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Career-Life Times, Issue #59--The Biggest Mistake in Job Interviews
May 29, 2009

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Issue No. 59 -- May 29, 2009

In This Issue:

  • The Biggest Mistake in Job Interviews
  • Be a (Short) Story Teller
  • How To Get Hired After Getting Arrested
  • Leveraging Your Future
  • Resources
  • Worth Quoting
  • Just for Laughs

    The Biggest Mistake in Job Interviews

    I’ve often said that you have to sell yourself during a job interview. The hiring manager is the customer, and you are the “product.” That’s a fairly simple concept. But it’s incomplete.

    Imagine that Joe is a salesperson at the local Toyota dealer. The Toyota Tundra has just been named Truck of the Year. The truck has been advertised constantly on TV and in the newspaper. It’s the dealership’s best-selling vehicle. There’s a special promotion going on that ends today, and if Joe sells one more vehicle before closing time, he’ll meet his sales goal and receive a nice bonus. But the dealership closes in 20 minutes, so he has little hope of doing that. Then Joe sees a guy drive in, park his 10-year-old pickup truck, get out and walk over to look at a new Tundra. “Looks like I’m going to get that bonus after all!” Joe thinks as he rushes over to greet him.

    Joe: “Hi. Welcome to City Toyota. I’m Joe.”

    Customer: “Hello.”

    Joe: “That’s a beautiful truck, isn’t it?”

    Customer: “Yep, sure is.”

    Joe: “Did you know it was just named Truck of the Year?”

    Customer: “Yep.”

    Then Joe proceeds to tell the customer all about the Tundra’s outstanding qualities, it’s features and benefits, and it’s amazing value. He talks about it for several minutes, being sure to leave no detail out, and finally concludes with, “This is absolutely the best truck you can buy. Don’t you agree?”

    Customer: “Yep. It’s the best truck I’ve ever seen.”

    Joe: “Great!”

    Joe notices the lights are being turned off and the manager is at the door ready to lock up, so he says, “It’s closing time, but I can ask the manager to stay so we can get you in that truck tonight. Shall we go write it up?”

    To Joe’s dismay, the customer says “Nope,” turns away and starts walking back toward his truck.

    Joe follows him and says, “Wait! There’s still time. You can drive a new Tundra home tonight!”

    The customer keeps walking and gets in his truck.

    Joe: “I’ll knock two thousand dollars off the price right now. No one else has gotten a deal like that on a new Tundra. What do you say?”

    The customer starts the engine and just before driving away, says to Joe, “I came in to buy a Prius.”

    Here’s the key that most job candidates miss: you need to know what the customer wants before you can sell it to him.

    The problem is that job candidates THINK they know what the customer wants. After all, they’re responding to an advertisement (job announcement) that spells it all out, right?

    Yes... and no.

    Imagine a manager tells his HR department to hire him a new administrative assistant. Everyone—the HR person who creates the job announcement, the job applicants who respond, and even the manager himself as he conducts the interviews—thinks the manager wants someone who can screen his calls, prepare his correspondence, schedule his appointments, record minutes of his meetings, make his travel arrangements, file his paperwork, etc., all in a competent, friendly, and professional manner.

    Each question during the job interview is designed to determine how closely the candidates match those qualifications and expectations. The candidates respond to those questions by talking about their skills and experience as they try to sell themselves.

    The more prepared candidates talk in terms of “benefits” in addition to “features.” For example: “I have 10 years of experience recording meeting minutes.” (Feature) “I’m familiar with what’s required, won’t need to be trained, and can have accurate minutes posted within 30 minutes of the meeting’s end.” (Benefits). They’ll also talk about accomplishments, not just responsibilities. For example: “In my last job I was responsible for handling the administrative needs of six people.” (Responsibility) “I created a prioritization system to ensure all six individual’s needs were met in a timely manner, and I never missed a deadline.” (Accomplishments)

    Only one candidate, Mary, does something different. She wraps up her answer to the interviewer’s opening question (“Tell me about yourself”) with a question of her own:

    “How can I help you by solving your problems and making your job easier?”

