Designing The Candidate Experience: An Exercise in Brand Stewardship

Walk into any Apple Store on the planet, and you’ll receive an immersive customer experience. The sleek layout, meticulous design, and seamless end-to-end experience all serve to generate positive associations in the minds of customers. The end result is that even if you don’t buy anything on a trip to the Apple Store, you end up leaving with a distinct, lasting impression of the Apple brand.

That’s exactly how companies should be designing their candidate experience – with the candidate in mind. Yes, the main goal of a hiring process is to identify and attract the best candidates, but that doesn’t mean we should overlook other opportunities therein, namely brand advocacy. You’re often providing a first glimpse of your company (especially for startups) to every single person who walks through your doors. Think of your candidate experience as an experiential marketing opportunity, not just for future employees, but for all of those industry professionals who you don’t end up hiring. Every company should ask themselves: what lasting impression are we leaving on each individual we interact with?

I was given a stark reminder of the role consumer experience plays in decision making recently, when inside of the same week I had two remarkably different customer experiences. One with AT&T, and the other with Handy. AT&T knocked it out of the park and the other service provider nearly drove me to create a Yelp account just to save others from the misery. The candidate experience is no different, and for me it highlighted our propensity to be more vocal about negative experiences.

A seamless candidate experience doesn’t happen by accident. It takes planning, process and communication, all of which can be achieved by following a set of simple guidelines. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all structure to interviewing candidates, there exist a clear set of parameters that will help you establish an interview process that not only identifies the best and brightest, but also leaves a positive lasting image in each candidate’s mind.

Failing to Prepare is Preparing to Fail

The first step in any success story involves preparation. To that end, it’s important to establish a clear line of sight between now and your hiring decision. That means the establishment of a process, and – just as crucially – the communication of that process to all key members of your organization. If it’s feasible, start by securing an applicant tracking system that your interviewers and HR personnel can utilize. Greenhouse, Jazz and Thrive are all solid examples. If you’re bootstrapping, even a simple Excel sheet can work wonders. As long as you have a unified system to manage communication, you’re good to go. That way, everyone internally participating in the process is quite literally on the same page. The infrastructure helps facilitate the process. For more on the importance of the planning and communication phase, check out this article in our Q1 newsletter.

It’s important to keep in mind that all of that planning is useless if there isn’t accountability over the process and strong communication internally and externally. That means that someone – the CEO, a hiring manager, an internal or external recruiter – needs to be on top of scheduling interviews, knowing where candidates should be heading and whom they’re meeting with, at what stage of the process each candidate is in, and following up with candidates for interview feedback and next steps. Without proper oversight, the execution of your process is likely to go haywire. It’s a big, important job and someone has to own it.
And communication is key; not just between firm and candidates, but internally. Whoever maintains process accountability needs to ensure that all of the key decision makers are on board, so there aren’t any miscommunications as we delve deeper into the hiring funnel. That’s why we recommend bringing on an internal recruiter much sooner in the process than companies typically think is necessary – the benefits of that specialized expertise far outweigh the upfront costs. For more on the advantages of hiring an internal recruiter, we riffed on it in this article last year.

The How & The Why

So you’ve acquired the right infrastructure, dedicated yourself to a process, and assigned accountability; the next obvious question is: what should that process be? The answer is whatever most suits your needs, style, and company culture. I wish I could tell you there’s a boilerplate approach here, but the truth is, the right process is bespoke to each organization.

The key to a successful process is maintaining a thoughtful chronology of events that isn’t overly burdensome to the candidate, but still gets you the conviction you need. Our clients often start with a phone interview, followed by an in-person meeting, and for those who make the cut – a follow-up with the rest of the team. It’s advisable to limit your broader team’s exposure to only your select finalists, saving substantial man-hours and focusing them on the bottom of your funnel.

