First interview – how to prepare

Exciting times, you have been invited to meet a potential new employer for what sounds like a great opportunity for furthering your career.

Problem is, you probably are not the only person they will be meeting. Assuming a shortlist of three candidates (and at least one internal candidate), it seems that your chance of success is 1:4.

So how can you swing the odds in your favour?

There are plenty of online articles and books about clever ways to answer interview questions, how to walk, talk and shake hands with your potential new employer and there are plenty of Do’s and Don’t’s regarding your conduct in the meeting and of course the dreaded dress code.
After interviewing potential short list candidates on behalf of my clients for more than 20 years, I have come to the conclusion that if you prepare well for the interview and stick to your plan then you have nothing to fear about.

Whether you have attended scores of interviews, whether you are naturally a confident person or whether you believe the interviewer will not be as senior as you are, if you do not prepare, the likelihood is that you will fail.

So what to do? Well you can’t go far wrong by following these tips:

1. Prepare a 10 minute mini commercial about yourself:
a. Expect the interviewer to have read your CV, so start off by giving only a brief overview of the companies and positions you have held (in no more than 2-3 sentences).
b. Then highlight the experience you have gained that is relevant to the job you are interviewing for, ie ‘the biggest team I have managed was at XYZ, where we achieved the following’, or ‘whilst at XYZ I lead the transformation project that lead to a 180 degree change in company culture’.
c. Highlight 2-3 specific achievements that are relevant to the job you are interviewing for. You really want to talk in quite some detail about what the situation was, what plan you / your team came up with, how you implemented it and what the final result was. Note: the more specific you can be in terms of % or £, the more memorable it will be for the interviewer. Achievements ought to be time based, specific and bench marked, it is the difference between saying ‘whilst at XYZ I significantly improved sales’ and saying ‘in 2013 I increased sales by 15% or £1.5m on a like-for-like basis against a market increase of only 2%’.

Btw you prepare this 10 minute mini commercial so that you can answer the ‘so tell me a bit about yourself’ question. You need to practise it, so that you know what you’re going to say and in what order. Don’t be word perfect, because you might come across as a news reader. Make sure to stick to 10mins – shorter will make you wishy washy, longer may make you verbose (please note that most interviewers will start to switch off after 10mins), however with 10 mins you’ll come across as succinct, to the point and (hopefully) with great clarity.
2. Research the company:
a. Read their website enough times for you to be able to speak knowledgeable about the business.
b. Search the internet for recent news articles on the company.
c. Visit the company’s stores, talk to the store staff, observe what works well and make a list of the things you think do not work well / want to ask questions about. Make a purchase, use their product and have an opinion about the experience and the product.
d. Check the online user experience, compare the digital customer experience to the one you had in store. How did the check out procedure work, was the order delivered on time. What did the packaging look like?

3. Research the competition:
a. How do they compare in service, price points, quality, availability, customer journey on and off line?
b. Speak to customers, why do they shop there? Do they also shop at the business you’re interviewing with? Why, or why not?

4. Research the interviewer(s):
a. LinkedIn is of course a great source for this, however are there also any articles published by or about your interviewer? Check!
b. Is there anyone in the interviewer’s background, who you know? Can you find out some background information on the interviewer? Even to know where they have last holidayed or what sports team they support can help you find common ground, which is so important in establishing rapport.

5. Prepare a SWOT analysis or a brief presentation based on your findings on the business. Preface it with ‘without any concrete information, but more as an outsider looking in, I believe that…’. You need to let the interviewer know in a subtle way, that you have done your home work. And you have done it thoroughly.
Btw if you (and I suggest that you do) leave a few slides / printed pages behind, then make sure they are printed on good quality paper, make sure that your name is printed on each page and depending on how many pages you leave behind, either put them in a nice folder or have them bound professionally. It is amazing how a few quid spent on a simple hand out can make a massive difference.

6. Find out what the company’s dress code is (even better, find out what the interviewer’s dress code is) and either match it or slightly better it. It’s better to be a bit neater than a bit more casual than expected…

7. Make a list of topics you want to talk about / questions you want to ask. The first question after your 10mins mini commercial ought to be ‘although I have done a lot of research, I wouldn’t mind hearing from you what the company has been through in the last 3 years, where it is today and where it aims to be in 3 years time’. Followed by ‘what has prompted the business to want to recruit a new xyz and what would this person need to achieve in their first 6 months in order to be deemed successful’.
Btw, the more you can find out about the interviewer’s or the company’s expectations for this role before you have to start answering their questions the better it is, because it will give you a good idea of what to highlight in your background later on to pique their interest.

