When search partners stop providing candidates…

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When search partners stop providing candidates
We retained an executive search firm for one of our senior openings about 4-5 months ago. Early on there was a lot of progress and activity.  We’ve interviewed about 8 candidates but unfortunately we didn’t feel any were the right fit for us.  Candidate flow has significantly decreased from the firm but they tell us they are still working on it. Should still be relying on them to fill the search?
I’m a fan of transparency and believe your search partner should be upfront with you about progress, current activity and future focus.  My guess is that there is little to no benefit to the firm telling you that they are either no longer working on the search or have significantly scaled back their efforts. It might help you if I quickly share details about the candidate sourcing process.
Sourcing list – 2-3 weeks
Once a search gets started, a researcher/recruiter/partner will own the process of developing a target candidate list.  This list is developed using the firm’s internal database, external referrals and sites like Linkedin.  The search professional is reviewing each target candidate against the position description to make sure that there is alignment between the individual’s level, skill set and the company requirements.  The search professional also filters potential candidates out based on prior assessments, location, career trajectory, etc.
The large firms tend to wait until they have a fairly robust list before reaching out to candidates.  The list size really depends on a number of factors but can be around 150-200 individuals. It can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks in order to build the initial list.
Candidate contact – 2-3 weeks
Once the target list is built, a search professional begins reaching out to each individuals.  Approach differs by firm in terms of who reaches out and how they contact the individual.  Some firms contact people directly on cell phones or office lines, others use email for the initial contact.  During this phase of the process, the search professional is having conversations with individuals who reply to the reach-out message.
If an individual replies with an interest, typically the individual goes through the following:
Search firm phone screen – typically to ensure high-level alignment against the role and address candidate questions and concerns 
Search firm assessment – a detailed review of skill set, career path and compensation
Resume review / fine-tune –  the resume is cleaned-up as it may have been some time before the individual last applied for a role.
All the above steps could take a few weeks to accomplish, especially given the candidate’s work and personal requirements nowadays.  So from the time that the search firm reaches out to the first person on the list to the time that they are in position to submit their first candidate, it could be 3-5 weeks.
Normally a search firm wants to get through their initial list as quickly as possible. Between 1st and 2nd round reach out messages, a firm wants to get through the 150-200 names within the first month.  
If the individual who eventually gets hired is on the initial list, chances are that he/she was contacted in the first 30 days, and completed the search firm assessment phase and resume rewrite within the following 14-21 days.
Refine the list – another 4-6 weeks
Sometimes search firms need to add to their sourcing list if their initial slate of candidates are not hitting the mark.  In such a case, it may take another few weeks to build another list, another few weeks to reach out, and a further few weeks to be in position to present a candidate.  
If the search firm is unsuccessful in this second sourcing phase, they may be make the decision to slow down efforts on the search as they may have higher priority searches or are unwilling to make ongoing significant investment to the search.  While I don’t agree with ever giving up on a search, there are many firms who rationalize that decision.
The bottom line is to ask for a direct and honest update from the search firm so you can determine your course of action for getting the role filled.