Recruiting for your Bottom Line, with Tina Kersen Ferguson

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Tina Kersen
Recruiting For Your Bottom Line: How Recruiting is just as much about Marketing as it is about Human Resources

Presented by Tina Kersen Ferguson
President, one80group, Dallas, Texas

Session Moderator: Good afternoon everyone and thank you for joining us here at AccountingWEB

I'd like to take a moment to introduce Tina...Tina Kersen Ferguson loves the dynamics of today's evolving business workplace. She is a former marketing director for the 10th largest accounting firm in Dallas. Her view of the accounting industry comes from both a marketing and human resource slant. She has published articles about outsourcing, employee retention, employee morale, and financial strategies.

She currently is the president of a marketing consulting group headquartered in Dallas, Texas called the One80 group. She holds an interdisciplinary degree with emphases in behavior analysis, psychology, business, and disaster management.

Welcome, Tina - the floor is yours!

Tina Ferguson: Thanks to all of you who joined us today! I am passionate about both
human resources and marketing and am excited about talking about how these two disciplines come together in recruiting.

Before we get started, are there specific issues you are concerned about?

If not, I'll move on...

I remember my first encounter with the idea of accounting, marketing and recruiting strategies. It occurred about three years ago. I had just been promoted to Director of Marketing at a large independent accounting firm. I moved to this position from one where I was the human resources person AND the marketing person. My background included these two diverse fields and, as I studied the accounting firm as an entity, it made perfect sense. I was actually MARKETING the firm's HUMAN RESOURCES.

Tina Ferguson: About two months after taking over my full-time marketing role, I went to a conference that was attended by many managing partners. It seemed that everyone had the same question. “HOW do you find good people to hire?” The next question always was, “How do we get our people to stay?”

Tina Ferguson: Is any of this sounding familiar?

Yvonnie: Yes.

MichaelHeines: Sadly, yes.

Tina Ferguson: Three years later, accounting firms across the country are asking those
same questions. I believe the answer lies as much in the marketing arena as it does in the human resources sector.

Stick with me as we jot down memory lane - very briefly, I promise.

Twenty or thirty years ago when my parents were looking for a job (and possibly when you were starting your careers), employers had their pick of the crop. It made sense that they wanted the BEST professionals available. They put these candidates through tough interviews, maybe with as many as ten or more partners. The supply and demand dynamic was such that the EMPLOYER had the upper hand. They had the job the person wanted. Accountants looking to go into public accounting KNEW they were in for long hours, travel, and sweat time.

That was the option. Period.

Today, we face the myth of the interview. Today, due to the incredible amount of information the Internet and the media affords us, employees know they have a choice. Within seconds, an accountant can find salary information for their local area and know exactly what they are worth. TODAY, employers are not merely interviewing a candidate; they are SELLING their firm to a candidate. Keep in mind that your candidates are interviewing YOU and your firm. They are about to commit 2,080+ hours of their LIFE TIME and want to know what you are offering is the best thing for themselves, their career, and their family.

TODAY, you aren't interviewing…you are selling.

You are living in a less than 4% unemployment labor market. It's a tough crowd.

The table has turned and the low employment rate has put SOME firms on the defensive. They feel that they don't have a choice but to pay high salaries and give employees everything they want. But this doesn't work. WHY? Because not every person wants the same things.

How many of you work in firms that believe you give your employees "everything they want?"

Yet, despite your best efforts, employees leave...

Let me share a true story...

I talked to a partner in a large Midwest firm and he said, "I don't understand it. We give them high salaries. We throw parties all of the time. We give them everything they want and still they aren't happy! People are leaving left and right and I can't afford to pay higher salaries." As I listened to him describe his firm, I observed that what was missing was time.

Sure, the employees were making lots of dough and were squeezing in time for firm parties, but a large component was missing - time off. The firm has a very high charge hour budget and overtime can be cashed out for money, but not for time. I'm sure that these employees didn't feel that the parties were a reward for their hard work. They probably viewed them as more work. Furthermore, the partner track that led many new partners to their current position is no longer attractive to younger team members.

This partner commented on how none of his people seemed to want to "pay" the dues to make partner.

This DOES NOT mean that the younger generation doesn't want to work - on the contrary. They are very willing to work hard, but they want to be rewarded in different ways. One person's preferred reward may be extra time off. Another person's may be praise and increased responsibility. And, yes, there are still lots of employees that are motivated by high salaries. We live in a customized world and employees expect (and I might add deserve) customized rewards that reflect what is most important to them. How do they show an employer this? By INTERVIEWING the firm. They are LOOKING for what THEY want. Do YOU have what they WANT? If you do, then they will TRY (and WANT) to work for you. And this is the important part, EVEN IF YOU DON'T PAY THE MOST.

This is where marketing comes in and dovetails with human resource efforts.

