The Secret of Successful Networking: The Informational Interview

Informational interviews are an effective way to build a business network.

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Arnie Fertig
Arnie Fertig
"I'm out of work, and need a job—fast!" relates a desperate job hunter to his friend.

"So… what have you been doing so far?" she responds.

"I'm networking like crazy! I'm calling everyone I know and saying: HELP ME!"

The friend continues to probe, "And how's that working out for you so far?"

"Not so well. No one seems to be getting back to me. No one is listening to what I need from them. So much for all this networking baloney I keep hearing about!"

The problem is not that networking doesn't work. The problem is that this job hunter isn't actually networking. He is floundering around and putting his immediate needs in front of building solid relationships.

In fact, last year approximately 60 to 70 percent of all those who found new employment were successful because of their networking efforts. Networking isn't, "Hi, what can you do for me?" but rather: "Hi. Let's get to know each other. What can I do for you?" It's about giving to get, paying it forward, and building relationships.

We network all the time, whether we realize it our not. We have the networks of our families, neighbors, social groups, religious organizations, clubs, activities, alumni associations, and many more. And then, there are our business networks: current and former co-workers, suppliers/vendors, professional peers, industry contacts, etc. Everyone we know, in one way or another, is a part of our network.

Most people are more than happy to help out someone they know, and even others referred to them by someone they know. But few enjoy being taken advantage of in the process.

The classic and most effective way of building a business network for job hunters is to engage in the process of embarking on many informational interviews. Ask for 15 to 20 minutes of someone's time—and stick to it. Prepare during this interchange to describe your accomplishments, and be eager to learn about the person with whom you are speaking.

Questions to ask during an informational interview:

  • Tell me about your career path. How did you get to where you are today?
  • Tell me about your company. What are the significant opportunities and challenges you are facing?
  • Tell me about your industry. What is the competition like? Who are the key players?
  • What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were entering this field, but didn't?
  • Based on what you know about me, do you think that I'm being realistic in my hopes and job hunt?
  • Who are the two or three people you know that you think I should speak with? Would you please give them a call and ask them to give me a bit of their time?
  • Sometimes, the person you are with will change the interview mid-course into a job interview and talk about a specific role in their company. But remember: this is always his or her discretion, and not yours. You are there to ask for information, advice, and to be connected to others—but NOT to ask for a job.

    It is always a good idea to be an active listener. Remember that part of your message is always unspoken. You convey a great deal through non-verbal communication. Focus on the speaker, smile, and maintain eye contact. Let your facial expression and body language show interest in what the person you are with has to share with you. Lean forward a bit, with your arms uncrossed.

    Remember that an informational interview is about sharing information, and it goes both ways. Perhaps you have insights that you can convey that you have gleaned from other interchanges you have had, your reading, and your own observations. You may well have information "outside the silo" that the person who has a job finds him or herself in day to day.

    You never know when the tables will be turned. Be certain to offer your assistance to the person you are with—now, or at any time in the future.

    Keep the conversation going. Be sure to write a prompt follow-up thank you note and keep the person abreast of your progress. Take the time again to write another note of appreciation after you meet with each of the people you were referred to, when you land a job, and from time to time thereafter.

    It would be great if everyone who needed a job could snap their fingers and it would appear. But the reality is, most of the time it just doesn't happen that way. Finding a job IS a job. And that job requires the development and proper use of strong networks. While it may seem difficult at first, the more you do it, the easier and more satisfying it will become.

    Happy hunting!

    Arnie Fertig is the head coach of JOBHUNTERCOACH.COM, where he utilizes his extensive background in HR Staffing and as owner of a recruiting company to help mid-career job-hunters land their next job. Arnie provides one-to-one coaching services to individuals throughout the U.S. in all aspects of the job hunt, including: resume writing, personal branding, utilizing social media, enhancing networking skills, preparing for interviews, and negotiating compensation.