A retained search is an example of an intangible service. The buyer of such a service can’t kick its tires or take the search for a test run. He or she has to select from a variety of search firms based on criteria that are not easily measured.

That’s long been a challenge for executive search firms. It’s tough to differentiate your service in a competitive market. Branding can help – at both the level of the consultant and the level of the business – but even a history of strong execution doesn’t guarantee that a particular assignment will go well.

From the perspective of a firm (as opposed to a sole practitioner), winning business purely on the basis of consultant reputation is a good thing in the short term, but a danger in the long term. Search is a business with low barriers to entry; there is little to stop a consultant building a book of business and then setting up a new firm. It’s important, therefore, that the search firm positions the value it is creating as being more than that created by the individual consultant.

Some do this by publishing firm-wide KPIs. According to Simon Mullins, speaking at Dillistone’s recent World Executive Search Congress, 40% of Searches fail. Despite this, a quick look through a random sample of executive search firm websites shows a variety of KPIs listed – and yet no one seems to have a success rate below 90%! While there is a logic that says that the best performing firms publish this data while the less well executing don’t, most buyers realize that this data is often based on a less than rigorous analysis.

That’s why search firms are increasingly using technology to “tie in” the client. Client portals allow the buyer of an executive search process to view developments on a search in “real time” (well, sort of!). It allows them to track KPIs as the search progresses review candidate information and provide feedback as the project reaches its latter stages. This can lead to a swifter, more successful search and, more to the point, it leads to the client believing that the value offered by the search firm comes from more than just the consultant.

At Dillistone Systems, we delivered our first client portal over a decade ago. Our “Client Interaction Module” (FFCim) would we were convinced, revolutionise the relationship between search firm and client.

It didn’t. Very few firms used it – it was ahead of its time.

Today, though, its time has come and more and more firms are taking advantage of this type of functionality. The latest iteration of our client portal – like its predecessor – is designed to tread the fine line between sharing information with the client while protecting the interests of the search firms. It works using “snapshots” of data – essentially allowing the search firm to control exactly what information is published and when it is updated. It’s available now to users of our FileFinder Anywhere Executive Search platform and we are delighted by the feedback received to date.