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How to Knock Their Socks Off in a Job Interview

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I'm doing research for a book I'm writing, and as part of my research, I have been interviewing recruiters, both internal recruiters and external recruiters. It has been very interesting and informative, and I greatly appreciate that they take time out of their busy schedules to answer a questionnaire and to speak with me.

In a discussion last week with the head of recruiting for a technology company (we'll call him "Joe" in this post), Joe emphasized that the biggest problem he sees for job seekers is in the interview process.

Unfortunately, Joe frequently sees job seekers who have done all the right things to get to the interview, but then they blow it in their interviews. They get up to bat (the interview), but they strike out rather than hitting a home run.

How does a job seeker avoid striking out? By following this two-step process:

Two Steps to Interview Success

Most employers do not have a shortage of job seekers from which to choose their next employees. To stand out from the crowd of also-rans, successful job seekers use the interview process to showcase their work ethic and to demonstrate their value as an employee.

Here's how:

1. Prepare like you already work there, and the interview is part of your job.

Preparation is a crucial part of being impressive in the interview. Demonstrate interest in this employer and this position by being well-prepared for the interview, hopefully, better prepared than any other job seeker.

This can also be a good way to determine how good a fit the new employer might be for you, so keep that in mind during your research.

What does that preparation involve?

Thoroughly research the employer.

This means looking at the employer's website, and MORE. What do they do? When were they founded? How long have they been in business? How big are they? What are the names of the products and/or services? How do they present themselves? Where are they located? Who are the officers and managers and other people visible on the employer's website?

Do they have jobs posted on their website? If they do, what are they? Do they have a lot of jobs open or a few? Are they hiring in a specific function or location which seems to be growing? Are you interviewing for a job in the function or location which is growing (if any) or in a different function/location? If there is a function or location which seems to be growing, see if you can figure out why. Or add it to your list of questions to ask in the interview.

If they don't have a lot of jobs open, perhaps they have "low turnover" -- people don't leave because they like working there. If they do have a lot of jobs open, perhaps that is a different signal. Or perhaps not. When you go there for the interview, see if you can find out why they have so many -- or so few jobs -- open (if you observe either in your research).

If they have a section of press releases, scan them and read the latest carefully -- and if the latest news was one or two years ago, wonder a little about what is going on there.

Look for a LinkedIn Company Profile (using a "Companies" search). The LinkedIn Company Profile will usually show a summary of contact and industry information including company size (number of employees), industry, headquarters location, and where employees are located. So offices across the globe are highlighted with the number of company employees who are LinkedIn members in each country, region, or city.

Then, put a search engine to work:

  • Look for clues about the company's reputation. Search for "(company name, product, or service) launched" and "(company name, product, or service) announced" for good news. Look for bad signs by searching on "(company name, product, or service) closing" or "(company name, product, or service) discontinued."
  • Who are their competitors? How are they different from/better than their competitors? Search on terms like, "better than (company name, product, or service)" and "similar to (company name, product, or service)" to find that information.
  • How is the organization doing financially? If it is a company with stock traded on a stock market, there should be an annual report plus quarterly financial reports which will show both sales and profitability. So search on terms like "(company name) financial results announced" and "(company name) improved (or declining) profits." Going to a company in shaky financial circumstances may mean a new job search too soon if the company doesn't survive or if it begins laying off employees.

Can you see any opportunities -- or challenges -- that you might be able to help them address? Don't give the impression you think they are dumb when presenting your ideas in the interview. Slip in a comment or two when the opportunity arises that reference a weakness in a competitor's product or service, for example, and how it might be exploited.

Also, do a search on a job aggregator like Indeed.com to see what jobs are open. Do they seem to be opening a new location, a new division or section of the company, or perhaps replacing many middle managers. If you see something that looks extraordinary, see if you can find out what is going on, using Google or your network. Or, perhaps, ask the question in the interview.

Research the people.

Joe said that he always provides the names and titles of the people who will be participating in the interview process. So, at the very least, he expects job seekers to check the LinkedIn Profiles of those people.

If the recruiter doesn't volunteer those names, ask for them when the interview is being scheduled.

Of course, LinkedIn will show the job seeker any common "connections" to the people named, as well as others who work for the employer, and the degree of connected-ness with these people (first, second, or third degree).

