The Informational Interview: It’s Just About Having Coffee
By Jennifer Vancil
As career development professionals, we take the concept of an informational interview for granted. But when we recommend that our clients conduct these interviews, do they really know what it means? It sounds a lot like asking for a job interview and it certainly feels like a big thing to ask. Requesting a meeting with someone they barely know (or don’t know), when they aren’t sure if there is a job available or whether they would be a good fit for a position that might be available, is enough to send most job-seekers back to the online job boards to continue sending resumes into the void. I often get the client response, “I don’t feel comfortable selling myself.” But an informational interview is not a sales call or an interview. It’s much more akin to a first date.
Having Coffee, or a First Date…
The responsibility of the career professional is to lower the stakes for the client and remove the fear. “It’s just having coffee,” I tell them. “You don’t even need to bring a resume. Bringing a resume to an informational interview is like bringing a wedding ring on a first date, just in case. It puts too much pressure on that first meeting.”
Sure, the goal of the meeting is to have a conversation that leads, eventually, to finding a great job in a career field that you are excited about. And the goal of a first date is to eventually find the person you want to marry and raise a family with. But you don’t talk marriage before you’ve gotten to know each other and it’s the same in an informational interview – you’re not at the commitment stage yet.
Lowering the Stakes
The key to getting clients to conduct informational interviews without fear is to explain that it’s about making conversation and asking questions, not trying to “sell” themselves. Coaching clients that the purpose of the meeting is to gather information about a person’s career field, about their company, and about how they got to where they are lowers the stakes and the fear. The client simply tells the person, “I’m interested in learning more about you and your company. Would you be willing to meet with me for 20 minutes?” Coffee, not dinner. Low stakes. No commitment.
And when they meet, the client should be genuinely interested in the other person. He or she needs to understand that in this meeting the focus is not about the client and his or her needs. The discussion should center on the person they are meeting. Most clients feel much less afraid if the career professional explains their goal is to simply meet the person and ask them questions to get to know them. No selling involved. And as a bonus, they have permission to ask for advice.
Taking the Pressure Off
The truth is, people love to talk about themselves. And they are genuinely flattered and honored that someone would take the time to learn about them and express interest in their work and how they came to do that work. Someone who asks good questions is considered engaging and interesting – just the kind of person they would like to work with. Someone who is genuinely curious about them and open to advice would make a wonderful colleague.
More often than not, this conversation leads to a great referral, to insider information about the company or upcoming projects or positions, or gives the client an important piece of advice about training needed or how to market him- or herself in the field. If the pressure is off and it’s not a marriage proposal too soon, they just might get to have dinner later and continue the conversation. And when the stakes are low, the rewards are great.
Helping clients take the fear out of informational interviewing by lowering the stakes just might be the key to a match made in heaven.
Jennifer Vancil, M.Ed.,coaches graduate business students and alumni in the College of Business Career Management Center at Colorado State University. A candidate for the Global Career Development Facilitator certification, she holds a Master’s degree in Adult Education from the University of Alaska Anchorage. As faculty for the online MBA Career Management course, she oversees the curriculum and provides consultation to mid-career professionals seeking to advance themselves and business executives making career changes. She speaks publicly on the topics of personal branding and social media, informational interviewing, effective networking, resume writing, and job offer negotiation, and assists graduate and undergraduate students in job search strategies. She may be contacted at 970-491-2214 or Jennifer.firstname.lastname@example.org.