The Art of Following Up

One afternoon in 1995, Carol Lee Kelliher looked up from a desk piled with work to see a waiter holding a tray stacked with a sandwich, a piece of pie, a bottle of Perrier and a note from a prospective employee.

Kelliher, who was then director of creative services at Arnold in Boston, still chuckles when she recounts the incident. “We had just won [Volkswagen], and calls and portfolios were flooding my desk,” she says. “I had just talked to a young designer interested in an internship. This young guy from the Midwest had somehow found the one restaurant in the building and bought me lunch.”

She promptly rummaged through her pile of portfolios, called the prospect and flew him out to Boston. He got the internship. “This is not something I would recommend, but he got my attention,” says Kelliher, who is now president of Kelliher & Co., a Boston-based recruiting firm.

Many experts say they wouldn’t endorse such a stunt, simply because if it fails, you can end up looking foolish—or annoying the very person you are trying to impress. “I think the best thing to do is to listen to what our talent scout says. If she says, ‘Call me next Wednesday’ or ‘We’ll touch base on Monday’—touching base doesn’t mean, ‘Call me 10 times,’ ” says Elaine Bonzon, evp and “chief people officer” at Interpublic Group’s Zipatoni in St. Louis. “If they do call 10 times, it’s a turnoff, because what it says is [the prospect] is not the least bit sensitive to somebody else’s time.”

The basic, reliable way to follow up with an interviewer is to send a thoughtful, handwritten note. “Something that’s written is not only expected but is preferred,” says Fifi Jacobs, principal of employment agency JacobsKozuck in New York. “These days you have to gauge whether they would prefer e-mail. … Once you’ve written the note, anything past that could be perceived as too persistent.”

After sending a note, “if you have not heard back in a week or 10 days, give a call,” advises Smooch Reynolds, CEO of Repovich-Reynolds Group in Pasadena, Calif. She also adds, pointedly, “Don’t call 10 times.”

It’s also a good idea to get a sense of the ground rules during the interview. “Ask the interviewer, ‘When are you planning to make a decision? When is it good to follow up?’ ” says Jeff Johnson, president and CEO of WestWayne in Atlanta.

But augment a note with something funny, flashy or edible at your own risk. “One candidate sent a Styrofoam head with their résumé,” says Bonzon. “We never [understood] the meaning of it. There was no face. It was creepy. A really dumb one was when someone sent fuzzy dice. [The note] said, ‘Roll the dice and take a chance on me.’ I think cute and clever is not terrible … [but] if you’re going to do something like that, make sure it’s clever and not dumb.”

A good test, Bonzon suggests, is whether the candidate would feel comfortable if the item were passed around the office. “We interviewed one candidate who sent a telegram that said, ‘Enjoyed meeting you and the team STOP Really interested in the position STOP If you are continuing to interview others STOP.’ He got hired,” says Bonzon.

A lot also depends on the culture of the organization. Says Reynolds: “If you’re interviewing with a highly creative boutique ad agency, some creative follow-up could work to your advantage.”

If you do send food or drink, check the company’s client list first. “A lot of people send food. It’s a nice thing to do. It’s certainly not going to get them the job,” says Johnson, who has received food marketed by competitors of WestWayne grocery-chain client Publix. “[It might be best] to make the cake yourself.”

Kelliher concludes that the line between being persistent and being a nuisance is mainly in the attitude. “When you do make contact, you have to have that same positive attitude and energy that you had in the beginning, because any follow-up you do is part of the interview process,” she says. “Someone can become a pest just in their attitude if they act exasperated.”

“At the end of the day,” says Jacobs, “if somebody wants you, they will call.”