Then, look at the individual LinkedIn Profiles of those employees to learn more about them, hopefully to discover ways to "connect" with the people in the interview process:

  • Perhaps you share a former employer, job, or accomplishment with one of the interviewers.
  • Perhaps you share a college or grad school experience or the same degree and a major.
  • Perhaps you share a location with someone involved in the interview process.
  • Perhaps you share a LinkedIn Group with current or former employees -- perhaps a Group for a relevant industry or professional association or a hobby or interest (like a Red Sox Nation fan club or a local biking group).

The job seeker may be able to establish some rapport with one or more interviewers by mentioning a common background, experience, or interest.

And, again, the LinkedIn Company Profile offers invaluable information about the LinkedIn members who work at the company, including where they worked before working for this company. It will also show where employees who left went for their next jobs.

Prepare questions for the interview.

As one recruiter -- not Joe -- wrote, "Don't ask a question in the interview that you could have answered earlier with Google."

Hopefully, some questions will develop as a result of the research into the company and the people, above. Also have some other questions ready to ask. For example:

  • What's the best part about working here?
  • If you could change one thing about this company, what would you change?
  • Where do you see this company in five years?
  • What is a typical day, week, month, or year for the person in this job?
  • What would be the typical next job for the person who has this job? Is there a "career path" for people in this job?
  • (My personal favorite) Where did the last person in this job go -- promotion, lateral, or out?

It's important for job seekers to remember to ask about things that are relevant to their job satisfaction. Speaking from personal experience, it's very painful to go to a job for an employer where you discover you are unhappy working -- the culture, the people, the ethics, or the location are just wrong for you. The job interview is a good place to discover how the employer measures up to the job seeker's requirements.

Be an interested, engaged, focused, and active participant in the interview.

Joe mentioned several times that a job seeker who shows up for an interview without a notebook or some way to take notes makes a very bad impression. Joe and the people in his company expect job seekers to have a list of questions in their notebook (or iPad), and they expect job seekers to take notes, since the interview process often takes two to four hours, including discussions with different interviewers.

Prepare for the standard interview questions:

  • Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • What is your greatest weakness?
  • What is your greatest strength?
  • Tell me a little about yourself.
  • So what do you know about us?

And, of course, the usual advice: turn off your cell phone -- or put it on "silent" -- before the interview starts, don't trash a former employer, don't use bad language, and do demonstrate what an excellent, focused, smart, hard-working employee you would be.

2. "Close the sale" (or at least ask if there are any questions or concerns) at the end of the interview.

Joe felt that closing the sale (asking for the job) at the end of the interview was expected of someone seeking a job in sales. But, he seemed to hope that other job seekers would be similarly interested in getting a job offer at the end of the interview with the hiring manager or at least finding out how well the interview went.

For Joe, closing the sale translates into saying, as the job seeker is preparing to shake hands and leave, something like this "Based on my research and what I've learned here today, I am very interested in this job, working for you. What do you think of me? Am I your top prospect?"

If you are not comfortable closing the sale or the response is not as positive as hoped for, ask what the concerns are (or might be) to see if you can clear up any confusion or miscommunication that may have occurred. And, make note of any concerns so the concerns can be addressed in the follow-up thank you messages.

Ask about the next steps in the process -- when they expect to make a decision, and how many other applicants are being -- or have been -- interviewed. Then, clarify who is the best person to stay in touch with and what is the preferred method and timing for staying in touch, getting the appropriate email address and phone number.

Job seekers who comment here on Work Coach Cafe about post-interview problems often reference not having the appropriate contact information when they get home, complicating the follow-up thank you notes process. So, to avoid that problem, collect a business card from each person -- or take the time to make a note of email addresses and phone numbers to use during the follow up process.

Your Mileage May Vary

Not every recruiter is Joe and not every organization expects what Joe and his company wants from job seekers. What is clear from Joe and all the other recruiters I'm interviewing is that you need to have a very scarce and very highly-sought-after set of skills and experiences to walk into an interview unprepared, and expect to impress anyone or get a job offer. Smart job seekers bring their "A-game" to their job search, and, particularly, to an interview.

Bottom line: be prepared -- to impress!

Susan P. Joyce is president of NETability, Inc. and the editor and chief technology writer for Job-Hunt.org. This piece first appeared on workcoachcafe.com, where Susan is an editor and writer.