Interviewers Favor Job Seekers Who Sell Themselves

While the number of banking jobs shrinks, the number of job seekers grows larger every day. There's a lot of competition out there.

People lucky enough to get interviews for coveted positions are learning a quick lesson: sell yourself.

What's more, career counselors and outplacement specialists applaud this aggressive approach, in good times and bad.

"The conventional wisdom for interviewing is to wear the right clothes, do a lot of research on the company, visit a week before the interview to de-stress yourself, prepare a biographical/professional response, and hope that - somewhere during the courtship ritual - a spark will fly," said Erik Rambusch, a management consultant based in Norwalk, Conn.

"What I'm suggesting is that candidates look at the interview as a consultative sales call. It's far more effective than the normal interview."

Traditional job interviewing advice urged candidates to be polite; essentially, to speak when spoken to Mr. Rambusch proposes a more aggressive stance. He expects job seekers to question the interviewer, seeking cues to the kind of person the company wants in a particular slot - and the results expected.

"As a candidate," Mr. Rambusch said, "you need to ask: |Can I really satisfy these points of interest?'"

Other experts agree on this approach to job interviews. "The inclination is to feel like a student in front of a teacher, or a subordinate with a boss," said Terry Van Tell, a New York-based communications consultant with many clients in the financial services and banking industries.

"You have to cut through clutter and learn how to stand out. Bankers deal so much in substance that they sometimes neglect style.

"Bankers have to be prepared for relevant questions about their own industry, but also about what kind of person they are."

Getting Personal

"Tell me about yourself" is perhaps the most significant query posed during an interview.

"The answer to that question gives the interviewer what he or she needs to differentiate that job seeker from others, and make a hiring decision," said James E. Challenger, president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., an international outplacement consulting firm based in Chicago.

What's more, job seekers should think of the interviewer as they would a customer, and tailor their pitch accordingly.

"You've got to be able to measure up the interviewer and adjust to his or her style," said Helene Young, a former marketing group vice president for Bank of America. Ms. Young is now vice president of Marketing One, based in Portland, Ore. Her company sells mutual funds and annuities to banks and thrifts.

Adjusting to the Interviewer

Some people just don't talk about the job, Ms. Young said. They tell stories about themselves, instead.

Job seekers should listen - and laugh at the stories, where appropriate. They should engage their interviewers socially, because the decision will probably be made on a social basis.

When facing a very organized interviewer, on the other hand, it is essential to get down to brass tacks, Ms. Young said. She advises the job seeker to keep a pad of paper handy, in the briefcase, with questions to ask during the interview.

The aggressive approach to an interview isn't always easy. To pull off this strategy, the applicant must be well prepared. And that doesn't mean just reading the annual report.

"A lot of job seekers are using their alumni directories to find people who are already at companies where they will be interviewed and use that connection to ask for a |reconnaissance' interview," Mr. Rambusch said.

"At that interview with a friendly alum, job-hunting executives are able to mine them for information about the company that is impossible to discover solely through annual reports and visits to the library - giving them a better shot at success."

The Forceful Finale

Career counselors recommend maintaining the aggressive pitch right up to the end of the interview. Before leaving, the applicant must request feedback.

"Just ask: |What are my chances for success? Have you narrowed the field? Are you still interviewing?'" Ms. Young suggested.

"If that doesn't elicit the response you deserve, get a little stronger. Say: |I'm looking an another opportunity and I need to know where I stand with you.'

"Don't be afraid to ask. Remember that interviewers are just like animals: They can smell fear."

Bankers who've tried the aggressive tack say that it works.

"I had never thought of a job interview as a sales situation in which I was supposed to make a |close,'" one job seeker said. "The sales technique is a definite improvement over the hostage technique, where the interviewer asks questions and the interviewee prays for his life."

Carving Out an Opening

The more aggressive stance can help the job seeker nab a nonexistent position, Mr. Rambusch said. The interviewer might seem to be impressed with a candidate's credentials, but under the restrictions of a hiring freeze. In such a case, Mr. Rambusch suggests, the applicant should propose a freelance or consulting assignment on a specific project, leaving the door open for future on-staff opportunities.

"You want to test for lingering doubts or objections. You don't want them to think of loose ends after you've left," Mr. Rambusch added.

"Because I had worked in one organization for so long, I had neglected to sell myself," said a veteran of 10 years at Citibank. "I learned, on the outside, that I had to sell.

"This job market is so competitive that you can't show any doubt or hesitation. You have to convey enormous confidence."

Perceptions of Perfection

A Bankers Trust New York Corp. employee agreed: "You have to focus on what the interviewer wants, listen to what the requirements are, and get the definition of the perfect candidate to present yourself that way.

"You learn to ask: What results do they want? Then you get the ability to present yourself as the solution."

A former consumer marketing specialist with Chemical Banking Corp., who has also worked in other industries, summed it up: "I take a proactive approach, even in my cover letter.

"I aggressively market myself from a broad base of functional skills. What I did was cross-functional.

"I did a lot of internal consulting and project work, and have a wonderful knack for identifying similar situations when I interview."

This approach may seem uncomfortable for job seekers who habitually take a less active role in the interview. But there are decided benefits to challenging the conventional wisdom.

"There's lots of change going on in banking, and a candidate has to interview pro-actively, to understand what's being sought," Mr. Rambusch said.

"The rate of change has accelerated, so it's more likely that an assignment is going to work if the prospective employee truly fits the requirement best. The idea is to present yourself as a solution to the problem that fits the opportunity."

Merri Rosenberg is a freelance writer based in Ardsley, N.Y.

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