Getting the Information You Need
from Interviews

Interviewing important information sources has major implications for the success of any meeting. Access is often limited; consultants need to leverage their time and coax specific - and sensitive - information from sources. Persuading people to talk to you openly involves a clear code of ethics and a talent for putting people at ease.

Never forget that people do things for their own reasons, not yours. There is, however, no quid pro quo in an interview. Unlike reporters, who may offer their sources favorable publicity as a by-product of providing information, consultants must rely on good will and a knack for putting things into a problem-solving perspective. Using a structured approach to interviews - which focuses on planning, managing and following up - will allow you to use your source's time efficiently, and spend your valuable goodwill on information you can get nowhere else.

Plan--Manage--Follow Up


Know your source

Interviews will yield more useful information, in less time, if they focus on the interviewee. The interviewer should consider

All these questions should be considered before the discussion, and data collected should be analyzed in light of the answers to these questions, for they will color the information.

Know what you want to learn

How will you know if the interview has been a success? What piece of information will lead you to the cause of the problem you are seeking to solve? What criteria can you use to evaluate whether or not you have come up with an important finding?

You should always have one major question you want to have answered. "Fishing expeditions" are for Colombo and other detectives who want to catch people out. For consultants, they waste time, and irritate the interviewee. If you can, you should let the interviewee know what you're looking for. If you can't reveal the main question, at least try to give a general idea of the issue being considered. Being open and aboveboard will help establish the right atmosphere.

Use an interview guide to give structure to the meeting and to ensure that you don't forget to ask an important question. Rank your questions in order of importance; interviews are often interrupted or cut short. Don't let the guide keep you from listening, however. It would be a pity to miss important information because you are trying to get through the guide. Learn your questions so you need only refer to the guide to get back on track.

If you need to compare responses across interviewees, it may be critical that you ask the same question, in the same way, in each interview. Even though it is unlikely you are using interviews for statistically accurate data, using an interview guide will help ensure consistency in the questions you ask.

Know what you can before the interview. Don't waste the interviewee's time, or yours, by asking for information you could easily get from publicly available materials. Given what you have found out, think about how an interviewee is likely to answer (the "party line"), and how you can get him or her to give a more thoughtful, revealing answer.

Prepare the interviewee

Always take the time to call the interviewee before the actual interview if possible. Phone conversations are more human and indicate that you put importance on building a relationship. Curt e-mails or abrupt faxes that merely announce your intentions are a relationship killer.


Managing an effective interview requires being open but direct. Start with a neutral comment, either about the setting or about something observed in the surroundings - perhaps a sign or cartoon on the office bulletin board. In one office, the lanes between cubicles were identified with street signs such as "The Yellow Brick Road," providing a perfect opening. Don't exude false camaraderie, however. Set the ground rules in the beginning and explain the purpose of the interview, whether routine, operational, or one-off in response to a request.

Managing interaction requires different kinds of questions. If you're not careful, you'll find that the interviewee is asking the questions - in essence, interviewing you. Forestall this possibility by allowing for clarification of scope questions in the beginning and then summarizing that interchange before moving on to the interview itself. Indicating that you have an interviewing form to follow will allow the interviewee to feel that there is structure to the interview and that you will not be wasting his time.

Use the three different kinds of questions to guide the interaction

Open questions are exploratory. For example, you might say, "Tell me what's been happening in the warehouse." Open questions are useful if you want the interviewee to brainstorm possible acceptable solutions without reference to hard criteria like budgetary restraints.

Focused questions are directed to finding out how things work or getting descriptions of situations or causes. The "Five Whys" of Japanese management come under the focused question category because they are linked to actual events. If an event occurs, people ask "Why did that happen?" When someone suggests a cause, people ask "Why did that happen?" Presumably after the fifth "Why?" you have arrived at the ultimate cause.

Closed questions can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no" and can be useful in coming to closure. For example, you might say, "Have we covered all the relevant events?" Never use closed questions at the beginning of an interview.

Listen, really listen

Look at the person when you ask the question and continue looking when the person answers. People interpret looking away as inattention. Don't stare, though, and make people uncomfortable.

Occasionally, consultants become so fixed on getting answers to the next question that they interrupt the interviewee before he or she finishes the answer. Always wait until the person finishes speaking. Don't assume he or she is done merely because there is a pause. Often, a pause signals the need to think before responding.

Ask for clarification if you don't understand (and put the onus on yourself). Don't say, "You're not being very clear." Instead, say, "I'm not sure I understand what you mean. Could you help me by explaining a bit further?" Restate the answer in other words if you don't understand (paraphrasing) or ask follow-on questions (probing) such as, "Can you say a bit more about what you mean when you say 'the process is inefficient'?"

Listen to Source's Language

Remember the Delivery Basics
Maintain good posture and a pleasant expression. Do not lean forward and appear to be invading the interviewee's space. Don't fidget or tap your fingers when the interviewee is responding to a question. Speak clearly. Smile when appropriate.

Read and Respond to Body Language


Conclude the interview

When you are about ten minutes away from the end of the allotted time, start the process of returning to more general questions. Ask whether there is anything else you should be exploring. Ask whether the interviewee has any questions for you. If he does, and if it is appropriate to share information, do so. Always thank the interviewee for the interview and ask whether you may call him if you have any questions when you write up your notes or later. Ask when a good time to call would be.

Follow Up


Write up your interview immediately after it is completed, using your interview guide as the base. If there is something that doesn't make sense or that you feel you may have misunderstood, call the interviewee right away to clarify. If possible, send an e-mail or a fax thanking the person for taking the time to meet with you. Even though declining the interview was likely not an option, putting a positive spin on it will be appreciated.

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