by Mark Cummuta

Eight Steps to Successful Informational Interviews

Aug 21, 20085 mins

Several readers have emailed asking about Informational Interviews. Today we’re going to discuss how to use this method to perform in-depth research and analysis on your target companies.

Informational interviews are simply conversations you have with knowledgeable people to learn more about an industry, a firm or even a specific opportunity. In effect, you are conducting the interview.

These can be very informal, say with friends at a summer BBQ party, or they can be more formal: You might have a detailed checklist of specific questions at a scheduled meeting. Personally, I have had significant success with short, directed calls and emails or meetings over a cup of coffee.

In addition to verifying key facts, informational interviews are especially useful for learning about “insider” information within a firm.

For example, one of the most difficult yet critical characteristics to gather about a firm is its culture. There rarely exists a public definition for a company’s culture, yet the idiosynchroties of a firm’s personality have tripped up more than one executive, including myself.

At one private firm, I questioned why the cleaning lady was allowed to clean the board room during major client meetings. My tenure with that firm was abruptly ended because that lady was a personal family friend of the founder and one of their first employees.

In addition to learning about a firm’s culture, informational interviews are also an ideal source for researching company organizational structure, names of key personnel and projects, hiring strategies, etc.

Here are my top eight (8) recommendations for successful informational interviews.

1. Research the company or industry thoroughly using all your existing resources – their website, industry trade magazines and conferences, public financial and audit reports, stock and analysis sites, etc.

2. Based on that research, identify the gaps in your knowledge about that firm that you need.

[For example, company culture, corporate heirarchy, internal power centers, growth strategies, names of key managers you’re interested in meeting, internal promotions vs external hires, planned or in-process re-organizations/mergers/acquisitions, rumors, personnel training opportunities, policies and benefits, strengths and weaknesses, etc.]

3. Then develop two to three specific questions you want to ask someone, plus one or two common opinion questions that you should ask everyone (to get a rounded picture).

4. Use LinkedIn to identify and research the company’s executives and relevant managers, by name, looking for relationship builders. Be sure to look for both current employees and ones who have recently left the company.

— The more common references you have with someone (like alma mater, military service branch, prior firm or boss), the easier it will be to schedule an informational interview and to develop a quick rapport with them.

Contact each with a brief email, either directly, through LinkedIn, or by warm introduction. [I recommend not calling to start, since that puts them on the spot.] Introduce yourself, let them know how you know of them, and ask them for “no more than 10 – 15 minutes” of their valuable time. [Such a short time commitment allows them to fit you into their schedule easier, and is much harder for them to say no to.] In the email, be sure to give them the top one or two questions you really need their assistance with and explain why. And make sure they know you will make yourself completely available at their convenience to talk.

5. At the meeting or on the call, be sure to thank them at the start and end. And be doubly sure to END ON TIME or even sooner. Many times, if you are gracious, polite and honestly interested in them, they will almost always offer to talk more – either now or at another time. Take their lead.

6. Take very good notes and be sure to verify exact wording and context for any quotes and ideas they offer.

7. At the end of the interview, ask them for any final thoughts, recommendations, and/or others you should talk to, in or out of the organization regarding _____ (reiterate what position you’re interested in, and your key questions).

8. Be sure to follow up with them within 24 hours with a hand-written card and provide any detailed information or documents you promised them.

One more point. You wouldn’t be researching a firm if you weren’t interested in it. So in conducting your informational interviews, you need to be as professional as you would be in your interview. Why? Because not only will word get out that you are researching the company (ideally with the added, “and they’re asking great questions”!!), but also because the individuals you speak to may be hiring managers, as well. [Need I say, “Hint, hint”, or is that enough targeting criteria to assist with point #3 above?]

But at the same time, you don’t want to seem like you are hunting them down. For that reason, if you are meeting someone in person for your informational interview, I recommend not bringing your resume with you. Some job search counselors disagree. But I feel that if you bring your resume, then you’re going to look for ways to give it to them. Smart executives will see right through that, and highly likely shut down your conversation. This is information gathering, first and foremost; if by chance you make a great impression with someone, then that is just icing on the cake. So if they ask for your resume, you can politely and honestly respond that you did not want to appear to be looking for an interview. Of course, if the’re really interested, then by all means, forward them your resume immediately, customized to the needs they identified in the informational interview.

Has anyone else used informational interviews to research a potential employer? Or, has someone contacted you to conduct an informational interview? What happened? What advice can you add ?

I look forward to hearing your stories and suggestions!

Mark Cummuta