What Is an Informational Interview Anyway?

The whys, hows, and whats on this underutilized, career-networking tactic.

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When sending your request, make sure to be concise but clear about your motivation. "The biggest mistake people make at this stage is not customizing what they say," Kay says. "People don't do a good setup, and aren't clear about their objective, so they don't give the listener enough information to want to help them."

Kay recommends following a script that reads along these lines: "I'm here because Suzy Smith thought you'd be a good person to talk to to get information about the landscaping business. I know you've been doing this for 20 years, and I'm thinking about entering the profession. I think I could benefit from your background, knowledge, and experience, and I'd like to ask some questions."

Crawford thinks it's appropriate to specify how many questions and exactly how much time you're requesting. "Keep your expectations reasonable," she says. "Consider asking them for just 10 to 15 minutes of their time to ask five or six questions. And I prefer when my clients send the questions along in advance, so that the interviewer knows you're prepared."

Warm and lukewarm contacts (in other words, professional contacts who are close friends or friends of friends) might be agreeable to a longer meeting over lunch or coffee. However, you can expect most meetings to take place in the office or over the telephone. "When making your request, tell them that in person would be great, but that over the phone is fine," Crawford says. "Let them have some control over what will work best."

What to Do in Them

Now what to do? It would be a shame to ace all the initial steps only to botch everything on interview day. To start on the right foot, Crawford recommends dressing the way you would for a formal job interview. This might mean a dark suit and tie for a corporate office, or some slacks and a button-down shirt for a more-casual workplace. She also advises you bring copies of your resume, a generic cover letter, any work portfolio you have, and some spare business cards.

Be prepared to ask questions about a typical work day, the corporate culture, the management style, and industry trends. And cue up responses on your personal career plans, your experience, and your skills. "Don't expect people to be your human encyclopedias," Kay says. "Do your own research, and be sure to ask questions that you couldn't have answered on your own. Even better, go into the meeting with questions that only that specific person can answer." Stay away from questions on salaries—you can find that information online for yourself—and instead focus on industry trends.

Above all, keep in mind that your goal is to come away with more information—not a job offer. "Some people don't have a clear goal when they go in," Kay says. "Your goal is to influence [the interviewer] to know you, to like you, and to want to refer you. When people stray from this and have this hope in the back of their mind for a job, they tend to blow it."

[See 7 Signs You Bombed Your Interview.]

What to Do After Them

Take a breath and give yourself a pat on the back if you've made it all the way through successfully setting up and conducting an informational interview. But also know that how you follow up is just as important as how you behaved in the interview itself. And you should always follow up—even if you're disinterested in pursuing the lead any further. "I'd say 99 percent of the time an interviewer doesn't hear back from someone they gave an informational interview to," Kay guesses. "And you feel used if that happens. You've missed out on the opportunity to develop a relationship with someone."

"If you're not interested in the company or the field, you should still send a quick thank you. An email will suffice," says Crawford. "But if you are interested, then your tone and the frequency of your follow up will change. Send an email first, but I really like handwritten notes, also. Be sure to say that you want to stay in touch, and ask them what's the best way to do that."