Informational Interviews: The Most Underutilized Tool for Job Searching

informational interviewsYou’ve probably heard of it, but how often have you actually used it? The informational interview is a critical piece to your job search, but too few people actually know its purpose or protocol. Informational interviews unfortunately are very underutilized. College graduates are better about using them because their career centers encourage it. I would say that only 50 percent of the time do my career coaching clients know what I’m talking about when I suggest them. It’s time to change that!

There are several things you need to know to correctly use these kinds of interviews as a tool for your job search. For example: How do you set them up? Whom should you interview? What questions should you ask? What should you wear and how should you follow up or continue to stay in touch with the person you’ve interviewed?

First of all, an informational interview is a one-on-one conversation, either in person, over the phone, or on Skype with someone who works in an industry you would like to work in (or are considering as a career possibility). That person may have a job you might like, or simply work within an industry you’re considering. They could also be someone who is employed by a company that you’re interested in learning more about.

These interviews are a great way to decide on your career path, determine your next career moves, focus your aspirations, or figure out if a company/role would be a good fit. They are a way to learn more about what a day is like in the field. You can get that inside perspective before you jump in. For job seekers it’s also a great way to network into an organization. Informational interviews are a great way to practice your interview skills without conducting a formal job interview as well.

Here are a few of the basics to keep in mind:

Start with people you know: Start by reaching out to people within your inner circle, personally and professionally. Friends, family members, and LinkedIn connections are great places to start to identify possible candidates. Contact a suggested person and try to arrange a meeting whether it’s face to face, over the phone, or via Skype. Email is an option, but the least desirable one, so try to arrange a phone meeting, but go with what works best for them. It’s their time; be mindful of it.

Be specific in your request: When asking for their time, be concise and clear about your motivation and intentions. Let them know you are looking for information, not a job! And give them specific questions you would like to have answered during the call. Keep your expectations reasonable; consider asking them for just 10 to 15 minutes of their time to ask five or six questions. I ask my career coaching clients to send their questions in advance, so that the interviewer knows they’re prepared. They may give you more time than just the 15 minutes, which is great. Most people will, just don’t expect or demand more than that.

Follow up: Keep in mind that how you follow up is just as important as how you behaved in the interview itself. And you should always follow up, regardless of whether you feel the job they spoke to you about is a fit for you or not. If you don’t check back at least once, you’ve missed an opportunity to develop a relationship with someone that could be very valuable and useful to you down the line. You don’t have to keep them abreast of every aspect of your job search, but a thank you and a mention of any contact that you had with people they referred you to is critical.

The bottom line is, if you treat people professionally, with respect, care, and an interest in helping them as well, you will have developed a connection that could help you down the line. You never know what can come of these interviews, so handle each one well. You’ll realize you’ve developed a network of connections that can help you with your job search and your professional development along the way.