Recruitment Influencer Interview Series – Jessica Miller-Merrell

A long-anticipated interview that we got very excited about when our calendars aligned, anyone in the recruitment industry knows of Jessica Miller-Merrell as one of the leaders in her field and with 13 years at Workology as their Chief Innovation & Content Officer.

Jessica writes, trains and speaks on all topics related to the human capital sector with a passion for technology, talent acquisition and recruiting – a perfect match for Recruiterly Co-Founder Matt Gibbs to discuss all things recruitment!

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Matt: So, I know you have own podcast and blog that you have been running for quite a while and so I imagine you get lots of questions, is there a common question you particularly get asked as someone who is very influential in the industry?

Jessica: I think a lot of people will kind of have an opinion or vision of what it’s like being a blogger so I get a lot of people who say I want to start blogging what do I do?  That’s one of the more commonly asked questions.  Like how I got started doing this or how I became an influencer.  It started by being willing to share your opinion, unabashed opinion sometimes, putting it out there through resources and information.

Matt: Absolutely.  Do people ask often how long it takes to get to a point where you can serve a larger audience, is that ever a question or is that something you sort of temper people’s enthusiasm on and the fact that it is a consistent and long road.

Jessica: I do tell people that it takes a lot longer than you expect and you have to be almost obsessed with it a little bit, you are like a marathon runner or blogging or whatever, it’s a long-term activity and I do think a lot of people think that you are going to share your opinion and that everyone is going to listen and take action and share with others and it is definitely a long-term strategy and it involves, for me many years of talking on my blog and I even had an internet television show early on in like 2007/2009 and sharing your opinion and thoughts on topics sometimes there was absolutely no-one listening.

Matt: It’s the old adage of overnight success took twelve years, right, it’s all the hard work and stuff that happens in the past before this moment.

This is an interesting next question, considering all the technology and everything that is going on in the industry, what do you see as the future of recruitment?

Jessica: I think it’s interesting that you asked this question because I feel there are so many different components.  I do think if the economy were safe it would tighten more, right?  So it kind of continues the momentum that we are going.

“I believe that the skills that are going to be more sought after are those human interaction components”

Organisations are going to be adopting more of the technology whether its text messaging or a chat box or AI.  However, I believe that the skills that are going to be more sought after are those human interaction components.  So how a recruiter or talent acquisition leader can stand out from others who have good communication skills be able to speak and do so in a way that the automated tools and technology cannot yet do.  I do lean more towards the automation kind of things but definitely think that at the end of the day, at least in the short term anyway, that we are not going to have a chat box that is going to be able to duplicate and respond to every of the millions of questions that we get as recruitment leaders and be able to handle those small new asked questions that maybe a job seeker has or hiring manager is wondering about.

Matt: I agree.  And I think moving jobs is such a big decision. it’s not like a chat box on an e-commerce site, you get some basic answers to questions and you can make a small purchase, it doesn’t really impact your life much.  A job is like buying a house it’s a big purchase, it’s a big move. People want to talk to someone, don’t they?  If you are looking for answers you probably do want to actually speak to someone, and that is going to be very difficult for technology to replace in the short-term.  I think automation will remove a layer from the industry of the basic tasks and then that leaves room for us to apply the actual expertise of being a recruiter and that’s talking and persuading and influencing and those sorts of human-led interactions.  I think it is quite exciting, what we can do with technology to enhance how we perform as recruiters.

From your perspective, what’s the biggest challenge you have faced in recruitment in the past?

Jessica: In the past, I didn’t have enough data or information to support those gut decisions that we know in our hearts and minds are working.  For example for me, mid-way through my HR career I really adapted to social media and was using a lot of different things. Twitter and MySpace, Facebook and all these different tools and technology and I didn’t have the analytics tools to justify the utilization of social media and how effective it is. So it was hard for me to sort of justify to my leadership team what I knew that social media was the way of the future the personal interaction and the development of relationships happening online and that it was going to change maybe the way we interact with one another and build relationships and grow our businesses through our recruiting funnel.

