The Undercover Candidate


My worst interview happened just after I’d graduated. I fumbled my answers, got tongue tied and my cheeks flushed.

One of the interviewers politely made their excuses and left the room midway. I wanted a hole to appear to dive into and have the courage to say, “this really isn’t working is it?” I didn’t get the job.

I read something once that said interviews were always about the interviewer and not the interviewee because they have problems and need help to fix them. It’s all about them, not you.

So how to get a grip on their problems and differentiate yourself from the competition?

I ask a question – long before I step in the interview room.

It involves going undercover…

Now what I’m NOT suggesting here is turning up dressed as Sherlock Holmes in some terrible cheesy disguise. Something much simpler.

Whenever I’m invited to an interview I always try and do some research about what it’s like to be a customer AND an employee of the company I’m interviewing for.

Doing this is easier than you think. You just need to be yourself, get creative, be brave and ask.

For example, over the years I’ve…

  • Spent an afternoon with a store ‘guru’ for a mobile phone company (even wearing a uniform) shadowing them while they helped customers.
  • Interviewed a manager for a retail chain store – managing to bag a tour behind the scenes in the store and spend time with the sales team over lunch.
  • Got a free software trial and then contacted their customer service department to ask them questions to see how they responded.
  • Recruited a small army of family and friends to interact with a company and gave them a survey to fill in on their ‘customer journey’.
  • Plus a few “other approaches” – you can’t expect me to share everything right? 😜

These all paid dividends as I could use them to drop into the interview, and subtly show that I had done some extra research around the challenges that their business is under.

Once an interviewer had heard what I’d been up. At the start of the interview they leaned in to me and say “I’m dying to hear what you’ve found out Guy. So come on start spilling the beans!” What a great way to start right? Instant rapport.

Depending on the data you get from your research, you can then get creative on how you use it. I once made an infographic on what I’d found that I used in my follow up thank you email. The hiring manager used it and showed to the top team. Guess what? It made them look good. I got the job.

Let me stress that this isn’t some pithy gimmick to ‘be different’. It’s genuinely about learning about the business, and it needs to be tailored to your specialism and to the business. So, I’ll probe how the organisation ‘does change’ and I’ll see how easy it is to be a customer with the company.

Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way;

  • Brainstorm how you could interact with the company. This is the fun bit.
  • Be respectful to the environment you enter. Smile, show energy and genuine interest.
  • Don’t be a pain and ensure you work to other people’s availability, not yours.
  • Do give the name of the person who is interviewing you and the role you are going for.
  • Provide assurances that you will treat what they say anonymously if they wish.
  • Look for things that you can highlight as improvement opportunities to help them fix.
  • Timing is key. I often leave this until the final stage of the interview process as it could play a part in the differentiation process.

Beware though. It’s important to check how it will land with the interviewer and the culture of the business. I once interviewed someone in preparation for a role. When I mentioned this in the interview the air suddenly went very frosty in the room…

The interviewer was clearly horrified that I’d taken this approach and it didn’t go down well. I wasn’t the right fit for that culture. You can’t win ‘em all but sometimes it’s good that you don’t.

All you have to do is ask…


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