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Asking intelligent, appropriate questions is one of the best ways to score points in job interviews.  Your ability to ask thoughtful questions will demonstrate that your interest in the position is serious and allows you to learn more about the company's needs.  It can also make an interview more of a collaborative business meeting, instead of a one sided inquisition.

The person who asks the questions controls the agenda.  By posing thoughtful questions, you can take control of the interview process and convince employers that you're the most desirable applicant.  Most candidates don't fully realize how much they're judged by the questions they ask.  Excellent questions make interviewers think, they challenge them to zero in on key issues that affect the job or the company.

To query interviewers effectively, start by developing a list of appropriate questions.  These should be formulated well ahead of your meeting with the employer.  Don't include questions that will come across as self-serving, such as "how much does the position pay?"  or "how many hours a week would I be working?"  Instead, focus on the hiring manager's requirements.

Using questions or probes as a technique is at the very heart of the consultative selling process.  The focus of consultative selling is on the customer, not the seller.  Start brainstorming about potential questions by considering what you need to know about the job and employer's history, current expectations and objectives for the future.  (See questions listed below.) 

When investigating the history of a position, you can discover what parts of the job haven't been performed well - or at all.  Then, explain how you could do a better job.  For example, during a recent interview, a physician executive asked, "What parts of the medical director's job would you like to see expanded or more fully utilized?"  The interviewer replied that computerization of the hospital departments was seriously lagging, so the executive immediately introduced his recent work achievements in the area, as well as his continuing education in hospital information processing.

Exploring the company's present expectations is also critical.  Asking a question such as "what are three characteristics the company considers to be unique about itself?" will certainly make the employer think.  Invariably, the answer will provide some interesting insight into the organization's culture, image-consciousness and ideal vision of itself.

Since change is inevitable, you also should try to gauge where the company is headed.  Then you'll be able to address the employer's future needs as well.  A facilities engineer did just this is an interview with a flexible-packaging company.  When he learned of its productivity gains from implementing "just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing techniques, he was inspired to ask, "What part of the operation would you like to see future gains in from the JIT implementation?"  Labor costs were mentioned as an immediate objective, so the engineer discussed how JIT techniques effectively reduced labor costs at his previous employer, an industrial coatings manufacturer.

When to Ask

Developing intelligent questions is only half the battle.  The other part of your challenge is to introduce questions in an appropriate, timely fashion.  Basically, there are four windows of opportunity for introducing your own questions:

When you've deliberately asked the interviewer for permission to "ask a few important questions."  (This is particularly useful early in the interview.)

When an awkward silence occurs, and you sense the interviewer might actually welcome a question or two.

When the interviewer is dominating the conversation, and you have the opportunity to politely interrupt. 

When the interviewer formally invites your questions.

Let’s take a look at the first scenario.  Say you're asked the traditional and hated question: "Tell me about yourself."  You could respond, "I'd love to, but would you mind telling me a little bit about the position first so that I might make my comments as relevant as possible?  Would that be OK?"  By using such phrases as "Would you mind...?"  "Would that be OK...?" and "I was wondering..." you'll subtly communicate that you respect the interviewer's right of control and only want a temporary break from his or her agenda.  Never vie for control with the interviewer, you'll certainly lose.

Questions may also be introduced when the interviewer appears to be stumbling, or is silent.  This situation occurs more often than you might think.  After all, interviewers are human too.  They have the same anxieties and insecurities as you do when they're "on stage" during an interview.  They have busy days, and may not have had as much time to prepare for the meeting as they'd like.  Or perhaps they're just not sure what in-depth questions they should ask you.  Here's a chance to help the interviewer out.

A manufacturing applicant recently discovered the value of this approach during an interview in which the conversation kept stalling.  Rather than apologize about the deafening silence, the applicant took advantage of it by asking, "Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?"  The interviewer was only too happy to let him pick up the ball and run with it.

A more difficult situation to handle is when the interviewer talks too much-dominating precious interview time and not providing a natural break for you to intercede.  Here's where polite, but firm assertiveness is called for.  Elbow your way in while begging pardon for your intrusion: "Excuse me (Mr. Motormouth), but you're mentioning a lot of exciting things I'd like to talk about.  Do you mind if I ask a few questions of you while I'm thinking about it?"

Of course, this technique won't always disarm your opponent, nor will it necessarily get your questions answered.  One salesperson recalls an interview where she thought she successfully lobbed a recruiter's questions with one of her own: "Would you mind describing the ideal sales candidate you're looking for to fill this position?"  she'd asked. 

The interviewer smugly laughed, and retorted, "I'm a sales-person myself, so why don't you tell me your concept of the ideal sales candidate?"  Touché!

If you don't feel comfortable taking an active role in interviews, you can always wait until the recruiter asks for your questions.  Unfortunately, this usually doesn't happen until the end of meetings, when your ability to identify key issues and then "package" your answers is minimal.

Besides, you have nothing to lose by trying to responsibly share the agenda with your interviewer.  In fact, if executed seamlessly, you'll acquire valuable information that can give you a competitive edge. 


              Sample Questions to Ask in Interviews

On Past Performance

What would the most recent incumbent say about this position?

What improvements would you like to see in this position?

Has anyone's performance in this department really stood out from the rest? 

Why was that?

What have been some of the common denominators among the company's most successful employees? 

How about those who were unsuccessful?

What's been unique about some of your "star" performers?

What would you add or subtract from the incumbent's performance to increase their effectiveness or success rate?

Could any aspects of the current position be performed better?  Which ones?

Present Expectations

How would you describe the "ideal" candidate for this position?

What qualities or skills would make a new employee fully successful in the position?

In your opinion, what sorts of things would lead to failure on this position?

What are three characteristics the company considers to be unique or particularly attractive about itself?

How would you describe the company's business climate?

In what areas does the company excel? 

In what area does it have limitations or problems?

What's the nicest thing a competitor ever said about you?

What outside influences affect the organization's growth?

What kinds of training are available here?  What tends to get emphasized?

Future objectives

What's the growth potential of this position a few years down the road?

How vulnerable would this position be in the event of a company downsizing?

What kinds of new products or services are on the company's drawing boards?

What technology will be the basis of the company's future business?


What new skills are most critical for the work force to learn?

What are some of the organization's key strategic objectives?  How will the company bring these about?

What current job responsibilities might become obsolete?

If some critical organization changes occur, what skills or qualifications will be needed to ensure successful job performance? 

Why will they be important?

(This article was primarily directed at SALES professionals, but certainly applies to virtually any interviewing situation.)


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