10 essential non-recruitment related blogs for recruitersSo, I think now more than ever we have technology that’s come up, and not always but in most organisations, we have the ability to be able to attract those interactions and conversations and be able to have the best picture of how important they actually are.  How they are impacting on recruitment and hiring effort positively hopefully.

Matt: It’s interesting you mentioned funnels, there is the old school version of a funnel and I am talking purely agency recruitment right now, they used to use the diary over a digital funnel but really it was just the numbers that you need, you speak to 20, 30, 40 people you know you filter down to x and that filters down to y and then z.  You talked about funnels there from a far more sophisticated perspective in terms of analytics and tracking the entire conversation.

Do you think we really apply sophisticated marketing funnels for talent acquisition effectively, or do you think we are still a fair way away from people really knowing how to use that as part of a TA team or a staffing agency?

Jessica: I think it’s happening more now than it ever has before.  So for agency recruiting, I think those guys and gals have a method to their madness.  They do know the number of actions and activities it takes because I feel like agencies and staffing companies, more so than corporate recruiting, and they know the exact number of interactions, sort of like a salesperson, right? You know the number of candidates you need to source and the number of interviews that you need to give before you fill that role.

It’s interesting that I feel like corporate recruiting they don’t treat recruitment like the agencies do in that way, more like a sale of assured numbers and so they are looking at funnelling from an eBook or lead capture perspective so the number of people that pass through versus the number of candidates that pass maybe the initial assessment training before they go through the interview process and so forth.

I think that the agency side of things, and I have done some work with staffing companies over the last couple of years and you do need to think about not only building your funnel because you are only as good as the people you know as a recruiter, but the community of people that you have and the people that you have on your database are so important to success, that’s why people work with staffing companies.

So you are now playing in the same pool as a corporate recruiter who is casting a wider net, so those relationships I think are more important for agency recruiters than ever before. So I would want to keep building those relationships with my candidates through some traditional marketing activities.  Do different things to determine their temperature that they have in terms of wanting to maybe make it change so that you are the first person that they call.  Surely when they are that A player that nobody else can get but you have known them for three years and you have been fostering that relationship.

Matt: Yeah, that should be the core expertise of a recruiter they have a curated pool of relationships that you build over years and you can access for the benefit of your clients and the candidates at any point.

Jessica: It’s hard to scale.

Matt: It is absolutely hard to scale.  I think that is where a lot of businesses, certainly on the agency side they struggle if they get too many jobs or vacancies in for clients, it becomes very difficult and people don’t realise how time poor, recruiters can be because of the multiple plates they have to juggle.  I think applying the same sort of technology or approach maybe as the corporate recruiters do, could certainly help on the agency side as well.  It doesn’t seem as though it is being done just yet.  Some companies are, but not the mass, right?

Jessica: Not enough yet, but I think there is a real window of opportunity because those agency recruiters, they have those relationships, they have worked in the industry for 15 years, they know, they have that guy who is wanting to rack up with his project, they are the first persons that they call, right.  That’s competitive, so if we can use this chat box technology or some sophistication maybe with text messaging or just updates to help those recruiters to have those relationships to be able to really scale and build on them.  You can have a competitive advantage, it’s so challenging to find talent right now.  Relationship is the name of the game.  I mean you want to find those people and put them into your database, but then you want to foster and cultivate those relationships.

Matt: Recruitment horror story?  One you have heard from people you have spoken to or one you have experienced yourself?

