There are first interviews, second interviews, phone interviews, lunch interviews, and group interviews; all of which have purposes and best practices. And then there's the bedrock interview of job searching: the informational one. Too bad so few people actually know its purpose or protocol.
"Informational interviews are very underutilized," says Hallie Crawford, a certified career coach and the founder of the career coaching service Create Your Own Career Path. "People don't know about them and they don't use them. College graduates are better about using them because their career centers encourage it. But I would say that only 50 percent of the time do my clients know what I'm talking about when I suggest them."
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So how do you seek one out? Whom should you interview and what questions should you ask? What should you wear and how should you follow up? This rundown helps clear up the most-asked questions regarding informational interviews:
Why to Do Them
So first off, what is an information interview?
An informational interview is a one-on-one conversation with someone who has a job you might like, who works within an industry you might want to enter, or who is employed by a specific company that you're interested in learning about. These interviews are excellent options for plotting a career path or focusing your aspirations. "It's a way to learn more about what a day is like in the field," Crawford says. "You can get that inside perspective before you jump in. And for job seekers it's a good way to network into an organization."
"It's also helpful for a third purpose," Crawford continues. "It's a good way to practice your interview skills without conducting a formal job interview."
Because they're preliminary in nature, informational interviews are also useful for someone who knows what type of job they want but is still at the beginning of his or her search. "The key words are advice and information," says Andrea Kay, a career consultant and author of the book Life's a Bitch and Then You Change Careers. "And I think there's a third piece to conducting this meeting. You want to make a great impression that helps position you as someone that an employer would love to have at their company or who they could inevitably refer to other people."
"People like to hire people that they know, that they like, and that they trust," adds Kay. "Let's say you're talking to Joe. Joe is hooked into his community, into his business, and his industry. So he may know of jobs. He may not know of any openings when you first meet him, but a couple of weeks away, a month later, a year later, he may know of one."
Regardless of Joe's connections, the one thing this interview isn't supposed to be used for is seeking a specific position. "You're not there to influence them to hire you, but to get advice, and to explore your questions." Kay advises.
How to Do Them
For some people, the hurdle of an informational interview isn't understanding its purpose, but going about arranging one. After all, if you're at this early stage, you probably have limited means of approaching industry-specific contacts. Those in the know say the first and easiest solution to this problem is to speak with people within your inner circle. Friends, family members, and LinkedIn connections might know of appropriate sources. See if you can contact a suggested person through email, telephone, mail or otherwise to try to arrange a meeting.
If none of those tactics seem feasible, Crawford suggests a bolder approach. "If you're really stuck, you could contact people cold. I've had one client who was looking to be a medical illustrator, and so she went through the alphabet of an association membership roster," she recalls.
Veer away from contacting human resources employees, since their standard answer will be to send a resume, Crawford says, and keep in mind that a company executive might have limited time for face-to-face meetings. You're best option would be to "find someone within the role you're hoping to fill, or one-step above that, who is close to a hiring manager," Crawford suggests.
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."
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."
The frequency with how often you make contact has to do with where you are in a job hunt. "If you're in the throes of a job search, you might want to touch base once a week. But if you're in career exploration mode, then you could touch base once a month. You want to find a good balance ... there's a fine line between following up and being a stalker."
"If you treat people with care you will develop good, trusting, long-lasting relationships," Kay adds. "And then even if they can't help you, they'll probably refer you to someone."