Based on what I observe on a daily basis, from folks in transition, I would be hard-pressed to provide a single piece of advice that I think would be more useful to most individuals than this notion: Throughout all phase of the job hunting and interviewing process, you should bend over backwards to treat the companies (and hiring managers) you’re targeting like your best, most valued customer.

Think this approach is obvious or well-understood by most people out there?  Unfortunately, I’d disagree.  Take cover letters, for example.  The average cover letter is riddled with the pronoun “I” and contains paragraphs of data about the CANDIDATE’S background and the CANDIDATE’S needs, but usually says very little about what the job seeker in question might actually be able to do to solve the prospective employer’s current or future problems.  At best, some letters include vague generalities (e.g. “I’m a good problem-solver” or “I can help you be more efficient/successful/profitable”) or pop in a small snippet of research from the company’s website, but you almost never come across (recruiters and HR folks, am I wrong on this?) a customer-focused letter that makes you say “Wow! This candidate really understands what our company does, how we make money, and where some of our key challenges lie — and seems to have some great expertise and ideas to help us address these issues!”

Fast-forward to the interview process.  Again, if you think most job hunters approach their interviewing opportunities from a sales-centric standpoint, seeking to truly understand the problems of the customer and demonstrate how they can solve them, I’d again beg to differ.  Most candidates nervously recite canned answers to questions, talk at painful lengths about all the things they’ve done for PAST employers, and never really “engage” the person across the desk in a discussion of the actual work that needs doing.  Many candidates also scurry away after each interview without asking one smart, value-added question or even expressing their sincere interest in landing the job.  And while sure, we can blame some of this candidate behavior on the limitations/constraints of the traditional interview process, the truly GREAT job hunters — the ones who clearly recognize these meetings to be sales scenarios — fight through these obstacles and still find a way to demonstrate great “customer service” toward the hiring managers and decision-makers they end up meeting with.

At the end of the day, especially in a tight job market, there’s just no getting around the fact that you’re the seller and they’re the buyer in these situations — unless you happen to be one of the less-than-one-percent of folks out there who are so uniquely talented that the tables are turned and the companies in question have to sell YOU on coming to work for them, versus the other way around.

Make sense?  If so, let’s take the concept even further.  If you’re striving to be a great “salesperson” of yourself in this process, I’d also emphasize that great sales professionals don’t tend to make sweeping assumptions, going in, about what their customers might actually be buying or what their pain points might be.  They probe.  They poke around.  They ask insightful, qualifying questions to try and root out the underlying wants, needs, and dynamics that are ultimately going to make-or-break the purchasing decision.   In a job search context, this means that you should be wary of going into interviews with preconceived notions — and should avoid putting too much weight on the fluff, chaff, and otherwise inconsequential items that many companies pack into their job advertisements these days.  Your job should be to investigate what really might be going on behind the scenes.  And while you’re at it, don’t get too hung up on how you might be able to help the COMPANY at large, in most cases.  Focus instead on how you can make a palpable and positive difference in the life of the SPECIFIC HIRING MANAGER with whom you’re actually having a conversation with.  I say this because in my experience, most managers tend to put our own selfish needs, priorities, and agendas ahead of any true altruism around the big-picture corporate mission.  When we hire somebody, we almost always run the decision through our own self-interest filter, either consciously or subconsciously.  How would this person make MY life easier, if hired?  How could they help me reach MY performance goals?  Or work less hard?  Or get ahead?

So in closing, I’d encourage you to think back on some great sales experiences you’ve had where the salesperson treated you to world-class customer service and really won you over.  What did these people do that left such a positive impression?  Was it the undivided attention they gave you?  The great questions they asked?  Their intense interest in figuring out what you really wanted — followed by the confidence they could supply it?  What can we learn from this that might make us all better job hunters and better interviewees?

Recently, my buddy Dave Hardwick over at the Job Hacking blog wrote a great post you should read, here, that touches on this issue in a roundabout way.  While Dave’s post was focused mainly on overcoming the issue of age discrimination, it also illustrates the degree to which many candidates DON’T focus on the specific stated needs of a particular employer — and instead go off on all kinds of crazy tangents (on cover letters, on resumes, in interviews, etc.) that likely have zero relevance to their “customers” in the process.

Do you go to an automobile dealer in the hopes that they’ll sell you a parrot, galoshes, or life insurance?