    This question takes the manager by surprise. He responds half-jokingly by replying, “Make our customers stop complaining, and give me three more hours in every day so I have time to do everything I need to get done!”

    Mary then asks more questions, such as “What do most customers complain about?” and “What do you feel are your biggest time wasters?” She listens carefully to the answers, asks follow-up questions to draw out more details... and achieves two very important goals:

    (1) She shows the hiring manager that she’s genuinely interested.

    (2) She gets the manager to reveal the real “product” he needs and wants, and is thus able to position herself as that perfect product.

    The manager didn’t want an “administrative assistant.” He wanted a problem-solver who could make his life easier. Knowing this, Mary answered every question during the interview in a way that showed she understood, would be able to solve his problems, and could make his life easier. In other words, she was exactly what this customer wanted to “buy.”

    Remember Joe? If his first question when greeting the customer had been, “How can I help you today?” he would’ve earned that bonus. His mistake was focusing on what HE wanted instead of what the customer wanted.

    That’s the biggest and most common mistake job candidates make.

    By being genuinely interested in solving the hiring manager’s problems, you will more effectively sell yourself as the product he really wants—and get the job!

    Be a (Short) Story Teller

    During your job interview, make use of this old marketing tip: “Facts tell but stories sell.” Remember, you are selling yourself. Whenever possible, answer questions with a short story that gives specific examples of your experiences and successes. Notice I said “short.” You don’t want to ramble or take up too much time; you want to be brief but still make your point.

    For example, imagine two people who are interviewing for a job as a dog groomer are asked, “Have you ever dealt with aggressive dogs?”

    Candidate Joe answers, “Yes, about 10 percent of the dogs I’ve groomed had aggressive tendencies. I know how to handle them.”

    Candidate Mary answers, “Oh yes, quite often. I remember one situation where a client brought in his shepherd mix, Chomper. He was well behaved until his owner left. Then he started growling and I guessed how he got his name. I could tell from his stance he wasn’t going to let me get near him with my clippers. I tried using a soothing tone of voice, but that didn't work. I think he might have torn my arm off if I hadn’t used the Schweitzer Maneuver on him. That calmed him down right away, and Chomper and I didn’t have any problems after that. As a matter of fact, he soon became one of my best clients.” (Disclaimer: I know nothing about dog grooming; I invented the fictitious Schweitzer Maneuver for illustrative purposes.)

    Don’t you agree that Mary’s answer is better? Sure, Joe answered the question, but Mary did more than that—she gave a specific example and told a quick story that will be remembered by the interviewers.

    In today’s job market where there are dozens of highly qualified candidates for each opening, telling relevant stories will make you stand out, be remembered, and greatly increase your odds of getting hired!

    How To Get Hired After Getting Arrested

    A reader wrote: Dear Bonnie: I did something dumb 10 years ago and got arrested. How can I convince a hiring manager that I'm the best person for the job with that on my record?

    Here's my answer:

    1. Do not lie. Many job applications ask if you've been convicted of a crime. Some ask if you've EVER been convicted; some ask about convictions within the past 10 years; some list conviction exceptions that you need not report. Read the form carefully so you're clear on what they're asking, then answer truthfully.

    You may be tempted to leave it blank. That won't do you any good. Forms that are not complete are the first to be tossed into the reject pile.

    You may be tempted to lie by checking "No." This may help you to get further along in the hiring process, but if the company does a background check (most do), you'll kill your chances of getting the job--because you lied, not because you made a mistake in the past. If they do the background check after hiring you (this is dumb but sometimes happens), they'll fire you when they discover the truth. Again, for lying. Then you'll have THAT to explain, as well as your past conviction, when trying to get hired again.

