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Four Steps to Winning the Candidate Experience

Talent Connect – LinkedIn’s annual business conference – is upon us. My team and I are leading a session on candidate experience as part of the “Data & Metrics” track, and while I understand the rationale behind this classification, it also speaks to something that we, as talent seekers, often get wrong.  We separate “candidate experience” from all the other parts of recruiting — sourcing, pipeline management, assessment, marketing — forgetting that from the candidate’s perspective, experience and brand are one and the same.
To a candidate: Experience = Brand = Culture
We learned this the hard way.
To give you some context, we’re the leading Customer Experience Management company in the world and we’re growing like crazy. While we seek the same quality of talent as Uber and Facebook, we have just a fraction of the brand recognition.
Yet despite this challenge, and the very real talent wars being waged in Silicon Valley, we’ve managed to grow our company from 330 in 2013 to over 850 today.  We’ve designed a candidate experience that projects our employer brand and culture to potential candidates and attracts the type of talent we need. And we’ve done so without competing on all of the usual perks, or changing the fundamental values of our process.  As a result, we have a 94% offer acceptance rate and a growing population of candidates who promote us even when we don’t extend offers to them.
This is the story of how we got here.
1. Hitting the wall
In 2013, our need to recruit with both speed and quality spiked, pushing us into new territory. It was all hands on deck to hire new Medallians to keep up with client demand.
Enter Glassdoor feedback like this:
“At this point I was pretty frustrated—I had called [the recruiter] many times since Monday, during normal business hours, and got her voicemail every single time. All I wanted to know was whether I should cut my losses and move on/keep looking, or plan to interview with Medallia.”
Unfortunately, this kind of negative feedback wasn’t altogether uncommon. As we continued to track it, we realized something fundamental: We we were not in control of Medallia’s candidate-facing brand. The advent of social media democratized marketing to the point that every candidate we interacted with had the opportunity to shape how other potential candidates perceived us. Candidates were telling our story for us, and the only thing we could control was the experience they had.
As a company built on the premise that companies win when they empathize with their customers to deliver exceptional experiences, we knew we had to drink our own champagne and do the same with candidates.
2. Learning to listen
We used our own feedback program to gather in-depth responses from candidates at every step of the recruiting process. We needed multiple sources of feedback (not just Glassdoor) in order to:

  • Pinpoint exactly what needed to change (not just general comments).
  • Gather feedback from diverse candidates at all stages of the recruiting process (Glassdoor skewed towards younger candidates and candidates who did not receive an offer).
  • Collect a higher volume of responses (10 Glassdoor reviews/month versus 60 solicited responses)

One of the things we learned quickly was that it was communication of the final decision that really swayed how candidates felt about us. Once we realized we could vastly improve candidate experience by better communicating the “why” behind our decisions, we worked to train all recruiters on how to do so effectively. We had junior recruiters shadow their senior counterparts and learn how to give tough feedback. Our Legal team trained people on how to be honest and transparent.
Regardless of whether or not they received an offer, candidates were significantly happier when the recruiter was transparent, timely, and provided real feedback. Not entirely surprising, but also not immediately obvious.
3. Setting candidate expectations
The influx of feedback also brought up a more difficult part of the candidate experience: a disconnect between what candidates were telling us and what we were willing to change. For instance, a ubiquitous complaint we were getting was that our process was far too long.
When we first began noticing this, our response was to gather hiring managers and see how we could make the process shorter. They (understandably) balked. “We can’t compromise on quality!” “The process is supposed to be thorough” etc. They had a point. Medallia’s process was and is rigorous, but that fact is essential to who we are. Our assessment process is different – more probing and personal – from that of other companies, but if candidates don’t like it, are they really right for us to begin with?
Rather than making the process shorter, we worked to communicate our expectations ahead of time so candidates weren’t caught off guard.The feedback we receive on this part of the process has improved enormously. It’s now commonplace for us to hear our interviews described as “thorough” and “rigorous” rather than “long” and “arduous.” Do we get it right every time?  Not a chance. But our candidates are now helping us tell our story in a way that reflects who we are and want to be. No longer is candidate experience just about smiling and showing up on time.
4. Aligning on a vision, then stepping out of the way
Another thing we learned by listening to and empathizing with candidates was that each individual’s inherent uniqueness means not every journey will be the same. We’ve had to align on a vision for how to showcase our talent brand and culture throughout the candidate journey and then get out of the way to allow our recruiters and coordinators to deliver exceptional experiences.
As a team, we decided that great candidate experience means that candidates walk away with a feeling for our brand and who we are with sentiments like:

  • “I feel set up for success”
  • “The interviews made me reflect on my life in a deeper way”
  • “I’ll grow faster here”
  • “I really want to solve problems here”
  • “They really know me”

Once we aligned on this vision, we gave recruiters and coordinators a small budget and let them execute creatively. Some recruiters brought soup to candidates who were sick, others bought baby books for candidates who were expecting. Over the summer we had one candidate come in and mention the movie Inception during her interview process – the recruiter included a memento from the movie in the offer package. The candidate, who had offers from almost every big tech company in the Valley, accepted the next day. Was it the gift?  I don’t think so. I believe that throughout her interactions she was able to see how much we cared about her as a person, and how committed we were to her success. I’m incredibly proud to work with a team that is able to create these kinds of experiences for candidates on a daily and weekly basis.

Thinking about candidate experience as an end onto itself is really contrary to what we’re all trying to accomplish. Candidate experience is more than clean interview rooms and friendly recruiters. It’s longer than a candidate’s onsite interview experience. It’s deeper than the questions you ask them or the answers they give. Candidate experience is your brand. You can and must control it. It encompasses every single interaction candidates have with your company from the moment they first hear your name to the impression they’re left with after their onsite. It’s directly tied to what you choose to publish and write on social media, how you spend your money on campaigns, and yes, how you interact with them both during and after the interview process. At Medallia, we’ve intentionally created a candidate experience that will resonate with some (but not all) candidates, to attract the talent we want and need.
It’s not perfect but – so far – it’s working.

Photo credit: Joel Kramer

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