Of course, this type of thinking is not to the detriment of the firm. It's actually to the firm's benefit to learn from its employees. Turnover costs include everything from recruiting to lost intellectual capital. A mid-manager can cost a company as much as $500,000 to replace when you factor in lost productivity, decreased employee morale, lost intellectual capital and recruiting costs. A lot of firms are moving to a pay-for-performance plan to ensure that employees have incentive to perform. Pay, however, is not only money. Firms are offering time off (the number one preferred fringe benefit) and a host of other incentives to reward high performers.

Session Moderator: I just read the results of a survey that indicated that employees without children and spouses are just as intensely interested in having flexible schedules and more time off for personal situations as their counterparts with kids and spouses.

Tina Ferguson: That's a good point, SM. Many professionals are making more money earlier and they want to enjoy it. It's important for firms not to lump people into "labels" or categories.

The exciting news is that YOUR team already has all the answers you need. This is GREAT news for you because it isn't going to cost you a LOT to learn what your firm's selling points are. How many of you already know what your firm's selling points or, put another way, recruiting strengths are?

To learn what these are for your firm, you'll need to ask the right questions.

Why do your high performers stay? Why do they like working for you? For example, do you have a fun culture that is team oriented? Do they enjoy autonomy they can't find at other accounting firms?

What do you offer employees that they CAN'T get anywhere else? Is your firm passionate about partners working with staff? Tell your candidates! That's a selling point! New accountants want to learn from the masters, but a lot of firms have a stringent hierarchy. If your firm doesn't, this differentiates you in the interviewing process!

E&Y is a good example of a firm that figured out what its strengths and weaknesses were. A few years ago, they were losing new moms at an alarming rate. Many of these professionals were at the manager level. After doing some research, they figured out that this could be a new breed of employee. They rehired a lot of the departed employees and, in the process, developed a hiring strategy for this demographic.

Does this make sense?

Talk to the types of people YOU and your firm want to attract. Find out why THEY stay and then mold your interview script to these selling points.

Session Moderator: All the big firms are touting their great programs for female employees - are firms missing the boat by not offering something special for male employees as well? Are male employees feeling alienated because of the female outreach approach of today's employers?

Tina Ferguson: I haven't heard of any backlash.

Session Moderator: Do you think it's brewing, under the surface?

Tina Ferguson: I would think it's because the primary initiatives are geared toward an area that most male employees aren't interested in. I believe most of the firms offer flex time for both genders. And they are all covered under FMLA, so if Dads want to take 12 weeks off for paternity leave, that choice is available.

Oh, and that brings us to interview scripts. How many of you utilize interview scripts?

Interview scripts help in the same way that sales scripts do. They remind you to talk about the high points when triggered by the candidate. For example, if a candidate says, "I really want to work for an employer who cares about me as a professional." You might reply, "We understand that professional identity is important and have developed a plan that allows each professional to grow within their own comfort zone." Or something similar that corresponds uniquely to your firm.

When you think of talking of the high points, think about selling a pair of shoes. It's easy to look at a pair of shoes and say what is good about them. For example, they are rugged, durable, made of leather, are comfortable for long walks...With some practice, you will be able to pinpoint your interviewees "hot buttons.” Once you know that they align with what your firm has to offer, you have a fit.
A word of CAUTION. Selling is not smoke and mirrors. The LAST thing you want to do is sell your firm as something it isn't. It will cost you more money in the long run to sell a façade that the person is sure to see through in a week or two. Be honest and sell to your target market.

Again, your team holds the key to understanding and defining your target market. Your target candidate market is the group of people who closely resemble your high performers. Just as you define your target CLIENT market, you can define your target employee. For example, maybe the people the blossom in your firm are second-generation accountants (those who had a first career and then went into public accounting). If your firm is marketing oriented, your new employees need to know that up front and be open to the marketing activities you expect of them. Remember, if YOU have what they WANT, they will come.

Any questions?

Michael Heines: You've got a tough house here Tina. But I believe the concept of hiring and maintaining staff goes beyond that of purely marketing the benefits or differentiation between you and other firms. What we are finding is that individuals join the profession for 2 years and then go private. It is the issue of maintaining the image of public accounting in general that is taking a toll on the industry.

Tina Ferguson: I hear you, Michael. That's a completely valid statement, especially when it comes to auditors. Those two years of audit experience turn into thousands of dollars in private industry.

Michael Heines: How does one market against the image of an industry that will in the next few years become increasingly more difficult?

Tina Ferguson: My personal experience with hiring for an accounting firm is that public accountants are public accountants. Over the years, as I interviewed, I learned to ask tough questions and to also ask for a commitment from the candidates. Also, I learned that talking to them about what is GOOD and EXCITING about what's going on in public accounting was as motivating as anything else.

It's the difference between saying, "Okay, you have to market because the industry is getting to be dog eat dog and we have to either grow or fade away." and saying, "We are facing some incredible challenges in our field today. There are more opportunities open to you now than ever before, if public accounting is for you."

I know that it's harder for firms because the designation requires more education. But on the flip side, most CPAs want the designation for more personal reasons.

Michael Heines: That's a very big if for a newcomer to answer.