    If the form does not ask the question, and you are not asked about past convictions during the interview, do not bring it up... unless and until you feel they are close to offering you the job.

    2. Make them curious. Most forms that ask about convictions include space for additional information. (If not, you should attach a separate note/cover letter for this step.) Even if the form directs that this space be used to specify the type of conviction, sentence served, etc., ignore that and write this instead: "I made a mistake. It's the reason I'll be your BEST employee. I'll tell you why during my interview."

    Let's face it. Fair or not, most companies will not hire a person who has been convicted of a felony. There are too many well-qualified candidates to choose from who have spotless records. So most reviewers will toss out an application form with "YES" checked for the conviction question... unless you give them a compelling reason NOT to do so. That's why you have to make them curious.

    3. Ace the interview. Making them curious may get you to the job interview, but it won't get you hired. You have to do an excellent job during the interview, so be sure to do all you can to prepare.

    Their first question will probably be about that conviction you honestly reported. Here's how to respond: Tell them you are very excited about the chance to compete for a job with their company; that you're extremely thrilled to have this wonderful opportunity. Explain that you have great respect for the company and for the people you're speaking with... and that's why you want to be totally open and honest with them. Say that if they run a background check, they will find... (whatever is on your record).

    You don't need to give a lot of information or any details about the incident. Important: Do NOT try to justify what you did or say you were wrongly accused; do NOT make any excuses.

    Instead, just say: "It's something from my past that I'm not proud of. Nothing like it has happened since, and it will never happen again. I've learned a lot from the experience, particularly when it comes to employment. And I can tell you right now that, if you hire me and give me this chance, I'll work ten times harder than anyone else because I'll want to prove to you that the mistake I made ten years ago does not define who I am today. I promise you won't regret giving me this opportunity."

    Most hiring managers will appreciate your honesty. It may even get you the job!

    Leveraging Your Future

    (This is a guest article by Nan S. Russell)

    A friend's hairstylist saw her bookings drop as the economy fell, ultimately losing her job at a salon. But when my friend asked her if she'd be willing to make a house-call to style her ailing mother's hair, the stylist saw an opportunity. Ultimately, she launched a specialized in-home business and now makes more money than she ever did.

    In these difficult times I'm enamored by this simple success story. I regularly talk to people on my radio show, work with individuals or client organizations, and connect with people when I speak at conferences. Recently I've been hearing intense heels-dug-in resistance to change. And I've also watched more and more people overlooking the opportunities that problems, challenges, and difficult changes can bring.

    But not this hairstylist. She heard a problem, saw a niche, tried it, learned from it, and then leveraged it into a new delivery model for her services. She didn't resist change in how she delivered her skills, nor did she focus on all the reasons why going to someone else's home to style hair wouldn't work. Instead, she tried it by taking action on the seed of an idea, and ultimately evolving that shoot into a thriving business.

    If immigrant Levi Strauss, arriving in San Francisco with bundles of cloth for making tents and wagon coverings, hadn't seen an opportunity in complaining gold miners with torn trousers, he wouldn't have created what we know today as jeans.

    If Dr. June Carroll hadn't been struggling to navigate desert roads at night to treat remote patients, she never would have painted white lines on the road to help her find her way, a practice quickly adopted for all roads by the California Highway Commission.

    If Clarence Birdseye hadn't noticed the almost frozen fish he'd caught ice-fishing in sub-zero weather was revived in a bucket of water, he never would have contemplated that fresh food might be able to be frozen and then restored.

    These people were creatively focused, gathering bits and pieces here and there, absorbing information, and threading it together to create new pathways for their careers, new ideas for their businesses, new financial avenues for their innovative problem solving. That approach differentiates people who are winning at working from those who aren't.

    You see, people who are winning at working understand that opportunity can be anywhere and everywhere. It can be in the recurring problem you have the skills to solve if you listen; it can be in the new request you can fill if you're open to it; it can be in the observation of everyday life if you're curious.

