It may not be the most exciting phrase you ever put into a coffee invitation, but the information interview is a critically important part of a successful job search. They’re essential for young professionals trying to establish themselves. They’re also a must for mid- and even late-stage pros considering a career change.
But they’re not as easy as they look. I called Melanie Benwell, managing director at PathWorks Personnel to learn how to prepare for and conduct a successful information interview. She told me that doing this right requires preparation and an understanding of the etiquette that goes with these meetings.
Here are Benwell’s 10 steps to a successful information interview:
- Don’t be shy. Ask for the meeting by phone or email. Be clear about what you want to discuss and why. Tell him or her: I want to learn how to establish myself in the industry. People get these requests often. When they’re asked right, they almost always say yes. “Make it easy for them,” Benwell explained. “Introduce yourself and explain how your background fits with the field they’re in and why it would be beneficial to chat. Outline the purpose of the conversation.”
- Don’t waste your guest’s time. Suggest a 15-minute interview. You might get more than that, but what matters most is that you stick to the schedule you and your guest agree on. When time is up, say something polite like “I know you have to get back to work.”
- Do your research. Prepare a list of strong, relevant questions in advance. Write them down and bring them with you. One of your goals is to learn more about the industry your guest works in, so come to the meeting with a basic understanding of what’s happening in the field, how the economy is affecting it, etc.
- Listen. And take notes. Sounds obvious, right? But it’s a mistake people make all the time. They get nervous during the meeting and focus more on themselves than on the information they’ve come to gather. What’s my next question? Am I dressed right? Does she think I’m smart enough?
- Speaking of how to dress. The business casual workplace has made deciding what to wear a bit complicated. You should dress professionally for your interview. Try to dress about the same as your guest. If you’re not sure, wear a suit. Your only risk is dressing too casually.
- Don’t ask for a job. This is a common mistake. Remember that you’re conducting an information interview, not a job interview. (Bring your resume to the meeting, but don’t offer it unless you’re asked.) Benwell said you should focus on questions like: “What are the skills needed to be successful? What steps would you recommend that I take to get into this industry?”
- Ask for referrals. If the meeting goes well, ask your guest for the names of colleagues you can conduct similar interviews with. Ask for contact information too. It’s up to you to extend those invitations.
- Send a thank-you note. “The sooner the better,” Benwell told me. “There are a lot of career coaches who are big proponents of the hand-written thank-you note. But in today’s modern age, there’s nothing wrong with an email.” Say thanks for the time. Tell your guest that the meeting was valuable to you.
- Offer to pay. These meetings often happen outside the office – coffee shops are common. Offer to buy. Remember, you asked for the meeting. It’s your show. If your guest offers to pay, accept graciously.
- Suggest a phone or Skype meeting if your guest works far away. Many people will actually prefer this because it takes less time. If you’re connecting with someone in a corporate environment, don’t suggest Skype. Their computer probably doesn’t have the software. The in-person interview is better for relationship building. But if that’s not possible, there’s nothing wrong with a call.
PathWorks is a boutique agency that places people in sales, finance, marketing and administrative roles. Not surprisingly, Benwell has seen her share of successful and not-so-successful interviews. “I conducted an interview with a candidate at a restaurant and he ordered a vodka on the rocks,” she said. “It left a bad taste.”