Expert Perspectives – Preparing for the Client Interview
It’s an exciting moment when your bid on a Catalant project gets to the next round: an interview with the potential client. The interview is a key step in learning more about the client’s situation and project requirements, and it’s also an opportunity to convey to the client your fit and qualifications for such a project. Below are six of my top tips for getting the most out of the interview and best positioning yourself for success:
1) Do basic research on the company
If you have visibility into the hiring company name, learn as many basic facts about the company as you can before the call. To get a quick calibration on the situation, I take a quick look at the corporate website and Wikipedia page. Some basic questions I look to answer with this search include: What’s the company’s year-over-year performance? Are they doing well overall, or does it look like there are larger issues going on? A glance at their most recent 10-K filing can also give you a sense of executive priorities and help frame for you the major business units of the company. Being familiar with the company and its terminology will help you avoid using valuable time on basic questions so you can focus on more critical and insightful information on the call. Plus, researching basic information on the company will prepare you for an opening question like, “So, how familiar are you with our company and industry?”
If you don’t have access to the company name before the interview, use the industry categorization and project description to infer as much as you can about the client. A quick review of an industry and its major players goes a long way in getting your mind in the right space before going into the interview.
2) Learn about the individual(s) who will be on the call
Use LinkedIn, Facebook, the company website, or whatever resources you can find to get basic background information on the individuals who will be on the call (assuming you are given their names in advance). Sometimes, I find that the client and I have a common connection or similar background, which helps to build rapport early on in the call. In addition, knowing a bit about the interviewers helps me to anticipate what they may be interested in learning from me. For example, I might approach an answer differently when speaking with the Head of Engineering than I would with the Director of Strategy.
3) Anticipate client questions
“If I were the client interviewing a potential consultant, what would I want to know?” I meditate on that question before each of my interviews. Common questions from clients include: “What relevant experience makes you prepared for this work? When can you start? Are you willing to travel, or do you have constraints? How much experience have you had with software tool XYZ? Can you send me references or work samples?” Particularly for this last question, I anticipate what work samples would be most relevant and scrub a few beforehand to be ready to send out immediately after the call, if requested.
4) Prepare to listen
This call is not just a one-way interview – it’s also an opportunity for you to learn whether you’d enjoy working for the client (I’ve declined work after getting a bad read on the interview) and ascertain more detail on project requirements (a critical step for writing a great Statement of Work). Your questions at this point can also indicate to the client your depth of expertise: Are your questions insightful and focused on the highest priorities, or are they off-track and veering towards the tangential?
Specific project details you’ll want to make sure you cover include:
- The scope of the project
- The deliverables expected and the timeframe for these deliverables
- The project approach: Will you be reporting to a project leader at the company, or are you the project leader? Will you be working solo, or is there support from the client to get the project started?
- The approximate budget that the client is looking to spend
- Any extenuating circumstances or potential obstacles that you should be made aware of, e.g., personality, change management, or company culture issues.
5) Be ready to add value
As you prepare for the interview, think about ways that you can add value on the first call with the client. At the interview stage, many businesses are still in the early phase of scoping their problem and their interaction with you can lead to greater clarity. The way you listen, probe with thoughtful questions, and mirror back to the client what you’ve heard can all lead the client to new insights about the project.
Offering alternate ways of looking at the problem can also be a powerful way to add value. For example, “Interesting. It sounds like you’re taking XYZ approach. That certainly could work. Have you also considered ABC approach or DEF? I’ve seen both of those be extremely effective in other situations, but it of course depends on the context of the problem.” Don’t be over-eager and get too into the weeds, but the right amount of probing can demonstrate the level of leadership you can bring to a project.
6) Be curious, and chill out
Whenever I get nervous before a client call, I try to shift my perspective so that my leading attribute is one of ease and curiosity rather than over-eagerness to sell myself. This strategy may not work for everyone, but it helps me to focus on helping the client solve their problems rather than on my fear of losing potential work. Some of the most successful consultants I know are at complete ease on a sales call because they truly enjoy the opportunity to speak to someone new and learn about an interesting problem. This doesn’t mean you should downplay your credentials or past experience; it’s just a reminder that oftentimes our best selves come through when we are at ease. So to the extent you can, do your homework, get prepared, and then relax and enjoy the process.