Hiring Customers: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

By Lin Grensing-Pophal August 27, 2018
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​As companies face the challenge of filling open positions, many are turning to unusual sources for candidates—including their own customers.

Though sourcing from clients is not an everyday occurrence, it is "definitely something I see every few weeks or once a month," said Tim Gates, senior regional vice president at Adecco Staffing, USA. "The labor market is extremely tight, so we're often reaching out to every resource we possibly can to find candidates, and that includes customers and clients," he said.

Hiring from your customer base can yield some dividends, especially when wooing key candidates who can have a measurable impact on sales and bottom-line results, experts agreed. The larger the company and the larger its customer base, the more likely customers may become part of the talent pool, often unintentionally. But hiring customers may also pose risks. For smaller firms and high-profile positions, recruiters may want to proceed with caution.

[SHRM members-only online discussion platform: SHRM Connect]

Benefits of Hiring Customers

There certainly can be benefits in recruiting and hiring customers. As pointed out in the December 2016 Harvard Business Review article "The Benefits of Hiring Your Best Customers," hiring customers can yield important insight that can be used to improve product development and marketing efforts. The article cites examples from Netflix and Keurig about how having passionate customer-employees on board can yield innovative and creative ideas that are market-focused.

Sometimes hiring customers or clients makes sense, agreed Keith Wolf, managing director of recruiting firm Murray Resources. "For some companies, especially those in the consumer-goods industry, turning to your customer base can be largely beneficial for finding quality candidates," he said. "These customers turned candidates can often bring a lot to the table when filling an open position, as they likely have a pre-established affinity or familiarity with the company's brand and products." For larger organizations in particular, he said, advertising open positions to customers can be very cost-effective, "as they already have a relationship with stakeholders within the company."

Some Downfalls

For other types of companies, though, hiring customers or clients is not only ill-advised but may be unethical. The staffing-services industry is one example.

Stephen Provost of Sanford Rose Associates said, "As an executive search firm that builds management teams and executive teams in biotechnology, we've hired directors and VPs of HR that had once worked for our clients, but not at the time of hire. The transition was smooth since they knew the industry and knew the challenges of our customers. They also brought different viewpoints from having seen various situations from our clients' perspectives." But he added, "In the search industry, we are contractually bound to not source from existing clients or customers. It's generally looked upon as bringing employees in the front door and walking others out the back door. It's a serious conflict."

There also are other considerations and a potential impact to keep in mind, said Sean Pritchard, co-founder and CEO at MilitaryHire. "Recruiting from customers can be risky," he cautioned. "On the one hand, you might gain an employee with significant experience and insight that comes from using your product or service as a customer. On the other hand, you risk alienating a customer and perhaps losing the account if you hire a rock star from their team."

Potential for Profitability

Still, Pritchard said he's used the practice of hiring customers, with excellent results: "A key employee at one of my customers had been a champion for us at that account," he said. "I learned he had become disillusioned with his current employer and had decided to leave." It was a done deal, he recalled. The employee was leaving with no chance of being talked out of the decision. Pritchard decided to make his move and talked him into joining his company and taking over leadership of the sales team. It was a great hire, he said.

"His passion for what we did, combined with his skills for sales, doubled our sales over the next three years."

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.

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