Understanding How a Recruiter Works
Remember, a recruiter works with you, markets/promotes your background to his or her client companies, but he does not work for you. A recruiter works for the company or organization that pays for his or her services. Your relationship with a recruiter is much like the relationship you might have with a real estate broker who represents a home seller, but wants to help you, a buyer, find something that you would like to buy. In order for this to work, a good recruiter will be interested in where you want to live geographically, what you like to do professionally, now and in the future, as well as how much money you want to earn.
As with any relationship, honesty is important in this relationship, as well. Let the recruiter know those things that are very important to you, as well as those of lesser importance. Different factors have more or less weight with different candidates. Factors that you might consider include: job content/responsibilities, growth prospects, compensation, travel, location, company size, benefits, commercial vs. defense-oriented work, mentorship, start-up vs. established company, to name a few. Letting the recruiter know what is really important to you and what matters less will help the process.
For this to work, a recruiter must introduce you, the candidate, to an opportunity that satisfies your needs, while at the same time satisfying the needs that his or her client firm has for the individual(s) they seek to hire. It is not an exact science and there is always some amount of give and take on both sides. No one gets married without making some compromises -- the same is true in this relationship between you, the candidate, and the prospective employer.
Selecting a Recruiter
Your best bet in selecting a recruiter is to ask for a referral from someone in your industry/area of specialization. You want to work with someone who has placed other people with your background, or a similar background. You wouldn't use a recruiter for retailing if you were a software engineer. Professional societies or publications from these societies, or trade magazines, are a good source of potential recruitment firms. Remember, those firms that have been doing recruitment and placement in your field are more than likely to have the greatest number of contacts and industry resources/access to help you.
The other thing is you would like to talk to someone who you feel comfortable talking to. Even if a recruiter cannot help place you today, if they give you advice about your resume or career options, this is someone you might want to talk to in the future when they can help you.
The Referral Process
Once a recruiter has referred your resume to an organization, and interest is expressed by that organization, the recruiter will introduce the firm and the opportunity to you and then you can decide if you are interested or not. Generally, if you are not in the firm's immediate vicinity, the company will conduct a telephone interview. After this, if both parties are interested, a face-to-face interview is the next step. If that goes well, a second or even a third round of interviews might occur. It is possible that you might receive an offer after the first interview.
At the offer stage, the recruiter will probably have some insight as to what you can expect. Some firm's offer is a "best and final" offer; others might have room for some negotiation. If you prefer to do your own negotiating because you have established a good rapport with your prospective supervisor, great. If you need some help, the recruiter can help you. Remember, the recruiter is trying to help the parties "to the altar", so he or she will work to satisfy your needs as well as his or her client's needs. It won't work any other way.
Helping the Process
Telling the recruiter where you have already sent your resume will help avoid duplication and wasting their time. If you have interviews already scheduled, let the recruiter know where you are in terms of timing, especially if you are expecting an offer in the near term. Remember that if you treat someone the way you would like to be treated, then the experience should be a positive one for all parties -- you, the recruiter, and the company.