London who was engaged by Lochlin to help the firm clarity its true identity and value proposition. “They had to define their brand in a way that was true to their core principles while also compelling and relevant to their target audience. It’s not enough to say ‘personalized, service oriented or customized because so many search firms say that.”

Rather than speculating on what clients thought was important and valuable when working with search firms, Lochlin agreed that London should first interview a handful of decision-makers to get their perspective.

“Bob asked them a number of probing questions we wouldn’t have thought to ask,” said Pat Friel. “Like ‘What annoys you most about working with search firms?’ What’s the best and worst experience you’ve had on a search?’ and ‘How can you predict how much attention your search will receive before you choose the firm?’”

4. How Do Clients Define the Value of “Personalized?”

“We discovered a litany of client concerns about working with global search firms,” said London. “They feel search firms don’t proactively communicate where things stand on a given search, aren’t interested in how things went after the ‘sale’ and only stay in touch if they need something, for example if they’re sourcing a candidate.”

“We tapped into this rich vein of insights,” said Liza Wright.  “Then the trick was to make them actionable.”

“Bob’s recommendation was to leverage something we always considered verboten: the number of searches each of our partners handles at any given time,” said Friel.

“Everything you hear clients complain about comes down to how much time partners spend on each individual search,” said London.  “It turns out that comparing Lochlin to the big four on ‘active searches per partner’ was very favorable to Lochlin—the big firms simply couldn’t match it due to their size. This metric was also of great interest to clients. It was a tangible indicator during the pitch process of the level of service the client could expect.”

5. A New and More Relevant Way to Frame Prospect Conversations

Now, instead of trying to compete on the size of their client and candidate lists or talking about ‘personalized’ searches (which, to clients, just blended into the background noise) Lochlin could frame the dialogue with prospects around its strengths. And how those strengths deliver tangible value to the prospect.

“Bob created a Lochlin Partners ‘client manifesto.’ At its core was the fact that we cap the number of active searches our partners handle at any given time,” said Wright. “The other elements in the manifesto were tangible benefits that leveraged that core, quantifiable promise: our clients get more partner time than they would at a large firm.”

6. “Road Testing” the New Positioning

“As it happened, the day after Bob presented the new positioning strategy, which we loved, Liza and I had two client pitches,” said Friel.  “In the Lochlin spirit of being entrepreneurial and nimble, we asked Bob to distill his presentation into a few talking points for us to use.”

“I was thrilled not only that Lochlin liked the direction but that they embraced it basically in real time,” said London.  “I found out just days after providing them with the talking points that they won the deal.”

While companies won’t always see such rapid ROI from developing a new positioning and messaging strategy derived from customer feedback, here’s proof that the process works—sometimes almost immediately.

“As a footnote,” said Wright, “we beat the search consultant considered to be the 800 pound gorilla in that particular space.  The cherry on top was that when the prospect gave us the good news, they actually echoed specific aspects of our brand new strategy.”

Share this: