Companies & Industries

A Tale of Two Interviews


One job candidate came off as intelligent and prepared, but the second one stunned his prospective employer (in a good way). Here's how it happened

A midlevel market researcher went to a job interview the other day and told me about it. He was struck by the first three questions. "The interviewer came out of the gate at full speed," he said. Still, he thought he did pretty well. Here's a more or less accurate transcript:

So, what are your thoughts on the market research job we're discussing?

Candidate No. 1: I think it sounds challenging and fun. The ad says you're building the marketing research capabilities for your renal products group, and it sounds as though there'd be new challenges every day and some interesting tools and systems to work with.

Like what, specifically?

Well, I've done a lot of survey research, but the survey tools listed in your job ad aren't familiar to me, which makes me think they're specific to the medical-products industry. The good news is that I'm an amateur programmer and very fluent with technology, and I'd be excited not only to become proficient with the tools you use but also to customize them for our needs, if I join your team.

What do you think will be hardest or most frustrating about the job?

It's always tough to come into a busy and deadline-oriented situation and deliver results, but I pride myself on that. I'd see getting up to speed while meeting challenging goals as the biggest hurdle, but this is my strong suit. I love to drink from a firehose.

That's the report I got. The candidate was pumped after the interview. "I'd say I've got a 60/40 chance of getting a second interview," he told me.

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A few days later I heard from another job-seeker. "I just interviewed for the market research position for renal products I told you about," he said. No kidding, I asked if he remembered the interview questions he was asked. He did indeed, and recounted this conversation to me:

So, what are your thoughts on the market research job we're discussing?

Candidate No. 2: A fascinating puzzle. As the industry shifts away from distributing renal products through distributors to a direct-to-providers model, the company is going to have to know a lot more about how hospitals make purchasing decisions than they've had to worry about before. Market research is central to that shift—not just focus groups and surveys but rhetorical analysis and other tools.

Like what, specifically?

We've got to know howthe people who will be using our products—and the ones who will be purchasing them—think. We've got to answer to a different set of decision-makers. The two-tier distribution scheme gave us a buffer from the users of the product, and that's disappearing. I'm dying to know how people on Internet forums and health-care discussion networks view our products. I'd like to explore a longitudinal user panel that can help us track the perceptual changes associated with our products as the company moves through the elimination of the traditional distribution mechanism. I'd like to interview nurses and docs and patients. Of course, the regulatory environment precludes certain types of research that might be viewed as having a product-marketing aspect. That's going to take some careful navigating.

What do you think will be hardest or most frustrating about the job?

Not gathering the research data, but translating it and selling it upstream to the decision-makers—whose notions of product requirements have been shaped by decades of selling through channels that don't exist anymore. Old habits die hard, and I'm thinking through the data sets that would be most compelling for the product managers and developers as they consider adapting their views.

Quite a different conversation, eh? Neither candidate has a health-care background. Candidate No.1 comes from the software industry. Candidate No.2 comes from the apparel arena—Western wear, at that! How did he bone up on changes in hospital-products distribution?

He read like a maniac, and he talked to everyone he could find. He invested six hours in studying the industry and the company he was pursuing. The other candidate spent 15 minutes on the employer's Web site.

People say to me all the time, "Six hours!? You've got to be kidding me. I'm not investing that much time in a first interview."

I tell them, "How many first interviews do you get, in a week? Certainly not 10, or even 6. Most job-seekers would be thrilled to get two first interviews in a week. Maybe you can't spend six hours on research. How about four hours? How about two?"

That research time will prepare you for the interview, give you confidence, and allow you to answer questions more effectively and ask more relevant ones. But it has another benefit, too. You want to know something about the company's strengths and weaknesses before you get in the door. That way, you can test your hypotheses about the organization's business prospects, leadership, and culture in the interview room. You can get a feel for the rightness or wrongness of the picture you've constructed in your head. After all, an interview is a two-way street. You don't want to waste time on the wrong opportunity.

In this job market, having a fuzzy understanding of an employer's business sector and offerings is inadequate preparation for a phone screen, much less a face-to-face meeting. We're all consultants now, and consultants are successful when they understand the problem at hand. Do your homework, and be prepared to go in and consult right from the start.

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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