Jessica: I was thinking about this when you asked me because I mean I have a lot of weird stories that have happened to me over the years and I think most recruiters have.  I have had a lot of immigration challenges.  In my first recruiting/HR job, I was in a community that was known for its meatpacking plant and they had a large immigrant population and so it was a kind of a funny story, not necessarily recruiting related.  We hired a lady who had a very troublesome experience. She had moved to the location and came knocking on my door because she had looked for a second job to supplement in the evenings and she had just found out that the meat packer plant was hiring. The senior manager pulled her into the a room and said, Daphne why don’t you like working here you have worked here for the last eight years and she said what are you talking about I am just applying for a job and that was when she found out there was somebody with her name and social security number that was working at the meat packing plant in the town that she had moved.  I had just moved here like eight months ago and she never would have known if she hadn’t moved here and went through the interview process.  I dealt with a lot of weird stuff like that in my first HR recruitment job.  I had just gone through during my MBA programme a pretty extensive research topic on identity theft, so knew exactly what to do to try to help her but that was a scary thing that happened to her.

Matt: Absolutely, I couldn’t imagine putting myself in her shoes, how you would feel!

Jessica: She had to have records that go back eight years, I mean to whenever it was prior to prove who she was, so that was crazy stuff that happened all the time.  I mean I had been bribed to ignore like false social security cards and numbers and all of that stuff.  Here’s $10,000 you know, can you look the other way.

Matt: Is there anyone that is influential to you in your career, any influencers now that you know you learn from and so on?

Jessica: So I have been, I think most influenced by bad bosses, people who I think did a crappy job and didn’t lead a team well or made all the mistakes.  It helped me immensely because I decided exactly what I didn’t want to do.  So I think those people really defined me early on in my HR career.  I had a really great boss that was my HR director where I was working and I would say that he was the one that influenced me to become an entrepreneur.  I already had it in my blood I was just in denial that that was the direction I was going in and Rebecca helped me come to my own realisation that was the place really that I needed to be.

Matt: I think its very good to have experiences of what not to do, because it ensures you avoid doing the same to others, right? I am writing a blog at the moment actually which I will release shortly about being pigeonholed, I think I was 14 or 15 and we took a test early on, it was there to prescribe what your career you will have in the future.  I think that was so dangerous at such a young age to have influential people in your life telling you what limitations you have based on how you answered a form. I think from memory, I was set to be a construction labourer, which, don’t get me wrong – there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and some of my best friends in the UK are very happy in a construction job. It just wasn’t what I wanted to do, and fortunately, I’m not easily influenced.

Jessica: I think you need many mentors really, I mean I will say that mentors are more important now that I am older and more experienced in my career than ever before, because everybody has an  opinion on what I should or shouldn’t do, but being able to trust someone and pick up the phone and meet with them for coffee and say this is where I think I am going, what are your thoughts?  I find this extremely valuable.

Matt: Even sometimes if it’s just you want to bounce your own ideas off someone else, right, even if they don’t necessarily guide you.  It can be really valuable just to sit down and talk through what is on your mind.

Ok, talent acquisition or recruiting?

Jessica: We sort of use both interchangeable.  I still like talent acquisition it’s kind of the cool thing that the corporate people use, right.  The larger enterprises say, oh I’m a talent acquisition leader, but the rest of us say I’m a recruiter, this is what I do you know find talent and bring it into the organisation, so I am more old school I think recruiting sounds better to me.

Matt: Excuse my language on the next one, if you could call bullshit on one myth related to recruitment what would it be?

Jessica: There are so many of them.  I didn’t prepare for this one.  I think the economy is challenging right now, but there is good talent out there, so when I hear from someone who says, I can’t find anybody to fill this role, there’s nobody here to do this job, I would call bullshit on that because it’s a larger problem, probably with the culture or your organisation, those people are out there you can’t just go to LinkedIn to be able to look for those people anymore, because talent is so in demand and they have options, the problem is it’s a larger problem with maybe a conversation structure or your culture or just your business.  It’s not a good win or one that people know when they have a high turnover.

