How to wow an interviewer

Be the one to progress past the interview stage

What is the secret to WOW an Interviewer?

In my experience, one of five interviews leads to an offer of employment. Therefore, in four out of five interviews the applicant did not create a big enough WOW to be selected. While the applicant may have accepted the interview because the job sounded like a good opportunity, it is in their interest to create that WOW.

How to create a WOW?

Most applicants are rejected due to a lack of preparation. That is, on paper, the applicant looked like they could do the job, hence the invitation to interview.

The rejection occurred after the interview

Typically, the applicant's performance during the interview is the reason for their rejection. Occasionally it is skills related, however, skills can be taught so predominantly, the rejection is due to an unimpressive interview performance.

Many applicants approach interviews in the wrong way

The majority of applicants think that because they have been invited to an interview that they are the guest, and all they need to do is to attend and answer questions. They take the same approach as when they are invited for a party – they show up and see what happens; let the conversation flow to see where it leads.

An applicant with this attitude believes there is little they can do to influence the interview.

This is a not an approach I recommend as by failing to prepare, an applicant is preparing to fail. All the focus must be on preparation.

What is a WOW?

A WOW is the interviewer saying after the interview:

"I want this person and I am willing to pay a higher price (your remuneration) than I thought I was, before I meet this applicant".

That is a WOW!

Starting from the top, let us assume you have been invited for an interview.

It is more than likely you will receive a calendar invite. On receipt, email the interviewer, saying you look forward to meeting them. This is an ideal opportunity to ask if there is any additional preparation they think may be beneficial for the interview.

If the calendar invite is a couple of days in advance, then on the day of the interview, email confirming your attendance (date, time and the interview address), and that you look forward to the interview.

This shows your professionalism and confirms you will be there. Interview non attendances do happen and are irritating for the interviewer. Your confirmation has already created a little bit of a WOW.

Let's talk about preparation

How much preparation is required and how much time should you spend on it?

Some applicants spend three days or longer on interview preparation. I know people who do this every time they change jobs, effectively treating it as preparation for an exam; locking themselves away from everything to focus.

Accordingly, they are almost always successful and offered the job because of their preparation. Preparing for an interview is not complicated, it is simply a matter of focusing on one thing and work hard on it.

There is a general rule that 70% of the preparation is a waste of time and 90% of the research will not be used during the interview.  Unfortunately, there is no way to know in advance what will be a waste of time and what be used. However, the 10% of research used often determines the outcome in a positive direction.

The internet enables us obtain a significant amount of information that can be beneficial during the interview. For example, 50% of interviews start with the question: "Tell us what you know about the company".

Try to memorise the big picture with:

  • their key products and/or services;
  • where they are based (state, national, global and location);
  • industries they work in;
  • their size (in terms of revenue, number of employee size, etc.); and
  • their main competitors

Check their website and study all the pages. In this instance, Google is going to be your best friend.

Also review their LinkedIn company page, which will list all employees, the number in each state, senior staff and different areas (e.g. admin, sales, finance etc.). It may be possible to see different managers, determine how long employees stay, and sometimes, the backgrounds of employees (typically past experience and education). It may also be possible check out the interviewer's background.

However, please be aware that people are not always prompt at updating their LinkedIn profile, so just because people are listed does not necessarily mean they still work there.

Public listed companies have Annual Reports available to download and these can be a treasure trove of information (the board and financial reports).

There is a strong probability the interviewer has already looked for your digital footprint.

Check out the company on Facebook and see if the interviewer has a Facebook page. If so, it will show you their interests and this could be good information to have up your sleeve for small talk as 95% of all interviews encompass small talk.

Also look to see if the company and the interviewer are active on Twitter.

Other avenues for research are Googling the interviewer, the company's products or services, and their competitors. YouTube will give you any channels the company may have with videos regarding their products or services.

I have a client who sell bollards, and it is amazing what you can learn about bollards on YouTube. You can watch bollard videos all day, and if you are one of my candidates going for an interview with this client, I would have expected you to have done exactly that.

