The difference between American and British staffing agencies

There are some stark differences between the US and the UK – the meaning of the word fanny, tea with or without milk, and the ability to laugh at oneself – and, perhaps not as obviously, in the staffing industry as well. But from a country who broke away from the UK based on some disagreements, perhaps that should be expected.

Photo by David Martyn Hunt: https://flic.kr/p/5A75s3
Milky or builder’s for you then?

Having spent equally 10 years in the suburbs of New York followed by 10 years in the near heart (well, zone 2) of London, and now with Watu clients on both ends, I thought it may be interesting to have a peek into the key differences between the two in their approach to staffing.

The Americans

When an agency’s first question is “Does your software have a limit of staff profiles?”, you know you’re looking big. They’re not asking if we charge for a certain number of staff or are there limited sign ups per day. This question means: I’m going to have a staffing book as big as a small city. Can your software handle that volume?

And this is what happens when nationwide tours mean exactly that. Agencies must cover 3.8 million square miles of potential promotions. That is A LOT of ground. And not just that, but much of it is spread out and not always well interconnected. Travel within the country can be expensive and that means local staff are a necessity.

photo of alabama without event staff
Alabama: Beautiful, empty, and with occasional events.

This has knock-on effects that I believe shape the industry. Of course agencies still want good quality staff, but often, volume is king. Recruitment is less picky, doors swing on hinges allowing most in, and more people are given a chance to work. Interviews are, frankly, quite impossible to carry out in person unless agencies were to have an infinite budget to fly people around or agency representatives stationed in almost every city. Even virtually, when we’re looking at thousands of staff members, the dedication to recruitment would just be too costly.

What’s more, the agency and staff member relationship is a distant one. American clients ask about numbers, performing tasks en-masse, one-click solutions to apply to big groups, and a referral feature because this is the constant battle of US agencies: recruiting more and more staff.

This has led to the emergency of a new type of staffing: white label staffing. Now, software companies like Watu are popping up but with a twist – they come ready-made with staff. Sign up as an agency, change the branding and you have an instant book. White Label Staffing, for example, says it straight up: “WLS software is designed to look as though you have created your own staffing company.” It’s like instant noodles with your own sticker on top. Decide you want it, then be tucking into the steaming bowl mere minutes later.

Rather than agencies carefully guarding and curating their books, White Label Staffing flips this on its head and provides a book of staff to be shared. Agencies can even check staff reviews provided by other agencies.

So if the staff aren’t the distinction, where does the added value come from? I’m yet to have experience with this type of staffing, but I can only suppose it would come from the managers themselves, the way they communicate with clients and staff, the reports they feed back, the efficiency with which they work. And White Label Staffing isn’t the only software company doing so. This trend is on the rise and is buzzing in the staffing-agency-osphere.

The Brits

And now the Brits. Mary Poppins, tea and scones, and stiff upper lips all tucked into 94,000 square miles of drizzly greyness. And within this, a fair number of awesome staffing agencies who value the personal touch and, au contraire to the US, turn away volume to focus on unique quality.

The difference isn’t just noticeable, it’s huge. Feature requests sent through to Watu from British clients focus on the individual; agencies want to track whether someone is brand trained, client approved, great at certain skills. The notes and sign-off sections are full of comments. “Fantastic in the interview”, “Saw Sarah on-site and full of enthusiasm”, or “Lent Johnny a few quid” are, believe it or not, commonly said by UK managers. Almost all agencies require an in-person interview or at least a video submission. The Brits, unlike the American hinge door, have the door to their books locked with a peephole into experience, character, and work history.

The relationship between manager and field staff is crucial. Agencies prefer staff loyalty and for a genuine friendship to develop. This is often brought about by various means though the key is always in demonstrating appreciation for the work done in the field. Sports days, open-invite parties, winners of the month. The staff are the focus of an agency’s efforts because as we all know, happy staff equal happy clients.

And in the UK, this is possible. Those 94k sqm can be covered by one team of staff: one EM and a small group of brand ambassadors, can all be city-hopping via short haul flights and vans. And that translates to that particular team having to be incredible, keeping their energy fresh, and choosing that nationwide tour over other offers of work. Because in such a small space and with so many events, staff often have a choice of which shifts they’d prefer to work. Drastically different to the US, where staff based anywhere other than NY/LA/etc may be lucky if an event comes their way.

I remember writing profiles for brand ambassadors to send across to clients. It would usually read something like “Motivated, brilliantly friendly, and particularly reliable member of staff who is also a part-time actress in Shakespearean plays.” And I meant every word. Chances are, I had personally met, spent time with, and was possibly friends with this staff member.

So whether you’re considering a virtual hop across the pond to open doors on either grounds, or just curious to know what the view is like from those open doors, this is just a glimpse into the other side. With such vast differences between the two types of staffing industries, it appears that being successful in both would take a very different approach – or perhaps, maybe what one provides is what the other is missing? Could boutique staffing take off in the US? Would UK clients accept white label staffing or in fact, would agencies even themselves be comfortable taking on pre-filled books full of strangers’ photos?

Maybe these options are open to all as long as one key point is kept in mind: in the end, no matter what route it takes from client to field staff member, it’s the quality of the staff member and their work in the field that matters. Whether one person of 40,000 on the books, or Joe who is your favourite EM for car brand tours in Scotland, it all boils down to the individual on the ground. And that’s where our focus should stay.

Photo by David Martyn Hunt

Photo by Trish Hartmann

 

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