How to Master the "Coffee Interview"

Whether you’re seeking advice or giving it, you’re probably no stranger to the question “Can I take you for coffee and pick your brain?” Here, some rules for handling informational one-on-ones considerately, efficiently, and with aplomb.

Photo by Oliver Munday

Be specific.
When you e-mail people for coffee, let them know exactly how they can help. “Don’t mass e-mail everyone you can think of,” says Tara Goodfellow, the managing director of Athena Educational Consultants and a former career-development instructor. “That’s like sending a letter that says, ‘To the current resident of…’ ” You might ask for, say, an objective review of your résumé or information about changing departments within your shared industry. You might want to hear about a particular person’s career path or his or her company. Don’t ask for a job (though you might well be looking for one). Meetings like this are for sharing information and establishing a connection.

Make it easy for the other person to say yes.
Suggest a location near his or her office. Indicate that you won’t take up a lot of time. Most experts agree that 30 minutes is reasonable. Holly Wolf, the chief marketing officer of Conestoga Bank, says that she appreciates being presented with a few possible dates and times. That way, she doesn’t have to think too much about scheduling.

Mind your manners.
Just because it’s coffee doesn’t mean it’s casual. “Don’t arrive looking like you just came from the gym,” says Wolf. “The less well you know me, the more professionally you should dress.” Order something simple so you can focus on the conversation, says James N. Kinney, the founder of Kinney Group Creative. “Let the other person get the double-foam mess.” And at least attempt to pay for both drinks, even though the more senior person will often pick up the tab. Send a hand-written thank-you note right away. Says Wolf: “E-mail is OK. Handwritten? I’m over the moon.”

Listen more than you talk.
In advance, research your coffee-mate and his or her company. “Don’t ask anything you can discover online,” says Goodfellow. You’re there to glean wisdom, not to sell yourself, so pay attention and relax.

If you’re on the other side of the Starbucks table.
Are you the busy professional with little time for chitchat whom people turn to for coffee-fueled advice? You could probably use some tips, too. Even if you enjoy helping others, these sessions can sometimes feel fruitless or even irritating, as they burn through precious time. Increase their chances of success by being selective and asking for a little advance work. Before committing to coffee, lawyer Nina Ries, of the Ries Law Group, looks for a commonality (friend, alma mater), considers whether or not she has meaningful insights to offer, then passes the ball back with the question, “How do you think I might be able to help you?” This forces the asker to focus her request (just in case she hasn’t read this article).

Similarly, Leigh Steere, a cofounder of the research and consulting firm Managing People Better, asks for a few sentences describing the topics people want to explore. Gabe Lozano, the CEO and a cofounder of the social-media platform LockerDome, doesn’t mess around. He gauges seriousness by offering a specific 30-minute slot either late at night (8 to 11 p.m.) or early on a weekend morning (before 9 a.m.). “If they don’t take it, I assume it’s not an important meeting for them,” says Lozano. You can also protect your time by instead offering a 15-minute phone call or virtual meeting (via Skype, FaceTime, GoToMeeting, or WebEx).

If you’re a person who just can’t say no (or who likes a good system), designate a specific slot—say, the first Tuesday morning of each month—for coffee meetings. Schedule sessions only at this time, and when it fills up, offer meetings for the following month.