Matt: Yes, one hundred per cent, and I guess that then reflects on, it’s very topical at the moment,  your employer brand, making your business attractive to people that are in-coming.  We obviously talk a lot about recruiter brands as well and how important that is.  The myth that there is talent out there, I mean I don’t think agency recruitment would still be in operation if they didn’t constantly prove the point that if you have got an expert assigned to finding you that person, they are going to find that person, so then it’s more a case as you say, looking at your organization, what are the problems systemically through the company or what is your onboarding process or what’s your brand in the market, look at those things first before sort of claiming that no one exists.

Jessica: Yeah, and if you went through all those things and there is no talent then you have to look a bit harder to solve this problem through starting a training programme or apprenticeship or maybe building relationships with Universities or personal associations try to help get those people the skills and the training that they need to be able to build your pipeline.

Matt: Historically you look at square peg square hole fits, right, I mean you need someone to fill a sales manager job in the pharmaceutical industry.  So typically you look for someone who has been a sales manager in the pharma industry, so do you think we are going to start focusing more-so on a person’s skills and their ability to utilize those skills for different industries, positions etc. rather than purely experiential based?

Jessica: Absolutely.  We are already seeing a lot of that now.  I mean, for example, if you are looking for a salesperson in the pharma industry maybe you need to look to fundraising for non-profit, right.   So they can speak well, meet with the client, clientele but is still focused on selling.  It might be hard to convince your client to go in that direction but maybe you give them a reduced fee percentage or rate to bring somebody in and test them out for a pilot and see if that works, but that would be the strategy that I would employ trying to look for a similar industry or slightly different but the  same type of calibre of candidate.

Matt: Okay, the best piece of advice you have ever received?

Jessica: Best piece of advice, I think it would be to stop worrying about other people.  I am a people pleaser and I have had to get tough in this industry, especially as an influencer, you have an opinion and you are sharing it, not everybody is going to like that opinion and that they are going to share their opinion back.  It’s okay if everyone doesn’t like you.

Matt: More people should follow their own path, without worrying about other people’s perceptions. I think we would then have more insightful conversations and dialogues. There won’t be tempered opinions, you know with concern about what people might think of them, and so on

We probably half touched on this earlier, right at the beginning of the conversation but, modern day recruiters, what do you think are a couple of skills that are super important as we move forward into a very different era?

Jessica: So I think that phone skills, personal skills are more important than ever because I think that a lot of people are, you know my life is on the internet, I work on the internet, I run a blog, so being able to talk on your feet is critical for every recruiter and to sort of take out of that conversation with the hiring manager or clients what they really need is extremely critical. The other piece is the internet.  We are all in sales and marketing and so I do think that funnels are important, anything I do online is really with funnels and marketing in mind, so whether you are an independent recruiter and it’s just you, you should think about your personal brand and how to build traffic and candidates to, maybe a single unified place,  a destination where they fill out a form or something so you can push them into your CRM ATS, but if you are working for a large organisation you should be thinking about a larger brand and how to push those candidates to some place, a funnel, to be able to complete that activity so that you can focus on a communication building relationship, that’s the second part, I think that is so important.  I mean you are going to have to learn how to work the internet.

If you put together a really great presentation on seven ways to impress your hiring manager and pharma, like pharma sales and you put that out there, then you have a new pipeline of candidates that are interested in sales roles that is specifically targeted at maybe that problem area that you are having a hard time finding candidates.

Matt: I couldn’t agree more, it’s so super important that recruiters stop to look at, not just being a salesperson but you are a marketing professional now. I think that’s a tough skill to master, to understand funnels and understand how to build marketing material or become a blog writer or somebody that can produce content of a quality that their audience want’s to see and obviously reflects your brand.

This is a really important one and one of the core reasons why we are doing what we are doing, why do you think the industry, in general, has a bad perception that maybe purely agency recruitment or maybe its recruitment across the spectrum, but why do you think it has a bad perception and how do you think we can go about fixing it?

