Unwritten Rules of Coffee Chats – part 1

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Fact (or fiction): Informational interviews are your way into a career opportunity. They are the key to getting your dream job or at least your foot in the door. They don’t take much effort or preparation, and they are basically your shortcut to getting employed. Right? Not so much.

While an informational interview is a great way to get connected within your desired industry, they require thoughtful preparation. Thus, we interviewed Donna Yuen from Bell Canada to get the best tips for informational interviews, phone, and coffee chats.

Donna Yuen
Donna Yuen
Consultant, Talent Acquisition – Campus Recruitment
Bell Canada
Photo by www.olivephotography.ca

Donna met for coffee with a variety of managers, directors, and senior leaders when she was a student and a new grad. Now coming full circle and working in the recruitment world, she often has phone and coffee chats with students when they ask as a way of giving back. By experiencing both sides of the table in the “networking game”, she’s come up with best practices when it comes to informational interviews.

Before the Meeting

Choosing who and when to reach out

“My tip #1 would be to really be selective with who you reach out to after you’ve gathered new contacts at a recent event. As you’re looking for someone to build a relationship with, it will be easier to develop the ones where you felt a genuine connection with at the event,” says Donna. In other words, a scattergun approach won’t necessarily work. There is no point in contacting someone who you didn’t feel a connection with or someone who works for a company you aren’t actually interested in working at.

Timing is key. If you ask for a meeting during “low season” for recruiters (i.e. January to June), you will have more success booking time. It’s harder for coffee chats to be set up from July to November, as it’s the heart of recruitment season. “Obviously, if you’re a 3rd year student looking to connect with people in the industry in September, I wouldn’t discourage you from doing this, but it may be hard to secure time. However, this is a great tip for early year students reading this article and wondering when the optimal meeting period is,” says Donna.

Setting up the meeting

You’ve chosen who to contact, done your research, you’ve reached out, and they said yes! Here are some practical tips on the next steps.

1. First, ask to meet in 2-4 weeks and provide a high-level overview of your availability.
2. Once you’ve agreed on the date and time, offer to create and send a calendar invite that the contact can easily accept and automatically add to their calendar. This way they won’t get double-booked for a meeting as their work calendar will be blocked. When creating the invite:

  • A good way to format the event subject is Name of Recruiter/Name of Student, easy identifiers of the candidate, type of meeting & your phone number (e.g. Donna/Jane (school name) – phone chat, 123-456-789). Having this information in the event title makes it easy for your contact to reach you in case they need to reschedule or clarify something. This is especially important if your interview is over the phone – make sure you’re giving your contact a way to call you!
  • “It’s important to keep in mind that recruiters are speaking to multiple candidates at a time. The easier you make it for the recruiter to identify you quickly, the better they can support your inquiries!” says Donna.

3. One day prior to the meeting, send a confirmation email before 5 PM to avoid any disappointments. This is also a great opportunity to ask for directions if you’re meeting in-person or for the best phone number to reach your contact if you’re connecting over the phone.

Prepare!

Always think of the questions you’d like to ask to guide the conversation. Keep in mind the length of your meeting too – if you only managed to get 15 minutes of their time, you realistically only have time for 2-3 key questions (i.e. project 5 minutes per question). It is also a good idea to send the questions in advance once you confirm your meeting so that your contact has time to prepare valuable answers.

Donna gets asked many generic questions, but she says she would prefer to answer more company-specific questions. “Asking about the culture at the firm as a whole might not give you deep insights, but a question like: ‘Are people allowed to use their personal phones at work?’ could,” says Donna. Make sure you’re not asking for the information you can find on their website – show that you’re prepared.

Additional tip: informal chats are great opportunities to think of questions that position you as an impressive candidate. While the main purpose of this dialogue is, of course, to learn about the company, don’t be afraid to share about yourself, your work experience, and career aspirations. While there may not be a position for you right now, by planting seeds in the recruiters’ mind, you never know when they might consider you for the next role.

Figure out your purpose

“Is there a job that you can recommend for me?” is one of the indicators that a candidate is simply looking for any opportunity, and possibly did not put in the effort to carefully review the company’s career’s page. While it’s common to feel like you need to jump at anything that comes your way in terms of employment, starting with this question in an initial LinkedIn message does not set a great impression to any recruiter. Instead, if the job is currently advertised, be sure to mention it (and a job # if applicable) as it makes it easier for the recruiter to look up who the hiring team is, assuming that they view you as a good candidate. If roles you’re interested in aren’t advertised, at the very least, have a specific department in mind, and list out a few example roles that align with your interests.

Do your research

Finding out specifics about the company gives you a chance to sell yourself to a recruiter in the follow-up. For example, if you found out that Bell highly values mental health and has a week in the year annually dedicated towards wellness initiatives (both which are true at Bell), you could mention some mental health-related initiatives that you were a part of in your thank you email.

Make sure you understand the logistics

Donna stresses that the smooth process of making the connection is part of the impression you will make. “For one of the calls, I was using a conference bridge to connect with the student for an informal meeting. I was on the conference line for 8 minutes without realizing that the student simply didn’t know how to use it and didn’t let me know.” Not being sure how to connect can be stressful for both the candidate and the recruiter. Take the time to clarify small things like that before the meeting!

Stay tuned for part 2 of this article to find out what to do during and after your coffee chat!

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