By Neil Patrick
If you think you know how to prepare for a job interview, think again. A recent survey of employers by job site Careerbuilder.com found that 39% of jobseekers failed because they didn’t properly research the company they were being interviewed by.
Whilst it might seem an obvious point that research is a key part of proper interview preparation, there’s a powerful secret extra benefit to doing this which I’ll reveal in a moment.
As Monster.co.uk points out, "Nothing is as disappointing as when a candidate oozes enthusiasm and then doesn't even know the most basic facts and figures about a company."
What’s more, in this digital age where so much information is freely available online, companies expect you to do this. There really is no excuse not to anymore.
What you need to know
Naturally, your aim is to appear knowledgeable about the company, its market position, plans for the future and the particular role you're applying for. With smaller employers especially, you should also reassure yourself that the company is financially sound.
It's also valuable to know about the culture within the company and a little about the person who’s interviewing you. You might just discover that you have connections, background or interests in common.
At the very least, their career history will give you valuable insights into how they are likely to think and what their particular focus at interview might be.
The company website
The first and most basic information source is the organisation’s own website. Any reasonably-sized firm is likely to have a blog or media centre. You'll find out what the company is doing right now, its products and services and how it markets them.
The website will probably also contain biographies of senior staff - possibly including your interviewer - and a list of important clients. If you extend your research to these clients, you can also pick up some very useful information that will enable you to talk knowledgeably at your interview.
Most companies now have a Facebook or Twitter account, and this can provide you with a good insight into the company culture. It's also very useful to look up the person that's interviewing you on LinkedIn. Do you have any contacts in common? If some of these are good personal connections of your own, it may well be worth having a private chat with them to get their insights.
Job sites including Glassdoor and Inside Buzz, contain profiles of thousands of companies. Some have reviews written by current or former employees, which can tell you a lot about what working there is like.
When applying to small companies, provided you have some basic financial knowledge it is worth creating a Deudil account to check out the financial well-being of the company. That way, you won’t be blinded by any smokescreens by interviewers to cover up the real story. Make no mistake, companies in difficulty often keep on recruiting right up to the point of collapse…
Google is your friend…
The company’s website will only tell you what the company wants you to hear - and this may not give you the full story. Create a Google alert using the name of the organisation and/or business unit. This will give you daily updates of any news items about the company.
You can find out how your target company is doing by using Google searches such as "(company name) + research + share price". With luck, you'll find research reports about how your target company is performing, and some independent expert opinion on its prospects.
You'll need a context in which to put all you've learned about your potential new employer. So check out their competitors' websites too.
Get smart with social media tools
A valuable tool to help you establish the success level of the company on social media is Kred. I was recently talking to a client about their online marketing strategy. I showed them how their competitors were scoring higher than them on Kred and why. They had no idea this was the case. And this news made them really sit up and take notice of the plans I was proposing for them. Had I been applying for a job, this sort of insight would have been really valuable too.
How to use the information
After all this, you'll have a heap of information about your prospective employer. But you need to utilise it tactfully. Posts to the company's social media sites, may well include some customer complaints; unless the site's swamped with them, this doesn't automatically mean you should reject the company as a prospective employer.
Once you get into the interview, it may be tempting to try and showcase all your homework by dragging as many facts as you can into the conversation. Whilst this will make you look keen, it's much better to hold back a little and simply use what you've learned as and when it comes up. Your aim is to look as if you knew it all already. Where you've uncovered negative information about the company, a lawsuit, a fall in profits or any other negative information - it's best to avoid mentioning it altogether.
So, prepare, prepare, prepare!
I promised I’d let you in on a secret at the start of this post. And here it is.
A couple of years ago I was interviewed for an executive board position on a major UK plc.
Before the interview I wrote down every question I thought I might be asked, from the deceptively simple ‘tell me about yourself’, to the testily specific ‘what’s your take on the regulatory frameworks in the market’. And everything in between. I scripted the best answers I could come up with, polished them and learned them so I could more or less recite them word perfectly.
But I didn't just prepare answers, I prepared almost as many questions. I wanted the interview to be as much of a discussion as I could make it. And for that, I needed good questions. This would not only take the pressure off me a little, it would show if I chose the right questions, that I had really done my homework.
To find the right questions I really went to work on my research. I mean really went to work. I got hold of every news report and company statement I could find. I tracked the share price history. I used LinkedIn and other social media to discover the name and background of every senior person in the business. I researched their competitors. And their competitors’ strategies. I made notes on all the market sector reports and analysis I could find.
All in all, I think I spent about five full days of work preparing. But at the end, I was so prepared and ready, that I knew I would put on my best possible performance. When the day came and I sat in the reception area, waiting to go into the interview, I was calm, focussed and actually looking forward to the interview and having the discussion.
As it turned out, the interview was just between the CEO and myself. And it was the simplest interview I’ve ever had. It was more like a friendly chat than an interview.
And this was because my research meant that instead of me passively responding to a string of questions, I was able to not only answer every one, but also bring up relevant topics I had discovered through my research. And since most CEOs love talking about their companies, we ended up having an interesting and engaging discussion.
At a stroke, I had proved that I was super knowledgeable about the business and therefore interested and qualified. But critically, the interview turned into a two way discussion…and I’m certain that it facilitated a more meaningful dialogue as a result. I was no longer a passive participant - I was actively steering the conversation too.
Of course this couldn't have happened if I was being interviewed by several people or a panel. But the key point remains - proper preparation will make you more relaxed, more confident, and more knowledgeable. Do it thoroughly and the extent of your preparation will be clear, proving that you really want the job...in a positive way.
So don’t just think that research is about showing that you know a little about the company…do it right and you can change the whole interview process for the better and empower yourself too.
Show you mean business and let your competitors have the stress instead!