Jessica: Some of it I think is from an information standpoint.  Candidates do not understand the differences between agency and corporate.  Or even like a resume writer, oh you do career stuff, you can help me get a job, and they lump us all into one category.  I don’t think we do a  good job just as a whole, educating the job candidate community when they want to work with a headhunter or even agency, this is different than a corporate, here is the process.  The reason we don’t tell them the process, you know maybe I don’t have an exclusive on this role yet so you are not going to paint a picture for them but I think there is a lot of misunderstanding on what the recruiter does or doesn’t do depending versus corporate and so on.  So that’s one thing.  The other thing I think we do a horrible job of following up on candidates and I am guilty of this as well even though I try my hardest.  There are times when I have 120 + candidates that have applied for a role and I didn’t communicate to them that the position has been filled.  Even with my own team, I just hired a marketing coordinator about six weeks ago and I have not told anybody that I haven’t told the other people that applied for the job that it has been filled.  I told my final two, but I didn’t tell the rest.  So I think that is incredibly frustrating and something that we need to make a priority, let people know hey it’s been filled, sorry you didn’t get the job so that they can have some closure and maybe able to move on.  Sell our job to be like life coaches for these people, I think sometimes that is the expectation for them.

Matt: I think people find it difficult to deliver bad news. When you start delivering that bad news, whatever it is, you will find that more often than not people are very grateful that you took the time and made an effort to do so even if they didn’t get the job.  I think education is a massively important one.  A lot of candidates, clients, recruiters on both sides of the fence don’t really understand what goes into being successful in the job and I think if there is more education and understanding then empathy will follow for recruiters that are good at what they do, in turn we will have a lot fewer people burning out resulting in a lot more great recruiters and I think that is important. Great recruiters burn out, as they are constantly fighting negative stigma due to recruiters not representing the industry well.

Three favourite recruiting tools?

Jessica: I was really thinking about this.  So granted I am definitely more on the marketing side of the house, but I am also independent I am a small business, so automation is extremely important. so my favourite recruiting tool is not a recruiting tool, but it is an automated tool and so that would be Zapier!  I use that for all sorts of things, pushing people from email to my CRM, tweets that go out I have automated content pieces, so it looks like I am on Social media even when I am not.  I haven’t gone on twitter today but there are probably ten tweets that have come out of my various accounts and on Facebook and LinkedIn. All those things are happening and I haven’t even logged in to be able to make that happen, but It’s happening.  I am also a fan of Chrome Extensions.  One of my favourite ones is Boomerang and it is simply, I can get a notification if somebody opens my email so I can pick up the phone and call them, or I can have it set up to resend if they don’t open my email in two days or at whatever time.  So I use those a lot, it also allows me to schedule some emails which I will do depending on the time zone for international clients everybody has a lot of emails.  Boomerang is not a recruiting tool at all but I have another social media tool that we use a lot is something called “meet Edgar”.  Meet Edgar is a  paid tool but it allows me to push contents to Facebook and LinkedIn plus other social channels, in particular, like on an ongoing basis.  So if you are a recruiter and you know you need to be posting career stuff on social media but you always forget to do it, you can pick 100 articles that you like so you find your favourite blogger for example, pull their contents that are helpful or to target your candidate audience that you want and put it on a rotation under “Meet Edgar” and then you can post two or three times a day, or less or more but there is content coming out  ongoing to kind of build those relationships with your candidates or partner.

Matt: Do you find that there is much of a difference in engagement from unique content that you yourself are creating and pushing out through those channels versus curating relevant content from your favourite bloggers and so on and pushing that out?  Do you find a different level of engagement with your audience?

Jessica: Well, it kind of seems self-serving if I only push out my content.  It’s important I think collectively if you read good stuff you should share other people’s resources and things, I think you want to be known as that person who is like the go-to in your space or particular industry that always knows all the staff and knows all the people and so that you are sharing more than just your stuff.  I will tell you that a cool tool I am using now that is free is that I can still share other people’s stuff, but still have my logo and my call to action is a tool that called Sniply. It put’s a little tag at the bottom of the post, as a cookie even if it isn’t yours and there is an action piece you can customise to remind people that’s my content or that I cultivated that content and I am sharing it.

