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Expat contractor techniques for interviews with UK clients and recruitment agencies

Expat contractors who have successfully found their potentially lucrative first contract and used a killer CV to qualify them for an interview with the agent or client then have the challenge of securing the contract at the interview stage.

Agents and clients will generally accept cultural differences and make allowances for an expat contractor’s past business background, but there are some business customs that do not cross international borders. Expat contractors must be aware of these, so understanding UK interview and business meeting conventions is vital.

For example, in some countries it is expected that the start times for business meetings are approximate and it is perfectly normal that one party might arrive at another’s offices within, say, half an hour of the agreed time. However, lateness is not acceptable in the UK and unless the contractor has a very good reason for being late, they are likely to have lost the contract before an interview even begins.

Interviews – the preparation

The contractor has just heard the great news from one of their agents that they have been successful in securing an interview with an end-user client.

To win the contract, the contractor now needs to maximise their chances of impressing at interview. The only way to do so is by effective interview preparation as, without this, it is almost guaranteed that the contractor will not win the contract.

Why? Because the end-user client is likely to think: “If this contractor can’t be bothered to prepare for an interview with me, what will they be like when they work for me? Probably not great.”

Agents and clients will generally accept cultural differences and make allowances for an expat contractor's past business background, but there are some business customs that do not cross international borders

Also, contracting is a competitive market, and if you haven’t done your preparation, another contractor certainly will have. Just having the highest qualifications and greatest experience is not enough – being able to win contracts is a skill in itself.

Important details

So contractors should pay attention to the details during their preparation and be sure that they know:

  • Where the interview is being held, how to get there, where to park if driving, timetables and routes if on public transport
  • How to dress accordingly; in the UK business attire for interview generally consists of a suit, or smart trousers/skirt and jacket, with a plain shirt and tie – traditional business wear, in other words
  • The name(s) of the people they are meeting and job titles. Check pronunciation with the agent and check the gender of the client if the name does not indicate this.

Next, the contractor should investigate the potential client in detail, and ensure they have looked into:

  • What the client company does and background to demonstrate attention to detail
  • Why the client needs the contractor
  • What will the client be looking for in terms of technical, interpersonal and business skills.

Know what to ask

Contractors should also prepare their list of questions in advance of the interview. These questions should:

  • Stimulate the conversation to cover topics where the contractor can clearly demonstrate their skills for the role
  • Address everything the interviewer is looking for, based on the research into the client
  • Demonstrate that the contractor has something special that is over and above the basic requirement.

The last point requires careful balance, as the contractor can ‘over-do it and give the impression that their core skills lie elsewhere.

The day of the interview

There is still preparation to do on the day of the contractor’s first interview with the client about the contract. Before leaving for the interview, the contractor should do a final check on the latest news about the client on the internet, just in case they have just been awarded a major contract, or a restructuring has just been announced.

When waiting in reception at the client’s premises before the interview takes place, the contractor should take the opportunity to look around, particularly at any awards displayed or press cuttings that are often found in organisations’ reception areas. These can be valuable conversation prompts with the client and show that the contractor has done some homework.

Opening conversations with the client can be stilted, so contractors can get off to a good start with some obvious openers like:

‘How long have you worked for [client company]?’


‘I noticed that you had an award for [award spotted in reception]. You must be pleased with that.’

Contractors should never be late for an interview. If there is a very good reason why you may be late, call the client as soon as you can and explain the situation. But be aware that, in the UK, being late for an interview for any reason is likely to mean you will not be awarded the contract. Being an hour early is preferable to being 15 seconds late.

The interview

Good interview technique starts by asking, ‘What is the client looking for?’ Contractors should look at the interview from the client’s perspective and use this as a guide to how they are being assessed.

Clients are looking at:

  • ‘Likeability’ – do I like this person and can I and my team work with them?
  • Specific skills – does this person have the right skills for the role?
  • Bonus skills and knowledge – does this contractor keep up with current knowledge?
  • Initiative – can this person work alone and on their own initiative?
  • Motivation – is this person happy and keen, or a lazy ‘merchant of doom’?
  • Communication skills – can this contractor work with people?
  • Ability to listen and understand – does this contractor ‘get it’?
  • Commercial awareness – can this contractor understand the commercial goals the project is designed to achieve?
  • Interest in the company – has the contractor shown an interest in what is done at the clients organisation and done the research to demonstrate this?

The ideal interview then has four basic sections:

  • An introduction and conversation about the client organisation
  • A discussion about the project and client’s needs
  • The contractor ‘sells’ their solution
  • Close.

The close is key and the contractor should be sure to conclude with a statement like, ‘Are you satisfied that I fulfil your requirements?’ This way the client can mention anything they are not totally sure about, and the contractor can provide reassurance.

The subject of winning interview techniques is covered in detail in the Contractors’ Handbook, which is an essential tool for any expat contractor wishing to make the most out of a contracting career in the UK.

On to contract negotiations

Having performed well at interview and closed the interview in such a way that they are confident the client wants to recruit them, the contractor then has the opportunity to open contract negotiations with the agent from a position of strength.

Published: 21 September 2009

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