Good help is hard to find. Here's what you need to know about the four main types of job search services before you sign up.

CAROLYN LYONS HAD been looking for an information technology position when a representative from Barton Industries, a job search service, called last August. He had seen Lyons's resume on an Internet job board and offered to rewrite her CV and cover letter, then send them to thousands of CEOs and CIOs. "It's expensive, but most of our clients pay for it with signing bonuses because they get multiple offers," Lyons recalls him saying.

The 52-year-old former casino IT director, who lives in Spokane, Wash., was skeptical. But after several calls and e-mails from the rep, she relented. "They seemed to have the expertise I needed," she says. For $15,000, Barton would send out 6,000 letters for Lyons.

The result? She says she got one call from a publisher in Virginia who had no jobs. Bruce Scoville, president of Florida-based Barton, says Lyons received four responses, not one. "We provided quality service," he adds. Lyons, who is still unemployed, sees it differently: "They preyed on my fears of never finding a job and played down the fact that what could happen is nothing." When your job search is at a low ebb, the temptation to pay for assistance can be overwhelming. But before you sign up, you should know what you're getting into. Here are the pros and cons of the four main types of career services.

Resume Writing Services
You want a resume that catches a recruiter's eye. But many resume services churn out copies in a standard format that could hurt you. "It's obvious when someone didn't write his resume, and when it comes to sales, marketing and senior-level management people, I have higher expectations," says Dennis Kreiger, a recruiter at New York-based executive search firm Seiden Kreiger Associates. Ask recruiters for tips on improving your resume and take a stab at it yourself.

If your work relies less heavily on written communication skills, a standard resume may be less of a turnoff. Choose a writer who knows your field, and get at least three references from clients at your job level. Consult the Professional Association of Resume Writers & Career Counselors (www.parw.com) or the Professional Resume Writing and Research Association (www.prwra.com). Both require members' resumes meet their standards. A one-page resume costs at least $100; a three-pager, $500.

The Best Career Advice I Ever Got
"In chaos, there's opportunity."
— Sophie Vandebroek, chief engineer, Xerox

"I first heard that from a Chinese friend in college, who was quoting a famous proverb. It's a philosophy that pushes you to embrace change even though everything around you is in crisis. In fact, the Chinese symbol for crisis is written with two characters: One means danger; the other means opportunity. When I started working at Xerox as a researcher in 1991, my team was being moved to another unit and the whole management structure was changing. I looked at the positive side, made some proposals and ended up getting my first management job. This philosophy has applied to Xerox, too. We kept investing during the tough times and launched 17 products last year. Now we're profitable again."

Job Boards
Online job boards, including ExecuNet.com, Netshare.com and ExecutivesOnly.com, offer listings for senior-level managers, as well as networking events, message boards and advice, all for around $50 a month. The listings aren't exclusive to these sites, but you bypass the irrelevant postings on free job boards, such as Monster.com.

You might also get a leg up this way. Chris Shoulet, a Washington, D.C., IT recruiter, says she uses sites such as ExecuNet first: "The candidates are of higher quality. On larger boards, you spend so much time plowing through unqualified resumes, you miss qualified ones."

Career Coaches
If your problem is figuring out what kind of job you want, a career coach can help identify your strengths, suggest careers to research and help you transition into a new field.

That's what Alexandra Duran, a career coach in New York, did for Dana Nash, a 42-year-old former litigation attorney. With Duran's help, Nash realized her interests and skills lay in managing staff and projects. So she took an organizational development course and set up informational interviews with executives. "I have enough contacts now that I can pursue the job hunt," Nash says.

Someone who was recently a corporate executive or recruiter can offer concrete advice on networking, interviews and salary negotiations. Check out the International Coach Federation, whose members have logged at least 250 hours of coaching, at www.coachfederation.org. Most sessions are over the phone and cost $75 to $250.

Career Marketing Services
Also known as retail outplacement firms, career marketing services offer soup-to-nuts job search assistance. They help you choose a field, find employers, rehearse interviews and more. The fee is typically a month's salary at your last job. "These services serve as a support mechanism," says Kreiger, the recruiter in New York. "Many of them have great resources."

But you could run into trouble. A few national outfits, including the oldest, Bernard Haldane, are under fire from several state attorneys general due to mounting complaints from clients.

To find a good service, ask your peers for leads, or call your trade association. Also, try the International Association of Career Consulting Firms, which sets a code of ethics (www.iaccf.com).

Most firms assign you to a consultant after you sign up. But interview them first and get three recent references. Check on companies with the Better Business Bureau and complaint Web sites, such as RipOffReport.com and Execcareer.com. Steer clear of firms that boast insider connections. Warns Robert Davenport, spokesperson for IACCF, "Anyone who says he has access to hiring managers is lying to you."

Spreadsheet
Cash-strapped companies want cheap ways to keep valued employees happy, and the human-resources wizards have answers. But good intentions can backfire.
Organization Proposed Benefit The Upside The Downside
Society for Human Resource Management
Alexandria, Va.
Costume days. Companies with fun work environments report a decrease in employee anxiety and stress. Once CEO shows up in gorilla suit, everyone feels as if they have to go buy a gorilla suit.
WorldatWork
Scottsdale, Ariz.
Give out challenging new assignments. Career advancement and skill development can drive employee retention. Catching on to the new meaning of "reward," entire staff quits mid-December, fearing the holiday "bonus."
Nelson Motivation
San Diego
Name a day after an employee, e.g., "Bob Day." A benefit that makes someone feel special is effective recognition. Bob, mortified, quits job and spends remaining days as a hermit in Montana.