10 Tips to Ace Your Next Job Interview

Here are my favorite interview tips for job candidates, from new grads to ultra-experienced hires

Given the late-winter thaw showing up in what has been an ice-cold job market, many workers are pondering a topic they haven't worried much about lately -- job interviews.

Here are my favorite interview tips for job candidates, from new grads to ultra-experienced hires:

1. Know the employer’s business.

In the pre-Internet days, job-seekers were advised to ask, "Who do you consider your principal competitors?" to show their alertness and interest in a job. These days, it signals the opposite. By the time you arrive for a job interview, you've already got to know not only the employer's business profile but also which organizations compete in its arena and how your target employer compares to every other major player in its market. That's true whether you're applying for the CFO slot or hoping to answer the phones in its call center.

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Begin by touring the employer's own Web site, then move on to LinkedIn to learn about its leaders. From there, journey over to Glassdoor.com to see what past and current employees are saying about the firm, its culture, its business prospects and the quality of its leadership.

2. Prepare questions.

Your research will pay off in another way: It will give you fodder for great interview questions you can ask the recruiter, hiring manager and any other company reps you meet during your interview. When you're invited for the interview, ask your scheduler who you'll be meeting, by name and title. Knowing the job titles of the people on your interview roster will allow you to come up with position-specific questions to pose to each person you meet. If you're a marketing person and one of your interviewers is a sales manager, you can ask, "What should the person in this role accomplish in the first three months, for you as an internal customer to be overjoyed with his or her performance?"

3. Get the inside scoop.

Use LinkedIn to find people in your second- or third-degree network who worked for your target employer in the past. Since they're connected to people you know and they don't work there anymore, these folks will be more likely than current employees to give you the eye-opening scoop on the organization's culture and challenges. Use the Get Introduced Through a Connection button on the user's LinkedIn profile page to make these connections through mutual friends, asking for a quick telephone chat. (Be sure to thank these helpful folks for their time!)

4. Collect personal contact information.

As you meet each new person in your interview lineup, ask him or her for a business card. Do it the minute you're introduced, before you sit down, or you're likely to forget. Since lots of people don't carry business cards in their pockets while they're at work, be ready with pen and paper to take down each person's name and contact information if no business card is handy. You'll need to know the names, titles and e-mail addresses for each person you meet, so you can compose and send a customized thank-you note to each of them.

5. Tell personal stories.

When you're asked the standard interview questions, use stories to make your accomplishments come to life. You don't have to wait for the interviewer to ask you a “story question,” such as "Tell me about a time when you worked with a difficult customer." You can give a story-type answer to any interview question.

If the question is "Have you been using FrameMaker very long?" your answer can begin, "You know, once we were under the gun to get some documentation done for a version of the product that was custom-built for one client. I hadn't used FrameMaker for that sort of thing before, so I pulled out the manual and began reading...." It's a great goal to tell two or three pithy, human stories in each job interview, to bring your talent to life and to get out of the zero-impact "yes, no, somewhat" rut.

6. Zoom in on the employer’s pain.

In 2011, it's not enough to let an employer know that you've got skills X, Y and Z. You have to make it clear that you've faced down the same dragon the employer is facing now, and that means you've got to know which sort of dragon is circling the castle. Float a pain hypothesis early on in the interview –- something like, "My take is that you're looking to get sales leads assigned and acted on more quickly after trade shows. Is that the biggest area you're looking for this new hire to handle, or am I missing something major?" Once you and the hiring manager are talking about the business issues and not the often-irrelevant list of job requirements, your conversation will become much more substantive and fun.

7. Save the salary discussion for round two.

It's not a great idea to bring up salary in the first interview, because it's a bad use of everyone's time. If they aren't interested in you, why worry about the salary? When you get the call or the e-mail inviting you for a second interview, go ahead and broach the salary topic. Ask the recruiter, "Is now a good time to sync up on salary? Would you be the right person to have that conversation with?"

There's no sense going for a second interview (or first interview, if you've already passed a phone screener) if you and the employer aren't in the same ballpark salary-wise. If they ask you what you were earning at the last job, smile and say, "I'm focusing on roles in the $X range."

8. Save a question for the end.

Hiring managers tell me that when they've got a promising candidate sitting in front of them, it's a terrible disappointment for the manager to ask "So, have any questions for me?" and to hear the candidate say "No." Don't be left queryless -- have a list of ten or 20 questions, and jot down new ones that occur to you as you're sitting in the interview. (Yes, it's fine to bring a pad and pen to an interview, tucked into a portfolio, and it's fine to take notes as you're listening or even talking.) Here are a couple of useful questions: 1) What was the incident or the trend that caused you to decide to hire this person now? and 2) Can you tell me why this position exists -- either a bad thing that happened in the absence of this person, or a story about a time when my predecessor (assuming I get the job) saved the day?

9. Stay alert.

Job interviews can be overwhelming and exhausting. An interview is a performance, and performances are grueling. You've got to stay alert and in the game, whether you're on site for two hours or six. That means no spacing out, staring into space or (as one of my memorable least-favorite interviewees did) spitting water into the potted plant during the interview.

Be focused from the moment you walk in the door. That means not using your cell phone while waiting to be picked up in the lobby, and having a warm greeting in mind when your host shows up to meet you. (It's hard to forget a young man I met in the lobby one day. Tim had arrived for a face-to-face interview; I'd phone-screened him the day before. "Are you Tim, by chance?" I asked. Tim looked startled and replied, "Why, yes, I am! Are you Miss Ryan? You sounded so much younger on the phone!")

10. Say thanks.

Thank each person you meet on the interview trail, and when you get home, send each one a thank-you e-mail, as well. (That's when the contact info you grabbed from each person will come in handy.) In your thank-you notes, mention as specifically as you can what you and each interviewer talked about. "Thank you for your time" is general and namby-pamby, but "Thanks for your fantastic description of the plastic extrusion process. You put a complicated process into words very well!" will not only flatter the recipient but also bring you, the candidate, back to mind sharply. Say something in each thank-you message about the wheels that are still turning in your head, post-interview. "Since I left you, I've been thinking about the CRM issue you raised, and wondering whether the new Siebel plug-in tools would be worth a look." Let the manager know that your brain is already turning over the issues the firm is facing. Don't beg for another interview or praise yourself, but be positive: "I'm looking forward to the next conversation" has the right mix of hopeful and not desperate notes.

Liz Ryan
Contributing Columnist, Kiplinger.com