Categorized | Career

The Art of the Informational Interview

Posted on 20 November 2008

Just imagine: You go to the employer of your choice, you ask key questions, but you don’t ask them directly for a job. That’s called an “informational interview,” and it is a terrific job search tactic. It can provide you with advice, industry information, and key contacts–perhaps even that top position you secretly covet.

“While one out of every 200 resumes–some studies put the number as high as 1,500 resumes–results in a job offer, one out of every 12 informational interviews results in a job offer,” says Katharine Hansen, author of A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way Into the Hidden Job Market. “That’s why informational interviewing is the ultimate networking technique, especially considering that the purpose of informational interviewing is not to get job offers.”

Take Kevin Dugan, a senior public relations consultant at HSR Business to Business in Cincinnati. To crack the PR market in his area, Dugan conducted informational interviews with local PR firms. He kept in touch with the contacts he created and, six months later, one of the interviews turned into a job. Now, as an employer, Dugan eagerly grants informational interviews to PR hopefuls.

It’s more informative to interview someone who simply holds the kind of job you’d like to have.

Play the P.I.
Find out everything you can about the companies you’d like to interview. The best sources for researching companies are business and executive directories such as Hoover’s Handbook of American Business, Dun’s Regional Business Directory, and the Job Bank series. There are a number of resources online offering the same information.

Choose Your Targets
Your first urge may be to contact someone as high up in the company food chain as you can. Squelch that urge. “Sometimes it’s more informative to interview someone who simply holds the kind of job you’d like to have,” says Hansen. “That’s especially true for college students who can benefit from interviewing recent grads with entry-level jobs.”

Write It Right
Now’s the time to put fingers to keyboard and compose the letter that will open doors for you in your chosen field. There are several keys to writing a letter that gets results:

  • Let the employers know that you’re interested in their professional experience and advice. “There’s nothing in it for them but a plug for their ego,” Dugan says, “someone saying ‘I really value your opinion.’”
  • Tell the employers how you got their name. “Having someone refer you to prospective informational interviewees is a great way to get your foot in the door,” adds Hansen.
  • Stress in your letter that you want to meet for only a short time–a half hour at the most.
  • Assure the employers that you’re not looking for a job in this interview.
  • Depending on your situation, offer to do the interview in person, on the phone, or by e-mail.
  • Tell the recipients that you’ll contact them to follow up and set the appointment.

Follow up
Follow-up calls can be scary, but bite the bullet and ring up your potential interviewees to remind them of your request. Have a practiced message ready, just in case you’re put through to the employer’s voicemail.

Prepare for the Inquisition
Write out a list of questions that show you’ve done your research. Dugan used two tiers of questions. First came the normal job-related questions, asking about a typical workday and other things. The industry-related questions were next. “I’d ask about current events, what did they think about this, what caused that to happen,” says Dugan. “It shows you’re interested in the industry.”

Break a Leg
All the usual interview advice applies: Dress like you work there, exude confidence, bring your finely honed resume (if you have a good rapport, you can always ask the interviewee to look it over with a critical eye). Feel free to ask for referrals, but as much as it pains you to do so, you must refrain from asking for a job. “The minute you ask for a job in an informational interview, you have betrayed yourself as duplicitous since you initially requested the interview based on the premise of obtaining information only,” says Hansen. Use the informational interview for what it is: a means of gathering information on a company or industry.

Keep the Fires Burning
Follow up on your informational interview with a thank-you letter, so you’ll always remain in the employer’s mind as “that nice guy/gal who sent the thank-you letter.” And try to get in touch with your contacts at least once a year so their memory of you doesn’t fade. Send them progress reports, holiday cards, articles, or news clippings of special interest to them.

Even after you land a job, keep on interviewing. Informational interviewing keeps you in practice, expands your contact network in your industry, and is a good precaution in today’s economic slowdown.

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