The Informational Interview: It’s Just About Having Coffee

By Jennifer Vancil

As career development professionals, we take the concept of an informational interview for granted. But when we recommend that our clients conduct these interviews, do they really know what it means? It sounds a lot like asking for a job interview and it certainly feels like a big thing to ask. Requesting a meeting with someone they barely know (or don’t know), when they aren’t sure if there is a job available or whether they would be a good fit for a position that might be available, is enough to send most job-seekers back to the online job boards to continue sending resumes into the void. I often get the client response, “I don’t feel comfortable selling myself.” But an informational interview is not a sales call or an interview. It’s much more akin to a first date.


Having Coffee, or a First Date…


The responsibility of the career professional is to lower the stakes for the client and remove the fear. “It’s just having coffee,” I tell them. “You don’t even need to bring a resume. Bringing a resume to an informational interview is like bringing a wedding ring on a first date, just in case. It puts too much pressure on that first meeting.”


Sure, the goal of the meeting is to have a conversation that leads, eventually, to finding a great job in a career field that you are excited about. And the goal of a first date is to eventually find the person you want to marry and raise a family with. But you don’t talk marriage before you’ve gotten to know each other and it’s the same in an informational interview – you’re not at the commitment stage yet.


Lowering the Stakes


The key to getting clients to conduct informational interviews without fear is to explain that it’s about making conversation and asking questions, not trying to “sell” themselves. Coaching clients that the purpose of the meeting is to gather information about a person’s career field, about their company, and about how they got to where they are lowers the stakes and the fear. The client simply tells the person, “I’m interested in learning more about you and your company. Would you be willing to meet with me for 20 minutes?” Coffee, not dinner. Low stakes. No commitment.


And when they meet, the client should be genuinely interested in the other person. He or she needs to understand that in this meeting the focus is not about the client and his or her needs. The discussion should center on the person they are meeting. Most clients feel much less afraid if the career professional explains their goal is to simply meet the person and ask them questions to get to know them. No selling involved. And as a bonus, they have permission to ask for advice.


Taking the Pressure Off


The truth is, people love to talk about themselves. And they are genuinely flattered and honored that someone would take the time to learn about them and express interest in their work and how they came to do that work. Someone who asks good questions is considered engaging and interesting – just the kind of person they would like to work with. Someone who is genuinely curious about them and open to advice would make a wonderful colleague.


More often than not, this conversation leads to a great referral, to insider information about the company or upcoming projects or positions, or gives the client an important piece of advice about training needed or how to market him- or herself in the field. If the pressure is off and it’s not a marriage proposal too soon, they just might get to have dinner later and continue the conversation. And when the stakes are low, the rewards are great.


Helping clients take the fear out of informational interviewing by lowering the stakes just might be the key to a match made in heaven.



Jennifer VancilJennifer Vancil, M.Ed.,coaches graduate business students and alumni in the College of Business Career Management Center at Colorado State University. A candidate for the Global Career Development Facilitator certification, she holds a Master’s degree in Adult Education from the University of Alaska Anchorage. As faculty for the online MBA Career Management course, she oversees the curriculum and provides consultation to mid-career professionals seeking to advance themselves and business executives making career changes. She speaks publicly on the topics of personal branding and social media, informational interviewing, effective networking, resume writing, and job offer negotiation, and assists graduate and undergraduate students in job search strategies. She may be contacted at 970-491-2214 or Jennifer.vancil@colostate.edu.

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Magdalena Mot   on Wednesday 08/01/2012 at 11:09 PM

Great article! I must say that I am a great believer in Informational Interviews and I always take al least 1 hr to prepare my clients on how to conduct one. Thank you, Jennifer.

Jan McCormick, Ed.D.   on Thursday 08/02/2012 at 12:58 AM

Great topic Jennifer! You have showcased a truly powerful networking technique that is so underutilized. I know my clients fear any form of rejection and helping them understand the “no sale” approach is a great way to take that pressure off. I also think coaching clients to prepare three or four questions ahead of time is respectful of the interviewee and maximizes meeting time. Thanks for reminding me to encourage this “only coffee” technique!

Connie Humphreys   on Thursday 08/02/2012 at 09:21 AM

Great article on informational interviews. The "just having coffee" approach is a great way to help remove the stress for the job seeker. Thanks for sharing. I am going to pass this on to our career coaches.

Maribeth Gunner   on Thursday 08/02/2012 at 11:11 AM

Great article -- a good reminder that what may seem commonplace to counselors can actually sound quite intimidating to clients. "Having coffee" is a good way to frame the encounter. Definitely makes it sound approachable!

Darrell Gurney   on Friday 08/03/2012 at 01:46 AM

Well said. It's so NOT ABOUT GETTING A JOB--which is, in a way, what the term "informational interview" has grown to imply--but about, as you said, having a "coffee date" to get to know someone. That really getting to know that other person, and setting up the meeting in such a way that they will talk and talk and talk about themselves, is the ultimate ingredient in building what I call "relationship equity"...which pays off in more coffee dates, maybe dinner and dancing, and perhaps even a late night kiss at some point...of course all before marriage!

Great insight!

Darrell W. Gurney
Author of "Never Apply for a Job Again: Break the Rules, Cut the Line, Beat the Rest"

Jennifer Lewis   on Friday 08/03/2012 at 11:49 AM

Thanks for framing the approach to informational interviewing in such a great way - no selling, no pressure, just asking questions. I encourage my coaching clients to be prepared to "pay it forward" by offering to share something of value with the person they are interviewing - a connection, an article or upcoming event. Be willing to give first....people will appreciate you and they will remember you.

Nancy Miller   on Thursday 08/09/2012 at 11:35 AM

Wow! Makes an informational interview sound like fun. It is also great practice for using communication skills and building confidence. Thanks for the article. I look forward to sharing it.

Juliana Castillo   on Wednesday 08/22/2012 at 12:27 PM

This is great information. Informational interviews allow employers and potential employees to meet face-to-face and to get to know each other without the pressures of a typical interview. It is a great opportunity for an employer to determine if the job seeker would be a goof fit for the job and for the job seeker to get a feel of what the employer has to offer. It is very important for the job seeker to understand that an interview is not about answering questions, it is a two-way conversation. Great article!!! Thanks for sharing.

Carol Smith   on Tuesday 09/25/2012 at 02:55 PM

Jennifer, Great topic and some good advice. A little bit of "advice" from the other side of the table. I agree that successful people love talking about themselves and how they "got there." However, they are busy people who like to spend their time wisely. Therefore, I agree with the writer who suggested providing advance questions to the interviewee. I don't agree with the "how can I help you in return" networking approach (suggested by a respondent.) Not that that also couldn't happen - but a busy person wants to know they are providing something of value for the time they are giving up and usually it's because they want to give that "success advice" and to maybe discover whether the interviewer could be a protege! The coffee approach is very appealing, but no one gets a feel for the other person (usually) in 20 minutes. An alternative to meeting in person is sending questions in advance (Email), let the interviewee know who referred them, and ask for some time over the phone during their non-work hours. Follow up with a thank you email and suggest a coffee meeting in the future and ask if the job seeker / interviewer can keep in touch during the job search and ask questions from time to time. An informational interview can be the stepping stone to true relationship building.

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