These suggestions are reasonably standard for basic research, and I am sure you can expand on them.

How do interviews play out?

First we need to understand the situation. It is just like going to a party: you arrive, park your car, walk from the car to the house, walk up to the front door and ring the bell. The door opens, you walk in and say hello to the host and everyone there. Step by step, you know each phase.

Interviews run in similar phases, and the key is to identify the goal of each phase.

The goal of the first phase of the interview is to arrive on time or slightly early. This is achieved by parking close to the interview venue, ensuring you can park for more than one hour, and that the car park will not be full, etc. I can't emphasis how important it is to allow enough time to avoid being late.

For example, you arrive for the interview and there is no nearby parking. It takes you 20 minutes to walk to the interview venue. You arrive late, hot and flustered from rushing. Obviously, you could have done a better job planning your travel to the interview.

By breaking down each phase into its step by step components, and identifying the purpose of each phase, you can plan how to behave in each phase to achieve each outcome, so each phase is successful. Most people can identify the phases up to and after the interview, but not the phases within the interview. They have a vague idea of how the interview will run, but it is really a black box and this is the problem.

How can you prepare for an event if you don't know how it is structured? It is like preparing for a tennis match; you know your opponent will shot a lot of balls at you, but you don't know what type so you have to prepare for all types, knowing that you will not face the majority of shots.

Let's open this black box of the interview

Interviews are a sales process and you are a sales person, whether you like it or not. You are selling a service - your service, your labour - and you are selling it at a price (your salary or remuneration package). So, let us incorporate some sales techniques into the interview.

A sales process encompass four phases and it is not complicated. We are going to translate these four phases into an interview strategy.

Before we do this, let's have a second look at you as the sales person. No sales person wings a sales meeting with a customer. Professional sales people plan for every question. Every time the conversation goes off track, the sales person knows how to steer it back.

A sales person guides the conversation towards what they want to talk about and turns the conversation away from what they do not want to focus on. They manipulate the conversation with the outcome in mind with each phase planned to move the conversation towards the end goal.

To begin with, let us start with how a typical interview runs:

  • There is initial small talk.
  • The interviewer then asks a lot of questions that you answer.
  • At the end, the interviewer asks if you have any questions.
  • You take out your notepad and ask a few prepared questions.
  • Everyone say thank you and the interview is over.

This is terrible. It is as if the sales person is being interviewed by the customer. That is, the customer asks all the questions and you, the sales person, passively answers them. At the end the customer asks if you, the sales person, has any questions. The customer then finishes by stating: “I will get back to you”. This is not good.

Let's break down the interview in sales terms.

Sales consist of four phases, as previously mentioned:

  1. 1
    ​​​​​Opening or intro
  2. 2
    Needs analysis
  3. 3
    Cover needs
  4. 4
    Closing

The 'Opening or intro' has the purpose of building likeability and trust. No one will hire someone they do not like, neither is anyone is going to hire someone they do not trust.

I often hear clients rejecting a candidate saying: "he can do the job but he will not fit in" or "there is something about her that doesn't feel right" or "yes he can do the job but ...". I have never hear a client say: "I don’t like him or trust him but he has all the experience we need, so we will hire him". Not once have I heard a client this.

I am certain you have walked out of a shop because you did not like the sales person, even if the product you needed was in stock. Even if you did buy, you would not come back. In this case, we are talking about a service the sales person did not provide. Just as when the employer hires an applicant, they need to face their new employee every day. It is not going to happen.

However, I have heard clients many times: "We really like her, she seems honest, so we will teach her the rest".

I once had a client in Sydney that I really struggled to find a marketing person for their company. I looked for a long time, and the client interviewed many candidates who did not have the personality they were looking for.

I then met a candidate from a completely different industry with very little marketing experience (basically none), but she had personality. She was likeable and trust worthy, however, based on her CV, she would not have been presented to the client. I contacted the client saying I had a potential candidate, the client interviewed the candidate and hired her.

