While outlining this post, I realized that most of the tips discussed here apply to interviews in general (including job interviews), as well as to professional interviews for case studies, so I have discussed both. I also realized that, even though I have done hundreds of interviews, my tactics always had two aims – to gather the information I needed and to help me control my nerves. I always suffer from “stage fright,” perhaps because I understand how many things can go wrong and I have learned to live with that reality.
Getting the Details Right – Time and Place
Being on time for a job interview or for a case study interview is critical, and this is not as easy as it seems. I once practiced driving to a job interview in Long Island from New Jersey – on a Sunday. When I drove to the actual interview on Tuesday, it took me two hours longer, and needless to say, I did not get the job. Customers have stood me up for case study interviews also, sometimes multiple times.
Most of the case study interviews I have done in the last decade have been on the phone with customers in Europe or Asia Pacific, which brings up a whole new problem – time zones. A convenient site for calculating meeting times is the World Time Server, which can automate your negotiations for a time agreeable to everyone.
I also always give an estimate of how long the case study interview should last. I ask my customer contact to reserve an hour, but generally interviews take from 30 to 40 minutes and sometimes less.
How Many Participants? But I Am the Boss!
The more experienced I became with case study interviews, the more open I was to having multiple people sit in. However, I always politely make it clear to everyone that I am running the interview, and that I would leave time for the other participants to ask questions during and at the end of the interview.
If I am dealing with several different customers, I try to schedule separate interviews since dealing with the sometimes competing interests of multiple companies (for example, an end customer, an agency providing customization services, and a distributor) makes for a very long interview. Generally, I prefer three people on a call – myself, the customer representative, and someone from marketing at the company I am working for. I have had very few interviews where the customer wanted another person from their company on the call, but if they did, it was usually someone more technical.
Job interviews can also involve multiple people. I had one job interview where I spoke with each member of the department, the manager, the marketing channel manager, and the web manager. The interview took more than five hours, but luckily we all liked each other and everyone seemed to genuinely like the company they were working for, so the time was well spent.
May I Tape?
I always tape my case study interviews, and no one has ever refused me permission, although I shut the tape off (and say I am doing it) if we get to a sensitive area that is not critical to the case study, or on request. I also usually take some sketchy notes by hand, which helps me concentrate, and I sometimes jot down additional questions. Having a pen in hand might also help in job interviews, if, like me, you tend to think ahead and talk over the interviewer when you are nervous.
I generally run two tape recorders – one digital and one old-fashioned cassette – both of which I always test before each interview (remember the batteries!). If you spend all your time taking detailed notes, you will miss host of what is said.
Shut up and Listen
I may have mentioned earlier in these posts that the hardest thing I had to learn was to listen intently. The keys are doing enough research, which helps you to focus, and to a lesser extent, experience. Listening intently and recording the interview will give you the freedom to add questions spontaneously, since you are more likely to be having a friendly conversation with the person you are interviewing, allowing you to probe for facts and opinions you could not have anticipated.
Research gives you confidence, both in case study and in job interviews, where it only takes a few minutes to look up your interviewer on LinkedIn and to find out something about how the company views itself from its website. More sensitive information can be found by googling the company or from financial statements. I spend up to three hours on research for a case study interview, but even an hour can bring rich results, and spending that much time on job interview research is well worth the investment also.
Make People Sound Like Heroes
You can never go wrong by making your customer sound like a hero – someone who made the right decision by buying your company’s product – and if the customer had not had a positive experience, he or she would not have agreed to do the case study so you will not be stretching the truth.
Staying positive in a job interview is also critical. Since you are interviewing, it is obvious that you are not happy with your current job, and there is no reason to be negative and, worse yet, sarcastic about your current job situation. If you lost your job, make sure you are ready with a plausible explanation.
End with a Timetable
I always end a case study interview with a review of what will happen next – how soon the customer will receive a draft to review, for example, and the process to come involving legal review, layout, and web posting.
In job interviews, your interviewer will generally say that they are interviewing other candidates, and you can always counter that you are also looking into other possibilities (if you have other interviews, you can say so openly, depending on how well you thought the interview went).
If you are interested in the position, you should say so honestly and add why you would be a good fit. Sending a thank-you email is always a good idea, which will give you another opportunity to explain why you would be a good fit for the job.
On the other hand, if someone is asking you to do the work of four people for the salary of one, smile politely and say you will get back to them, which should help you wiggle out of making a commitment.