How to Ace Your Next Coffee Interview

By Claire Millard on 2 June 2016 0 comments

Ah, the modern job hunt. You've optimized your online profiles, mastered the art of digital networking, and figured out how to stay on the right side of the line between using the Internet to research a hiring manager, and full-on stalking. So far, so good.

And you've even landed an interview, but there a catch. Your first face-to-face contact with your prospective dream boss is a "coffee interview." Say what?

Using an informal screening stage in recruiting isn't new, but since this important kind of meeting has moved to a cafe setting, it has become an etiquette minefield.

If you've got a coffee interview booked and you're stumped by such vital questions as what to wear, how to identify your interviewer, and, if it's okay to order a double skinny lactose free caramel latte, read on. (See also: 6 Ways to Calm Your Nerves and Ace Your Interview)

Be Informal, Not Relaxed

Don't be fooled into feeling that the informal environment will lead to a relaxed meeting. One of the most common mistakes job seekers make is to underestimate the expectation of the interviewer and arrive underprepared at this type of interview. If you don't want to fail at the first hurdle, you need to get prepped!

Ask the interviewer what the format of the interview will be, and if there is anything in particular you can prepare in advance, or bring along, such as references or a portfolio. Often the first meeting will be a gate keeping exercise, to test basic suitability for the job, and to sound out candidate expectations about salary, working conditions, and availability. Expect to be asked practical questions, and have answers in mind, so they don't become a barrier.

Preparing for the meat of the conversation starts with research. Pick out the key skills and experience detailed in the job posting, and make sure you're clear on your unique selling point — what makes you suited to the role. Learn everything you can about the company, and think of ways you can make your mark even at this early stage. You might consider visiting a competitor, for example, or preparing some thoughts on the biggest challenges and opportunities facing the company. By having knowledge and unique ideas, you will stand out for the right reasons.

Map It Out

The logistics of a coffee interview can feel somewhat daunting. Make sure you know exactly where you're going — especially if you're meeting in a chain cafe that has several different locations in town — and arrive a little early if possible.

Identifying your interviewer from an anonymous crowd is the next challenge. If you know exactly who you're meeting in advance, have a look at their social media presence to find a picture to increase your odds of picking them out in a crowd. Take a seat facing the door if you can, and text or call your interviewer a few minutes before you're due to meet, to describe your location. Be aware that recruiters often batch meetings, so your interviewer might already be in the cafe with another candidate.

Once you've found the right person, remember it's an interview, not a date. Take your lead from them when ordering, and don't order anything too wacky! If you're eating, spend a second figuring out what on the menu is suitable. Spraying yourself with spaghetti sauce, or trying to talk while gnawing on ribs isn't a good look!

Although you're there to talk about the position, remember that you're creating an impression before you're ever been asked a question. More so than in an office environment, your interviewer will pick up on your interactions with others. Treat everyone with real respect. This is no time to get snarky with your waitress, even if the order is muddled up.

Similarly, what you choose to wear is more open in a coffee interview. While office attire is fairly well defined, anything goes in a cafe. Choose something that makes you feel good and that fits with your perception of the company culture. If you're in any doubt, err on the side of more formal. Unless you habitually hang out in your tux, it's hard to be overdressed, in any interview situation.

Exit Gracefully

As your meeting is coming to an end, hopefully you've developed a great rapport with your interviewer, and are parting on good terms — but you still need to avoid an etiquette fail. Getting the bill is the first challenge. It's pretty common for the recruiter to pick up the tab, but have some cash just in case. Having to borrow a few dollars from your prospective boss is not the best start to a working relationship.

When you're done, shake hands and part ways. Even if you might really want to hang round in the same cafe, or grab a bite to eat, it's usually best to leave. If your interviewer has another meeting lined up directly after you, they won't want you in a position to spy on the competition. Make a dignified exit and get your lunch elsewhere!

Always Follow Up

As with any interview, it's a good idea to follow up with a thank you note. An email is fine in such an informal scenario, just to reiterate your interest in the role, and say thanks for the meeting. If you touched upon anything in your conversation that really resonated with you both — maybe a book you mentioned, or an interesting article about a mutual passion — then mention this as an anchor to your conversation, and to help your interviewer remember the connection you had.

A coffee interview is never going to be quite as much fun as hanging out with friends over a latte and lunch, but it shouldn't be too terrifying, either.

What do you think? Have you had coffee interview successes, or disasters? Tell us in the comments.

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