    But there's a critical difference. Being able to leverage your creative focus is not about having ideas or noticing opportunities. It's about action. As the father of electronic gaming, Nolan Bushnell put it, "Everyone who has ever taken a shower has had an idea. It's the person who gets out of the shower, dries off, and does something about it that makes a difference."

    Want to be winning at working? Creatively focus your ideas to leverage your future.

    (c) 2009 Nan S. Russell. Nan is the author of "Hitting Your Stride: Your Work, Your Way." She has spent over 20 years in management, most recently with QVC as a Vice President. Nan has a B.A. from Stanford University and M.A. from the University of Michigan. She is the founder and president of MountainWorks Communications, as well as an author, speaker and consultant. Visit for archived columns, Ask Nan, weblog, more about Nan's book, or to contact Nan.


    More Articles. You can find more articles on my website by clicking on Article Index. Here are a couple of new ones you might enjoy:

  • Who is Reading Your Executive Resume and Why Should You Care?

  • Always an Interview, Never an Offer?

    Ask the Headhunter Blog. Nick Corcodilos offers "The insider’s edge on job search and hiring" in his helpful and tell-it-like-it-is blog. I don’t always agree with every piece of Nick’s advice, but his blog is a fantastic resource for job seekers and I highly recommend that you check it out: Ask the Headhunter.

    "Internet Your Way to a New Job". This book is by one of my favorite career experts, Alison Doyle, and it thoroughly explains online job searching, professional branding, social and professional networking, and career building. Even better, it does so with uncomplicated advice, helpful tips, and effective techniques. If you want to find a new job and grow your career, get this book. For more info and a preview, go here: Internet Your Way to a New Job.

    Save Money With Coupons. More than 40 million people search online for coupons they can print out for discounts at local stores. If you're one of them (or soon will be), here's a great site where you can search by zip code and/or product/service for coupons you can use right now (it took me about 30 seconds to find a $6-off coupon and a buy-one-get-one-free coupon for two of my favorite restaurants):

    Best Career Strategies. I have a new ebook called "The Best Career Strategies of 2009: How to Get Hired and Get Ahead Even When the Economy is Getting Worse." It's super-duper awesome (because of the contributing authors, not because of me), and it’s totally F*REE. You can grab your copy here: Job Interview Success System. The job market is worse than ever, so doesn't it make sense to get a big advantage over your competition when applying for a job? My step-by-step system will give you that advantage... guaranteed. Get all the details here: Job Interview Success System.

    Worth Quoting

    "Spectacular achievement
    is always preceded
    by spectacular preparation."
    (Robert H. Schuller)

    Just for Laughs

    The Old Couple

    The old man placed an order for one hamburger, French fries and a drink.

    He unwrapped the plain hamburger and carefully cut it in half, placing one half in front of his wife.

    He then carefully counted out the French fries, dividing them into two piles and neatly placed one pile in front of his wife

    He took a sip of the drink, his wife took a sip and then set the cup down between them. As he began to eat his few bites of hamburger, the people around them were looking over and whispering.

    Obviously they were thinking, “That poor old couple -- all they can afford is one meal for the two of them.”

    As the man began to eat his fries a young man came to the table and politely offered to buy another meal for the old couple. The old man said, they were just fine -- they were used to sharing everything.

    People closer to the table noticed the little old lady hadn't eaten a bite. She sat there watching her husband eat and occasionally taking turns sipping the drink.

    Again, the young man came over and begged them to let him buy another meal for them. This time the old woman said “No, thank you, we are used to sharing everything.”

    Finally, as the old man finished and was wiping his face neatly with the napkin, the young man again came over to the little old lady who had yet to eat a single bite of food and asked “What is it you are waiting for?”

    She answered...

    "THE TEETH."

    So, what did you think of this issue? Any suggestions? Topic ideas? Questions? I really appreciate your feedback. Please send me a note at

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