One year later, after she had learned a lot about marketing, she was promoted.

The intro phase is anything that happens from when you meet the interviewer and walk from the reception area to the interview room. Small talk is not idle chatter just to fill in the time until the interview starts.

Small talk is for the interviewer to see, hear and observe each candidate and answer key questions, namely: Do I trust this person? Do I like this person? Do we have the same values?

Look the interviewer in the eye, be relaxed, and say something pleasant about being there. This is your opportunity to use some information you learned about the Interviewer from their Facebook page (for example, lots of golf pictures) and if the moment arose, you could say "This would be a great day to be on the golf course". You may gain some trust here but remember, it is not the subject that makes you gain trust, it is how you manage the conversation.

Mentioning an interest of the interviewer may start a conversation. Not mentioning it risks losing the opportunity to create trust and likeability.

In understanding that the initial phase is designed for you to introduce yourself with the purpose of gaining trust, you can steer the conversation to focus on this without having to talk about yourself or your background. Some of the tools you have to gain trust are your presentation, how you speak, your cultural background, and the image your portray, etc.

Good sales people continue to build trust during the entire interview. A popular way to build credibility is by name dropping (for example, Richard Branson said recently… ), industry dropping (for example, looking at plumbing x compared to the electrical y), or position dropping (for example, the CEOs typically looks at...)

These can be powerful tools if you want to demonstrate your knowledge of contemporary events, however, you risk offending, particularly if you are excessive and seen as bragging. People who brag are not well considered by others.

You know exactly when you enter the second phase of 'Needs Analysis'. This is when the small talk stops and the interviewer says something like: "Tell me why you are here."

In sales, the purpose of the needs analysis is to find the customer's pain or what are they unhappy about. The sales person will ask open ended questions to explore the customer's pain, which they cover in phase 3 'Cover the Need' with the intention of making the customer happy.

Interviews turn the typical sales scenario on it’s head as the interviewer (the customer) runs the show and asks all the questions, not the sales person (you). As the interviewer asks all the questions, you do not have a chance to explore their pain as, in most interviews, you are on the receiving end. That is, you are not selling.

Interviews can be compared to a a tennis match. Your opponent smashes a lot of balls at you (asks a lot of questions) while you are standing at the baseline trying to fend them off and get the ball back over the net (answer the question the best you can). The minute you have answered the question (gotten the ball over the net), along comes another question.

The interviewer is proactive and you are reactive; the interviewer drives the game, moving you from one corner to the other. The balls keeps coming as you are being bombarded with questions. With the game only being played on your side of the court it is not a pleasant . In fact, it is a game you can only lose and is not a great gaming strategy, neither is it a good sales or interview strategy.

Let us break down the interview. If an interview runs for 45 minutes, you will have five minutes for the intro (phase 1) and five minutes for the close or outro (phase 4). Therefore, there are 35 minutes for the main part of the interview or core game time. During these 35 minutes, the interviewer will ask about 15 questions or 2.5 minutes per question and answer.

One part of your strategy should be having fewer question asked. How this can be achieved? It is quite simple, extend the time each ball is played. How can this be done? By giving longer answers, it is possible to extend the conversation rather than just providing yes and no answers.

Another way is to start playing the ball over on the interviewer's side of the court.

Typically interviews runs like this:

  • The interviewer asks a question that we answer (for example, "tell me about your last job").
  • We answer and there is silence.
  • The interviewer asks the next question that we again answer and silence.
  • Then the third question is asked and answered to more silence, and so on.

This is like hitting a loose ball over the net to your opponent so he can smash another ball at you. Instead of silence after you have answered the queston, ask the interviewer a question. You could wrap the question by saying: "I don't know if it's appropriate or a good time to ask but what do you see as the biggest challenge in this role?"

Now the ball is played on interviewer's side of the net. The interviewer has to react and is not going to say no to you asking a question. By wrapping it with an apology, you are making it a soft ball and non-aggressive. Despite your 'apology wrapping', the question has been asked and the interviewer is obliged to answer. This enables the candidate and the interviewer to begin a conversation.

