One theme I’ve been hitting hard with clients for the past month of two relates to what I call the “relevance factor” and the reality that it’s tough to land an interview these days based on generalized skills and qualifications alone.  In today’s market, for better or worse, employers have lots of choices — and therefore will often hold out for something extra-special in a candidate’s background that makes them much more relevant to the company than the average applicant.

The most obvious example of this phenomenon?   The increased importance companies are placing on industry experience.  All other things being equal, most job hunters have noticed that employers today are more likely to invite you into an interview if you’ve worked in their same industry before — or better yet, for one of their direct competitors.  No matter how good your baseline skills as an accountant or sales professional might be, in other words, you may not be invited in for an interview at a biotech, engineering, or wireless company unless you can show direct past experience in the biotech, engineering, or wireless sectors.  Many professionals today find this phenomenon frustrating, but it’s an understandable one.  The companies that practice this type of screening are operating under the assumption that candidates who don’t face a learning curve with regard to industry (e.g. they already know the terminology, processes, markets, trends, etc.) are likely going to get up to speed and make a contribution faster than somebody without this experience.

I’m raising this issue, however, not to bum everybody out about how picky employers are being these days.  I’m raising it to ask a more important question, which is whether you (if you’re in transition) are using the relevance factor to your advantage as you conduct your job search.  Are you just applying to companies in general?  Or have you taken stock of where YOU might have an extra advantage, as an applicant, and skewed your job search toward an appropriate universe of organizations, as a result?

For example, knowing how much weight companies are placing on industry relevance these days, have you made a point to reach out to all of the local companies that work in the specific fields where you have experience?   Doing so will usually boost your response rate considerably.  As for those who have worked in tiny niche sectors, or who steadfastly DO NOT want to return to their previous industry, there’s still a way to apply this tactic.  You just need to get a little more creative and find some alternate threads of relevance to pursue.

For example, have you considered pursuing dialogue with:

•  Companies that do business in similar industries to ones you’ve worked in before?
e.g. If you’ve worked in the restaurant industry for many years, have you considered targeting the hotel industry, given the shared emphasis on customer service, reservation systems, and hospitality?

•  Companies that use the same tools/technologies you’ve used in the past?
e.g. If you used SharePoint software quite a bit in your last role, have you located and gone after other companies that also leverage SharePoint heavily in their operations and internal communications?

•  Companies that sell to similar customers as your previous companies/industries?
e.g. If you previously worked with high-net-worth clients in the banking industry, have you approached high-end real estate developers or luxury travel companies for potential opportunities?

•  Companies that sell/market their products in a similar way as your previous employers?
e.g. If you worked for a company that sold its products through call centers, have you contacted other companies that also rely on the inside sales (telemarketing) channel heavily to drive revenue?

•  Companies that require a specialized skill you possess?
e.g. If you speak Russian, have you specifically spent time identifying companies that do business with Russia or outsource work there?

•  Companies that would value your network of contacts?
e.g. If you’ve amassed a large circle of friends in the public sector, based on your previous work in a government agency, have you asked yourself what firms are looking to do more business in the Business-to-Government (B2G) channel?

•  Companies that are bound by similar regulatory restrictions as your previous firms?
e.g. If you worked in an organization that had to comply with strict requirements from the FDA, EPA, SEC, or a similar regulatory body, have you trumpeted this connection to other firms under the purview of the agency in question?

•  Companies that have a cultural similarity to previous places you’ve worked?
e.g. If the last place where you worked believed heavily in “going green” via sustainable business practices, have you pursued other companies, in other industries, that share this same eco-conscious commitment?

By now, hopefully, you get the idea.  There are MANY aspects of your background that could conceivably give you “special relevance” to certain employers, should you nail these factors down and launch a proactive marketing effort to exploit them.

On a related note, illustrating the power of this approach, I’d refer you back to an article here I wrote up a few months ago.  The technique you’ll read about leverages yet another highly useful form of relevance, which is the hours of pre-interview preparation and research that candidates today often conduct.  Even if one of your interviews goes sideways, and you don’t get the offer, you should consider immediately dangling this research in front of other relevant employers.

For example, I just had a client go through 3-4 weeks of interviewing for a marketing position with a local casino.  When she heard she came in #2 for the role, however, she was devastated, since she had grown so excited about the opportunity and had invested in 15-20 hours of specific research in the area of casino marketing.  My advice to her, upon getting the rejection notice?  That she immediately fire off an e-mail introducing herself to a bunch of other casinos in the area, telling them she’s been in serious discussions with XYZ Casino but wants to fully explore her options before making a final decision.  Her response rate so far, after firing off seven such notes?  No fewer than six out of the seven organizations have already responded positively to her inquiry, asking to meet with her!

Don’t underestimate relevance.  It’s powerful stuff.  It’s what separates you from the pack and makes you special in the eyes of an employer — so figure out some “angles of attack” you could exploit, from your own background, and take advantage of them!