Tina Ferguson: Yes, you are right, Michael. For a newcomer, it is hard to answer, but you can find out what they, as a person, are looking for in a career. What are their aspirations? What do they want to do? Because YOU have the knowledge they don't, YOU can figure out for them if they are in the right place or not.

Of course, it's not that simple, either.

However, your knowledge helps you identify those that have "the right stuff."

At the staff level, you risk the most because a lot of times THEY don't even know what they want. And if that's the case, and your firm is tired of throwing money in that direction, maybe you can find another demographic to fill that need.

Perhaps a second-generation accountant that has more to lose? I've found that these people work great in firms. They know who they are and what they want, at least.

Michael, does this sound like it might work for your firm?

Michael Heines: I agree and in some cases that is exactly what we have done but we also find that the learning curve is longer as well, I don't know if that is a phenomenon to second generation but we've been in that situation at least twice

Tina Ferguson: That could be. It's a tough place to be.

Okay, it may sound like wishful thinking, but hiring a bad recruit can really be a good thing (as long as it doesn't happen OFTEN!) These people can teach you as much as your high performers can about your firm, what your firm has to sell and what you can do to AVOID hiring a similar person in the future. Interview these individuals as they exit the firm. Ask them why they are leaving, what they expected that they didn't realize, and what could have changed their experience. These exit interviews will allow you to define an employee profile of professional that doesn't work in your firm.

Michael Heines: Right now I am in the process of working with agencies that would like to know if I would like to train foreign nationals.

Tina Ferguson: Isn't that the truth! But again, a lot of times they get their knowledge and move on...I've seen it over and over again... unfortunately.

Michael Heines: Exit interviews are standard in my firm and they are very helpful in filling the voids that we thought we had plugged.

Tina Ferguson: It sounds like you guys are doing a LOT of things right!

Michael Heines: Many times the issues do not revolve around finances, benefits or anything that is particularly tangible.

Tina Ferguson: Exactly, and these are often the hardest, yet most crucial to manage.

Michael Heines: Many issues revolve around stress levels and the amount of the workload. Sorry, that's the profession.

Tina Ferguson: Right, but if you can identify certain types of employees, maybe you can spot these tendencies in another new hire?

Michael Heines: Any suggestions or direction you can offer?

Tina Ferguson: Basically, I would say that if you can link SPECIFIC issues to a personality and then divorce yourself from the "person" that left, you can train yourself to recognize certain traits when you interview. Some may say it's intuition or gut instinct, but I think if you study these traits, you can train yourself to recognize them in people.

When it comes to accounting firm web sites, I have to say that I have seen very few that are forthcoming with information about why a person would want to work at the firm. Generally, you see the same info on each and every one of them - a list of open positions, requirements, and how to get in contact with the HR person. Is this the way to sell? Certainly not! Tell me (your candidate) why I should want to work for you. Get me interested. Tell me what's in it for ME! After all, I'm already surfing around LOOKING. Give me something different that tells me YOU are different. If I'm your profile candidate, your verbiage should make me want to turn in my resume QUICK! I want to work for YOU!

How do you do this? Well, first, you talk to them in second person. You are telling them what they want. Then you hit upon why they may be looking there in the first place. What are the compelling reasons that people look for another job? Are they leaving because they want a place to grow professionally and personally? If you offer that, tell them so!

What about bringing a piece of your firm to the world? Be creative. What would YOUR employees find appealing? Ask them and then try it out. The good thing about the web is that it is ever changing and can easily be updated on the fly. Everything from partner comments to employee comments can bring your firm to life on the web.

I know that Big 5 firms have fancy web sites, but they are a good education on how to "sell" to employees. Take a look at their job site and figure out what you can do to devise similar strategies. This doesn't have to cost a lot, but it does take some thinking and preparation. Effective copy writing is critical.

We have just a few minutes left, so let me get to what you can do to get in front of your profiled employees.

First, figure out WHO those people are and develop a strategy. If your firm does well with graduating students, go to college recruiting days or sponsor Beta Alpha Psi events. Throw a party for students and pick up the tab. Or volunteer to be a guest speaker at a BAP event.

Again, though, keep in mind that part of your recruiting of this sector may involve an "education" about the industry.

Be candid, yet positive about what you can offer them.

If you live in a community where the local newspaper has an employment section, make friends with the local employment news reporters. They are eager to learn about how you and they can work together. If they highlight a firm each week, YOU need to be in there - this is the best FREE advertising you can get!

Write an article about how you overcame a recruiting obstacle or slump and offer to be a guest columnist in the local business journal. You never know who's going to be reading it and who just may see what YOU have to offer. These articles can be printed in college newspapers as well as other periodicals that will get you in front of your target.

Thanks for being here today. I hope this hour has been of value to you and that you will think of recruiting in a way you may never have considered before.

If anyone has specific questions, please email me at [email protected].

Session Moderator: The transcript of this workshop will be available later this afternoon.

Michael Heines: Thank you for the information Tina.

Session Moderator: Thank you all for joining us!

Tina Ferguson: You are welcome - keep up the good work! Good luck!

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