This is your new interview strategy.

As an experienced recruiter, my rule of thumb is that a candidate can ask a maximum of 1/3 of the questions.

Typically with longer conversations, or longer lobs, there is only room for about 10 questions in total. Therefore, there could be seven from the interviewer and three from you. Not the original 15 questions the interviewer may have intended. Be aware that no one likes an applicant to take control of the interview because they are still a guest.

The next part is, what questions should you ask?

Let's pause on this for a moment. You can Google "best interview questions" or "the ten best interview questions" etc., however, they are all pretty hopeless. Let me give you one example: here are "105 questions to ask an Interviewer" (https://careersidekick.com/questions-to-ask-the-interviewer/ ). 95% of these questions are pretty useless for a first interview. Stop the video and check them out.

Here are two reasons why 95% of these questions are inadequate:

Firstly, do these questions help the interviewer determine whether or not they should offer the role to you? In my experience, the short answer is no, very unlikely.

Secondly, do these question help you to determine if you should proceed to the next round of interviews? Again, I would have to say no, very unlikely. If this is unlikely, then why would a candidate ask the question? What is the purpose of any of these questions? In other words, what is a good question and what would be a bad question?

Here are two questions from this site:

1. "Who would be my immediate manager or supervisor in this position?" and

2. "Can you give me an example of how I would would collaborate with my manager or supervisor?"

Firstly, neither question will help the interviewer assess the candidate's suitability. Furthermore, neither will help the candidate make a decision about the role. Simply put, these questions are not relevant for a first interview and should not be asked.

Secondly, a first interview is designed to evaluate whether the candidate is a good fit to proceed to a second interview. It is very much like a first date - you don't dive into talking about marriage, how many kids do you want, when you want them, or the suburb you want to live in, etc. A first interview is an initial discussion.

Even if you keep googling, you will struggle to find good questions to ask at a first interview.

There are good questions and excellent questions that can be asked and this is where sales comes into play again. Remember phase 2 is the needs analysis, which is identifying the customer's pain or in this case, the interviewer's pain. In phase 3 'Cover the Needs', you fix the employer’s pain.

In sales we say: "lead with the pain and sell with the gain". Sometime is it easy to spot pain. For example, look at both the job advertisement and the job description as both define the purpose of the role. Pain for an employer is where the purpose of the role is not fulfilled.

Another way to spot pain is by looking at the selection criteria as not meeting these will also create pain for the employer. Knowing the employer's pain, we can ask the interviewer:

  • What is the hardest part of the job? (This will indicate where the interviewer has had pain previously.)
  • What do you see as the three biggest challenges in this role? (This will give you three areas of pain.)
  • What had been the biggest challenge for people previously occupying this role?
  • What could the person previously in the role have done better?
  • What are the KPIs for this role? When would you be happy with a performance? Conversely, what performance would make you unhappy?
  • What is the biggest consequence if the KPIs for the role are not met?

You can see we are talking about pain; a pain that the interviewer want fixed. You can now relate your previous workplace experiences with these same pain points. Do this by talking about a situation where you experience a similar pain, and what you did to overcome it.

The interviewer will conclude you have been there before (that is, you have previously faced these types of challenges and overcome them). Therefore, in the employer’s mind, there is a good chance you can handle them again and the risk of employing you is reduced.

This is like going to a lawyer and tell him about a situation that causes you trouble (pain). For example, you received a speeding fine. If the lawyer just says: I am good at fixing speeding fines, I can make this go away, I am an expert at speeding fines - then all he has done is made three statements. I bet you would hesitate to hire him.

What the lawyer should have done is told you about similar cases of speeding fines he have handled in the past. He should explain some of the problems with these cases; their similarities to your's, how he overcame them and the successful outcomes. You would then compare his examples to your situation and make a conclusion as to whether he is likely to fix your problems. As a customer, it is for you to make conclusions, not the sales person.