Firms with a more sizable Executive Team might opt for select candidates to meet with a handful of key personnel – say 5 interviews conducted by 5 different team members. In this context, we highly recommend a clear delegation for each interviewer – i.e. someone interviews for career transitions, someone else for culture, a third for core competencies, a fourth for soft skills, etc. The reason is twofold: first, you’re affording your interview team a level of depth within each area of assessment, as opposed to having one or two people broadly cover a candidate’s entire profile. So when you circle up to discuss, each of your team members can enlighten the group on one core aspect, leaving you with a holistic picture of the candidate, containing both breadth and depth. But the other reason for interview differentiation is even more important, and directly impacts the candidate experience: you want to keep the interviews interesting for the candidate. It’s counterproductive for a prospective employee – and brand advocate – to have to repeat the same basic facts over and over and over again. There’s nothing more exhausting than having to repeat that ‘overcoming an obstacle’ story 5 different times. That type of experience suggests to the candidate that internal communication is unstructured and the process wasn’t thoughtful. You’re jumbled and disorganized. And if this is how the interview process goes, I can only imagine what it’s like to work here…

Don’t let that thought creep in. The candidate experience is the first glimpse your future employees – and possibly the only glimpse those you don’t hire – will have of your company. So ensure that your process is both challenging and additive throughout. Keep your candidates on their toes by having them discuss various aspects of themselves in each interview – as opposed to the same stuff over and over again. That will leave them with a positive first impression of your company, and we all know how important first impressions are.

The Building Block of Every Relationship

Now we reach the end result of all of that preparation: Communication. Herein lies the key to the entire candidate experience. Communication will make or break your company’s image in a candidate’s mind.

Employers tend to forget that the hiring process is a two-way street. It’s not just the candidate who needs to put their best foot forward, companies do as well. After all, the truly special candidates are likely interviewing you as well, since they’re probably in high demand. Which means you’re in competition here, not just the candidates. And the surest way to promote yourself (without sounding like a used car salesman) is by communicating your hiring process clearly and effectively right from the start. That means laying out each step – from initial screening to final decision – and ensuring that each prospective candidate knows exactly what’s coming. Ever notice that a drive feels shorter when you have great directions? Yeah, it’s like that.

Why is communication so important? Put yourself in a candidate’s shoes (you likely have been in their shoes at one point or another) – you’re actively or passively considering a career change. You’re sending out resumes, speaking with recruiters, researching companies and reaching out to folks on LinkedIn. The entire process is a grind. And when you do finally land that interview you’ve been gunning for, you’re excited and nervous all at once. This could be your future, right here. The first day of the rest of your life (for better or worse). You’ve got a million things to prepare – stories to tell, resume bullets to explain, references to consider – so as you first step through that company’s doors, the one thing you’d like more than anything is visibility; someone to guide you through the process from start to finish. Applying for a job can feel like running through a maze while blindfolded – you aren’t familiar with this place, you don’t know any of these people. So having someone offer you a GPS is, in a very real sense, a lifesaver. Now you can focus on the things you came here to focus on: sharing your story, skill sets and experience, and deciding if this job is the right fit for you.

Communication builds trust – any relationship expert will tell you that. Showing candidates what life will be like at your company, walking them through the structure and explaining the thought process behind that structure helps establish the kind of foundations that long-lasting relationships are built on. And as important as maintaining strong communication is for the candidates you do hire, it’s equally, if not more important for the candidates whom you don’t move forward with. The reason is simple: you’re going to be rejecting more people than you accept. For every one person you bring on, there will easily be 10 or 20 or 100 who don’t get the job. The individual who gets the job will of course be an advocate and evangelist for your brand, but what about all of those people who walk away empty handed? Will they advocate for your company on Glassdoor and with colleagues? Will they talk about the positive experience they had interviewing, the structured process, the deep level of communication, and how they wish they’d gotten a chance to work at that highly efficient company that seemed to be firing on all cylinders? Disconnecting gracefully, with clear and effective communication, is a great way to increase brand advocacy in the long run.

Everyone’s a Critic

Thanks to the internet, there exist endless forums and mechanisms for people to share their thoughts and feelings on any subject imaginable – including a firm’s hiring process. That means disgruntled candidates can leave black marks all over LinkedIn or Glassdoor (“They rescheduled the interview 3 times…” “The interviewer was totally unprepared – hadn’t even looked at my resume…” “It was 6 weeks before I heard back!”). Of course, the opposite is also true; candidates with positive experiences can turn into fierce advocates of your brand – even those who don’t receive an offer. Effective planning, a thoughtful process, and open and honest communication will foster less of the former and more of the latter. The key is designing the candidate experience with the candidate in mind.