Matt: I think that’s really important if you are putting time and effort into curating great content from whatever source for your audience that there should be some level of recognition.

Okay, a couple more to go.  We all have to update in recruitment what keeps you going or what advice would you give to others to keep them going?

Jessica: Remember that feeling that you have when you have a great day helping somebody find a job they love. Those are the sorts of moments that I try to  Remember. Recruiters are hidden heroes of the business because they are finding the talent, bringing them in the door and then those hiring managers mould them into the person that you saw, that they had the potential to be.  So remember, everybody has to think a  couple of those success stories where you know that person you brought in that nobody thought was going to work is now the VP of a division or would transfer to a new location and they are just killing it.  Those are the stories that I think about when I am having a bad day.

“Recruiters are hidden heroes of the business because they are finding the talent”

Matt: Yes, I think that is very good advice, as you say, hidden heroes as recruiters are often doing the thankless task of being a recruiter but really your ability to impact an entire organisation through finding rock star staff is really important to recognise.  Both internally but people should also recognise recruiters for doing that job and how important they are to the business.

Job boards?  What’s your opinion on job boards?  Do they provide a good ROI are they a necessary evil, what’s your general thought?

Jessica: Erm, I think that if you are really focused on metrics and you can justify that the job board is driving you, qualified candidates, then you should absolutely take advantage.  It is still one of the best ways to be able to get those candidates using that to traffic that the job board brings.  I would say that maybe if you are not seeing the performance from your job board or posting, it might be you and not them, so take a look at your job postings, are they really marketing the material, do they deter people or compel them to apply.  It could be something simple like  putting an application called “action button” at the top of the posting on your career site or the job boards, so put it in multiple places, make it easy for those people to be able to apply, don’t make it so hard that it’s going to take two hours to complete an application, give people more information about the company, a video, photo, a place for them to go to learn more, because It’s not just a single job posting that I think any more that is normally going to push that candidate to complete what I say is a buying process, they are buying into the organisation, they want to know more.  Its many other things that lead to that moment, so you need to have all of your marketing assets pieced together so that when they do press apply they know that they have done the research and they know that its an organisation that they want to align themselves with.  That is hard for staffing companies, but you have your own unique culture and experience and expertise and talent, so that can come through even if you are posting on behalf of another company, talking about what makes you unique, but it’s the little things, the work ahead of time that I think is really what makes a job board and a job hosting still be a great way to engage top candidates.

Matt: Last but not least, what’s the book you are reading right now and sort of why are you enjoying it?

Jessica: So I have been reading “Barking up the wrong tree” an audiobook.  It’s like a different way of thinking a different way of doing business, kind of in a way how to embrace the weird and use that as a competitive advantage.  I am definitely not everyone’s cup of tea and I definitely think that the way I view the world is that we all have our unique perspective and I like this because it has a lot of just good small nuggets of wisdom in it, how to think about work or business differently.  One of my favourites is “Hostage Negotiation” and how that came about. Typically you make a demand and if they didn’t meet it by this time the police go in and shoot up the place and it was resulting in so many deaths and problems but two police officers, I think in Oakland, decided to try having a conversation and getting to know these guys maybe share their point of view and have a relationship with them.  What they found through the book is that by doing those things like having a conversation, building that trust, building that human interaction, it decreased the likelihood that these hostage situations were escalating to the point where people were dying.  So the book for me is full of good nuggets of how to see the world differently and embrace your weird and grow your business in a way in that is unique and suits.

Matt: Sounds awesome.  Okay, I definitely have to check that out.  We were referring to this earlier, I think it’s important that we all have our own opinion and voice and that we are confident and prepared enough to share that.  And that sounds like a book that applies to that, so.  Wonderful, thank you very much, Jessica, I appreciate you taking the time to answer all these questions and yeah, I appreciate you just sparing some of your time.

You can also find and follow Jessica on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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