Today’s job hunter faces an increasingly confusing myriad of choices about how to find that next opportunity, from where to search for job openings, to how to create an effective résumé or even where to use it. However, there’s one mainstay of the job market that can pay off in huge dividends for both employers and job seekers: using a recruiter.

While most professionals are aware that recruiters work to fill openings from their client companies, few fully understand exactly how the process works.

Professionals who want to use recruiters as part of their job search strategy should understand a few key points, according to Audrey Spencer of ACBS Resource Management, Inc. A recruiter who specializes in locating candidates suitable for overseas positions, Spencer notes that one of the biggest point of confusion centers around the recruiter’s loyalty to the client company over that of the candidate.

“People often think a recruiter is working for them, and will say ‘That recruiter didn’t do anything for me.’ That’s when I ask – what did YOU pay the recruiter?” Spencer says. A core fact of the relationship, she notes, is that the recruiter is directly fulfilling the needs of the client company—which is also the organization that pays the recruiter’s fees.

For this reason, she says, you will find some recruiters may not respond unless a résumé is a good fit for the job orders on that recruiter’s desk. Her recommendation? Remember that you are your own headhunter and should always put down as much information about your skills as possible. Have a friend or spouse read your résumé to see if they can then describe to what you do in detail.

In addition, she notes, recruiters often look for very specific skills per client request. As an example, Spencer points to her client’s strict requirements for junior-level accountants who are finishing CPA certifications, willing to make a two-year commitment for placement in Bermuda, and meet immigration requirements, with an added plus for those with Sarbanes-Oxley experience.

Spencer offered additional tips on recruiter interaction for job seekers, including:

Remember professional courtesy. When you work with a recruiter, be responsive, returning phone calls in a timely manner, even if it’s only to state that you’re not interested in the position.

Spencer says that you may run across situations where the same recruiter will have a plum job that fits your qualifications in a matter of months—and they will remember your professionalism when it comes to approaching you again. “Recruiters have very long memories,” she says.

In addition, staying in touch over time, perhaps sending a brief communication every few months, can let the recruiter know that you are still in the game while maintaining your network. Don’t forget to ask the recruiter if you can pass along his or her name to other qualified candidates.

Know the difference between retained search and contingency recruiting. Retained search arrangements are established so that the recruiter can work exclusively on that search for the client, where a contingency recruiter is not exclusive to a search, and the client can be working with more than one recruiter. Contingency recruiters, she says, tend to have a higher volume of job orders as well.

Retained recruiters make an estimate of the fee, and bill for a portion of the fee to initiate the engagement from the client. Typically, Spencer says, companies that are looking for very senior–level executives will use retained search consultants or recruiters.

Remember, too, that when it comes to fees for either contingency or retained searches, neither recruiters nor consultants will accept fees from individuals that are looking for jobs.

Target your résumé to the job opening. A general resume, she says, doesn’t tell the recruiter enough about you for them to see a match between your background and the client company’s needs.

“If a recruiter asks you to add some information to your résumé, listen well,” Spencer says, clarifying that there are often years of perspective behind this advice, and recruiters tend to know what employers are looking for.

Remember that what you say online can travel—and fast. Be careful how your opinions are presented, both online and off. Spencer says she has seen blog postings where currently employed professionals ask how to find a contact inside another company.

Don’t assume your employer isn’t reading what you post, she cautions, and be aware of who might be reading the blog, as it is open to many people. She notes that recruiters, in particular, tend to keep in touch with each other and compare notes frequently.

Not all recruiters have access to all jobs. “Just because a company in your area has a job opening doesn’t mean that all recruiters are working with them,” Spencer says. Clients often have a preference for recruiters that they may have worked with in the past.

In other words, contact other recruiters as needed who source candidates in your field. This can expand your network, and help you to spread the word about your search.

Next week: Working With Recruiters, Part III: Finding and Approaching Contacts