8. Prepare yourself for the difficult questions – ‘what are your salary expectations’ (never give them a number, because you will be committed to it), ‘what are your weaknesses’ (give them a past development need that you have now overcome or a development need that has nothing to do with the job you are doing or the job that you are interviewing for).

9. Before you go to the interview think about how you can give some anecdotal evidence of your achievements. Just quoting facts and figures will ensure that the interviewer will forget your achievements, whilst if you wrap them up in an anecdote and tell them a ‘memorable story’ then that is far more likely to stick. Even better if it is a funny story, if you can make the interviewer smile then you are definitely building rapport.
Btw, don’t tell jokes, stick to the truth, don’t set out to be the funny guy. However, we all have experiences that we can smile about – share them!

10. Prepare a few ‘closes’ to the meeting, so that you can chose which one to use depending on the level of rapport you have built. A pushy, in your face close would be: ‘do you at this stage have any reservations regarding my ability to do the job or my ability to fit in from a cultural or personality perspective’. Less direct would be ‘I enjoyed the meeting, what are the next steps please’. Note: you will learn more from the first one, but it might not always be appropriate to use it.

Good luck and make sure to enjoy the experience, because you will come across as more confident if you set out to enjoy it. If you have any questions or need more advice, feel free to contact me.

Customer service – nurture or nature

Here I am in early September, the summer seemingly behind us, hurtling towards autumn and slightly down-hearted after a number of conversations with clients, candidates and general retail friends. Things are tough, sales are slow, margins are thinning, Sterling is dropping, do I dare say it – Brexit, no consumer confidence, general uncertainty, etc, etc.

Boris, May, Corbyn, it is just all so depressing.  House of Fraser, Homebase … do I need to go on?

However (and there is always a however as you can’t keep an optimist down), we are quietly forgetting that unemployment is at an all-time low, the fact that retail businesses are disappearing, means that there is more left of the pie for the remaining retailers to go after (not many tears shed over the demise of Homebase at the Kingfisher head office, I bet..) and the change in weather will drive fashion sales – woolly jumper anyone?

Although I absolutely recognise that retail is a tough gig right now, I cannot help but believe that retailers are making it tougher for themselves than necessary. And this, dear friends, brings me to one of my favourite subjects – Customer Experience.

By and large, we cannot control the economy, the weather or the political climate. However we can, to quite a large extent, control how customers are made to feel when we have them as a captive audience in our shops.

That of course is down to shop fit, visual merchandising, availability and most importantly the shop floor staff.
I found it fascinating that straight after the demise of House of Fraser and before it was bought out of administration, I was in Debenhams and had a shocking experience of disinterest, apathy, name it what you will.

One of their main competitors had gone bust and this person clearly did not see it as a threat that she too might lose her job if Debenhams’ fortunes aren’t turned around, nor did she see it as an opportunity to win a customer.

And although I was frustrated at the time, actually it wasn’t her fault. And here we come to the question: nurture or nature.

Had she been recruited because of her extrovert personality, her ability to connect with people from all walks of life, her desire to please and make people feel good, then she would have made a sale that day or in the very least, leave a lasting impression of great customer service.

Had she been recruited as a ‘blank canvas’, someone we’ll train and develop to within an inch of her life and teach her to eat her kpi’s for breakfast and understand that the shop floor is a stage, so you have to put on your best sales act, then she would have made a sale and possible leave an impression of good service.

The fact that she clearly did not fall into the first category, means that something had gone wrong for this person in the second category…

So, as always, the recruitment question is, do we hold out for the individuals with the right mentality, personality and outlook? Or do we recruit and then train and develop (and hope for the best)?

Of course skill sets can be trained, however my view regarding attitude and general soft skills is that you can’t train what God didn’t put in.

Is there any retail organisation out there that is consciously paying a higher hourly rate in order to attract just the individuals that they feel will enhance their customer experience? Is any business trying this in an isolated manner, ie in a store designated to be a centre of excellence?

Would the additional payroll costs be negated by additional sales, more loyal customers, higher frequency or a real lasting relationship with the customer?

I can’t answer those questions, however I would love to hear from those that can.

Of course, I would like to think that the situation described above was one isolated incident, however there are so many shops where you enter enthusiastically and leave disappointed.

I genuinely believe that those retail businesses that deliver exceptional customer experience, are those who will survive.