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Pulling Teeth: How to Get Information from Inarticulate, Not-With-It, Unimaginative, Reticent, and Uncooperative Clients

by Louise Kursmark, MRW, JCTC, CEIP, CCM

Most resume writers agree, one of our most challenging tasks is getting the information we need to be able to produce meaningful and compelling documents for our clients. Whether we use worksheets, telephone or in-person consultation, or a combination of both, it’s imperative that we dig out the nuggets of information that will help us package, position, and sell our client’s value.

This challenge is more severe with some clients than with others. I have found the following strategies to be effective when working with those clients who don’t quickly grasp what I’m looking for or naturally think along the lines of “results” and “value to the employer.”

Establish a Clear Target.

If you don’t know what clients are seeking, you will not know what to ask them or how to position the facts you gather. Beware the client who says anything like this:

  • I’m not sure.

  • Anything, really.

  • I want to keep my options open.

  • I was hoping you could tell me that.

Quite simply, you won’t be able to write a powerful resume for this client, and his or her job search will probably not be successful. Why set yourself up for failure?

Instead, require your clients to tell you the type/level of job they are looking for and furnish you with a few relevant job postings. You can use this material to steer the consultation, and your clients will end up with documents that make the most of their relevant experiences and capabilities.

Be Explicit.

When talking with clients, tell them exactly what you’ll be looking for. Many clients like to talk in generalities, and you must bring them down to the specifics so you can gather accomplishment statements for the resume. You can prepare them by saying, “I will be looking for specific examples of things you’ve done in your career that demonstrate your skills,” but it’s quite likely you’ll have to be even more explicit than that. Here, behavioral interviewing techniques are especially helpful:

  • Tell me about a time when you managed a difficult project.

  • For the jobs you’re targeting, you will need to demonstrate that you have good customer-service skills. Describe a situation when you had to deal with a difficult customer. What did you do, and what was the outcome?

  • You’ve told me you have great negotiation skills. Tell me about a recent negotiation that was successful.

Use Examples.

Some people respond best when the ideal response is modeled for them, so if you want them to provide examples to you, use an example in your language to them:

  • Rather than hearing that you were very successful in that sales role, I want you to tell me that you inherited a territory that had falling sales for three years, you implemented an aggressive cold-call campaign, and you increased sales 27% the first year and 15% the second year.

Interpret Their Remarks.

Another good technique is to draw upon what your clients tell you and feed it back to them. After doing this a few times, you might find that your clients “get it” and start to give you detailed examples rather than generalities.

  • I’ve noticed that detail orientation has been important in all of your jobs, at the restaurant as well as in the accounting offices. Can you tell me more about some detailed projects you managed and how that helped the company?

Inquire About Context.

One of my favorite questions to ask clients is “What was going on?” when they took a specific job. I want to know the challenges they faced, what they were expected to do, and of course how they performed under those circumstances. With this context, I can write compelling position descriptions that focus on big-picture achievements rather than mundane day-to-day duties.

Understand the Challenge

Similarly, you can often write stronger accomplishment statements if you compare results to expectations. To get at this vital information, ask questions like these:

  • What were you expected to do?

  • What were the projections for that initiative?

  • Did you have a budget and timeline?

  • Did you have a quota?

  • How did you perform compared to your peers?

  • Was that a realistic expectation? If not, why not?

  • Why was that so difficult?

Incorporate Feelings

Some people respond well when asked questions that evoke emotions. They’ll reveal their feelings and passions in a way that points you in the direction of a key question or helps you understand what makes them great at their job. For example:

  • It sounds like you really enjoyed that job. What did you like about it?

  • What job have you loved the most, and why?

  • What in your career are you most proud of?

  • Was that difficult for you?

Use Samples

For some clients, an example is worth a thousand words. If they’re struggling to give you what you need, share with them some “typical” accomplishment statements for people in similar positions that you’ve culled from resumes you’ve written. Then ask, “Can we write a similar statement about you? Tell me about when that happened.”

Ask for Endorsements

Shy clients may feel uncomfortable talking about themselves. You might be able to get some rich content by asking them what others have said about them.

  • What did your last manager say about you?

  • How would your co-workers describe you?

  • Have you noticed any consistent trends in your performance reviews?

Call Them On It

In a few cases, I’ve had to take a bit of a challenging tone with clients who are simply uncooperative or unforthcoming. In these cases it’s important to use direct language so they don’t misunderstand. For example:

  • You’ve said that you’re an expert at operational efficiency, yet you haven’t been able to give me any specific examples of when you improved efficiency or how much you saved. Do you think an employer is going to believe your claims when you can’t support them with facts?

In other cases, it might be that the client has unrealistic job targets. While I don’t want to shoot down someone’s dreams, I think it’s important that clients have a realistic expectation of success when we complete a resume project, and I won’t hesitate to say, “I’m not sure you’ll be a strong candidate for the senior-level jobs you’re targeting. Do you have a back-up plan if your efforts aren’t successful?”

In the final resolution, we must work with the material we’re given. But it’s our job to go at it every-which-way to get rich material from clients who may not understand what we need or why we need it or don’t feel comfortable “bragging” about what they’ve done. The result of our hard work should be career marketing documents that impress employers with our clients’ capabilities, experiences, and successes. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worthwhile.

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