Phone A Friend: The Importance Of Asking The Right Questions

Earlier this week I went out for dinner with some friends, and one of them told us that she has applied to be on the new series of ITV’s ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’.  Getting a bit caught up in the excitement of it all, I offered my services to be one of her ‘phone a friend’ options on the night, if she gets selected.  We agreed that I would have a think about what subjects I would be confident enough to answer questions on.

The conversation moved on, and as usual, we found ourselves talking about Brexit, and Donald Trump, and politics in general.  At which point one of my friends wisely objected that the conversation was ‘too depressing’.  She was right.  So we changed topic, and instead talked about TV programmes, films, celebrities, the Rugby World Cup, cars, and Fortnite.

Later in the evening, my friend remarked that she could now say with confidence that the subjects she would not trust me with as her ‘phone a friend’ included TV programmes, films, celebrities, rugby, cars and Fortnite.

She was right, of course.  It’s not just about having someone on the end of the line who is willing to take a punt, it’s about asking the right questions.  Fortunately, my friend has a plan B – she knows a lot of people who are smarter than me on most topics, and I’ll still be on hand if the million-dollar question happens to be ‘what are Steph’s favourite wines’, or something like that.

When Else Is Asking The Right Questions Important?

In job interviews, we don’t have the luxury of phoning a friend, but a lot of people underestimate the importance of asking questions – the right questions – when they get the opportunity.   We’ve all been there.  It’s the end of a gruelling job interview, your coffee cup is empty, your mouth is dry, and the interviewers sits back, folds his arms, and asks you if you have any questions for him.  That sense of relief that washed over you when you realised the interview was nearing an end deserts you, and you are gasping for a question, any question, that will ensure you don’t have to utter the dreaded ‘I think you’ve already answered all my questions during the interview’.  To be honest, if you’re saying this, you might as well just say ‘thank you, I’ll see myself out’.

A job interview ought to be a 2-way process, so if it’s been a good one, hopefully you will have enjoyed plenty of relaxed, good natured back and forth chat up until this point.  But if you don’t ask questions, then your interview will end abruptly, whereas the candidates who do ask questions can keep the chat going, start developing a rapport, and impress their future boss with their knowledge of the industry and the extent of their preparation.

What Are The Right Questions?

The right questions will demonstrate that you have thoroughly researched the business, and that you are insightful and diligent in your approach. They will show that you understand the challenges of the role and are up for facing them. Here are some good examples of the style and depth of question you can ask:

  • “It seems to me that your main competitors are x,y, and z. What do you think they are getting right in terms of strategy?”
  • “I read on your blog that the business acquired x in July 2018, how has that impacted on your team?”
  • “I read in x newspaper that the business won an award last month, how does the business celebrate success?”
  • “Reading through your customer testimonials, it looks like around 40% of your clients are overseas. What steps has the business taken to ensure that business is not negatively impacted by Brexit?”

Why Do These Types Of Questions Work?

What makes these questions so good is that each of them is based on a premise of having done an abundance of research above and beyond merely spending 20 mins on the company website, which is inevitably what a lot of candidates do.  They also allow the interviewer to paint a very full and honest picture of the challenges facing the business, and how they are tackling them, and how you will contribute positively to that.  And they enable you to present yourself as someone that is not just insightful and well-prepared, but who is not just looking for a job, they are looking for the right job, which will have a positive impact on how they regard you.

For some basic questions to generate a conversation at the end of an interview, this article is useful.  But if you are trying to stand out from the competition, we recommend that you be prepared to go the extra mile.  Don’t be afraid to bring a notepad with you with some prepared questions in it, and to enable you to write down others if they occur to you during the interview.  And yes, it’s fine to ask if you can follow up afterwards if you have any additional questions.

Final Thoughts

In my experience, the candidates that our clients hire are seldom the ones whose CVs tick the most boxes.  Impressing a client in today’s market is not a box ticking exercise, it’s about passion, enthusiasm, energy and attitude.  You can demonstrate all of these things and more by being well prepared and asking the right questions.

Don’t underestimate the importance – by the time you’re staring blankly at the interviewer with an empty coffee cup and a dry mouth, it will be too late to phone a friend.