One of the most important aspects of consulting is building up interviewing skills.  Much of what is expected revolves around the need for the consultant to learn about the client’s business, market, resources, and challenges.  In addition to gathering documents and information, consultants need to be able to extract information out of the client staff in a manner that makes sense and adds value to the engagement.  In my experience, interview skills are a differenciating factor that position the enagement for success.  Here are some tips that I’ve learned and used as part of that client interview process:

  • Don’t ask leading questions.  Sometimes when we become comfortable with the organization and start to believe that we understand the client, we might revert to asking the type of leading question that could provide us a false positive on the potential problems they are facing.  An example of this might be saying something like “so I hear you were having problems with processing membership applications, is that true?”  Rather than suggesting the problem, one should ask more generic questions like “are there any pain points in the process?”
  • Build up to the hard questions.  It is important to develop rapport with the interviewee so as to be viewed as a trusted advisor.  Save the difficult questions till later in the interview.  Front loading the interview with questions that seem to have easy answers will give the subject comfort in moving the discussion forward.
  • Asking open ended questions is critical. Obviously this has to be done after the interviewed has established some rapport with the interviewee, however, open ended questions are imperative to get to the problems we “know we don’t know.”
  • Restating the issues.  Sometimes interviewers might jump the gun at interpreting or misinterpreting information.  Restating what the interviewee says is a way to help clarify and validate.
  • Don’t take statements at face value.  Often interviewed subjects have hidden or not to hidden agendas they are trying to further.  This may relate to a project they want to see implemented or a problem they need to be resolved.  The job of the consultant is to figure out if the issue and/or priority is one that is agreed upon by multiple stakeholders or if it is simply an axe that the person wishes to grind.
  • Do your homework.  Read through other consultant’s notes and rather than spending time asking questions that were asked before, which always annoys clients, attempt to ask for clarifications.
  • Come prepared.  Have an agenda and a list of questions to ask which will help the interviewer to navigate through the interview in a logical manner.  Sharing the agenda with the interviewee gives them a sense of control as well.

The most successful interviewers are consultants who have honned that skill over many years of practice.  While much of this can be learned by “doing” often the person can learn by also observing others.  They can get some insight on what works and what does not.  Furthermore, by being able to “tag team” the interview, if offers an opportunity for interviewers to “piggy back” on each other’s thoughts and takes some pressure off from having to ask too many questions.  Perhaps the best advice that I received in this area is to make sure that the subject of the interview goes out feeling like the interview was a good use of their time and that it took up the right amount of time.