by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Lots of great tools are available for researching companies -- especially with the ease of using the Internet for conducting company research (see our guide to researching companies). But can you imagine a better way to research a company than to visit that company and talk to people who work there? Can you conceive of a better way to gain inside information that will help you with your job search? Visiting companies and talking to people who work there is the idea behind informational interviewing.
Informational interviewing, a subset of networking, is just what it sounds like -- interviewing designed to produce the information you need to determine if a given employer is a good fit for you and to break into that company. It involves spending time in a focused conversation that provides key information you need to boost your career or launch a new one. The term "informational interviewing" was invented by Richard Nelson Bolles, author of the best-selling career book, What Color Is Your Parachute? Bolles refers to the process as "trying on jobs to see if they fit you." He notes that most people screen jobs and companies after they've already taken a job, while informational interviewing gives you the opportunity to conduct the screening process before accepting a position.
An informational interview is not the same as a job interview, but it is probably the most effective form of networking there is, as well as probably the most effective way to research employers. A job-seeker who conducts informational interviews with several companies may discover an excellent fit within an organization's culture and decide that would be a wonderful company to work for. The job-seeker can then glean the information needed to develop a strategy for entering the career and organization of choice.
Informational interviewing is one of the best ways to research companies because of the depth and quality of information the practice provides. Those who conduct informational interviews learn about the needs of the company or department that is the subject of the interview. Armed with knowledge about these needs, the job-seeker can later approach the company with a description of how he or she can meet the needs.
The job-seeker can also gain valuable insider knowledge about how to break into and succeed in the chosen company or companies. Consider a future job interview in which your competition is someone who has conducted an informational interview with someone in the company at which you're both interviewing (and you haven't). Which one of you do you think will have the edge in the job interview?
You may also learn about the existence of unpublicized job openings within the company through informational interviewing. That's what happened to Jerry Falco, director of the Career Development Center at Lycoming College. "I got my first job after college in a matter of days through networking," Falco recalls. "My girlfriend's sister was dating a pharmaceutical salesman. I called for an informational interview. The salesman gave me the district manager's name and number. The salesman had just announced his plan to continue his education full-time, and a replacement was needed. I did not know this when I called. I called the district manager and arranged a meeting for the next morning. I was offered the job less than a week later."
You can learn more about the logistics and mechanics of informational interviewing in our Informational Interviewing Tutorial. See also a special set of Informational Interviewing Questions that Facilitate Company Research.
One of the most powerful aspects of informational interviewing is the opportunity the practice affords to find out about the employer's needs. Every need discovered is an opportunity. During your informational interviewing, be alert to company weaknesses, problems you could solve, gaps you could fill, situations you could improve. In seeking members of their workforce, after all, employers look for those who can fulfill their needs. Informational interviewing gives you an opportunity to uncover and tap into an organization's needs -- often even before the company has planned to fill the need. It's a priceless technique because you not only describe yourself as the perfect person to meet the need, but you make yourself a shining star in the employer's eyes for showing concern for the firm's well-being. You put yourself on the team.
Following are cover letter samples that show how to use the needs-fulfillment approach of conducting employer research using informational interviews:
Sample Informational Interviewing Needs-Fulfillment Letter #1
1201 Heddison Rd.
Hollywood, FL 33022
March 30, 2012
1111 Pine Way
Pembroke Pines, FL 33022
Dear Mr. Zwanger:
I enjoyed chatting with you last week during our informational interview. I recall our discussion about the difficulties you've been having in meeting your production schedules. I've been giving considerable thought to your dilemma and have come up with some ideas. I wondered if we might be able to get together again so I can share my thoughts with you.
As you know, I am foreman at Supplee and Co. I've developed a highly effective scheduling system; we have not missed a deadline in seven years. I'd really like to bring the scheduling success I've developed there to Eastwood.
I'll give you a call next week to see if we can arrange a time to continue our conversation.
Sample Informational Interviewing Needs-Fulfillment Letter #2
4455 South Coast Hwy
Laguna Beach, California 92651
949/555-4894 or 949/555-4397
March 25, 2012
959 Orlando Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Dear Ms. Stevens:
Andrea Kirkwood suggested I contact you about a position in your real-estate office. When I interviewed Ms. Kirkwood six months ago to obtain information about a career in real estate, she mentioned that the agency would like to enhance its Web presence and bring it in-house. I'd like to combine my interest in real estate with my knowledge of Web design and HTML programming to help you create a Webmaster position in your office. I've even sketched out some preliminary ideas on how your Website could be improved, and I'd love to get together and show them to you.
While I have recently begun training for my real estate license, I've been art director/graphic artist at PacificWeb for more than two years, having begun my Internet designing career by working with numerous local and national companies. With these assignments, I've more than proven my creative problem-solving abilities.
I am convinced that it would be mutually beneficial for us to meet so I can show you my ideas for your Website. I will contact you in 10 days to arrange an interview. Should you have any questions before my call, please don't hesitate to contact me. Thanks so much for your consideration.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.