The salesperson is there to provide facts and information for the customer to base their decision upon. It is same in an interview; the applicant’s role is to provide information to support their application and allow the interviewer to draw favourable conclusions about the applicant's past experience.

The closer the information and past experiences you provide relate to the interviewer's pain, the more favourable the interviewer's conclusion will be toward you. Therefore, it is important try to ask questions that relate to the interviewer's pain when you have a good story to tell that resulted in a great outcome.

We should not ask an interviewer questions like:

  • How many people have held this job in the last two years?
  • How long does someone typically stay in this job?
  • What promotion avenues are available within the company from this position?
  • When and how is feedback given to me as an employee?
  • How will I be trained?
  • Will I have a mentor?

Once again, conclusions are for the interviewer to make, not you as the applicant. It is not appropriate to say I am good at XYZ because that is a conclusion. As a candidate, your job is to provide facts - a story about past workplace experiences in relation to this pain and how you overcame it - your achievements. Never say you are good at something in an interview.

Preparation is all about analysing the job and the company to come up with three to four questions in relation to pain.

Start with the end in mind, for example, if you are an bookkeeper and your main strengths are: 

  • Cash management
  • In depth knowledge of payroll
  • Asset management

In the interview, ask how they handle these matters before leading into whether the interviewer has ever had issues in these areas, or whether they foresee problems. Does the interviewer have pain or could they potentially have pain in the future? If so, tell them how you experience pain in these areas and overcame this pain.

If the interviewer has no pain and do not think they could face pain in an area you are strong in, then quickly move on to something else. Do not continue talking about something the interviewer has indicated is a non-issue as it is not relevant. You could say: "No pain - No gain".

Asking questions in an interview is not a strategy to give you answers. Rather, the questions you ask are an opportunity for you to demonstrate how you can fix the interviewer's pain.

Do not ask questions that are relevant to your needs in an interview. Only ask questions relevant to the interviewer’s pain and, of those, only questions in areas you have had experience and a positive outcome.

I have participated interviews where the play (thinking of our tennis analogy) has been entirely on the interviewer's side of the court.

The conversation was all about the company's pain, challenges and solutions to these challenges. The candidate’s CV was not opened, and the applicant did not address any questions about their work history.

In one memorable instance, an interview that I sat on lasted for one and a half hours. At the end of the interview, the applicant was offered the job without a single question regarding his CV and past experience. This was an unusual case; one in which the interviewer had a lot of pain and I would not recommend you attempting to replicate it.

Ask three to four questions equally spread over the 35 minutes. If at the end of the interview, the interviewer asks: "Do you have any questions", then you will know that you have blown it.

The good news is that most people can relate previous workplace experiences, some experience relevant to a client's pain. You simply need to unlock the pain by asking. After all, you are sitting in the hot seat because you are, on paper, a close match to what the interviewer is looking for.

Let us not forget phase 4: The Closing

In sales, it is often called asking for the sale, but as an applicant, please do not go there.

The interviewer will likely be interviewing other candidates and reflecting upon the interview, so asking for a job offer would not be appropriate.

You could ask if there might be any any other relevant questions they would like to ask. Alternatively, you could also ask the interviewer what the next steps are from their end. Again, the closing is not where the game is played; it is like shaking hands over the net after the tennis game.

The game was played in phases 2 and 3 (pain identification and how you can fix this pain). This is the time of a polite exit with a "call to action" ( a CTA in sales speak). What is the next step? The answer is to let the interviewer lead on this one.

Asking about the next step indicates your interest in the role. If you have had positive responses from other interviews, you could say that while you have had some positive responses for other roles you have recently applied for, you really like this opportunity. You have hinted at competition and if they are interested, they need to move with some speed. This is is all you need to do.

The good news is most of your competitors (other candidates you are up against) do not know how to run an interview. Your greater understanding provides you with a better chance of success.

One final point: The more WOW you create, the higher the remuneration you can request. This is a big reward for a couple of days interview preparation.

Do not forget to email the interviewer after the interview, thanking them for their time and the information they shared.

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