For most small and medium-sized businesses, hiring staff is one of the biggest investments they will make. Getting that investment right, then, is about as important as it gets.
Interviewing plays a vital role. And for many SME bosses looking to take on staff, interviewing can be a fuzzy area about which they may have little experience. Some interview questions will always be specific to a particular type of job - are you a qualified plumber, what training as an electrician do you have, have you driven a van before?
Many interview techniques though can be applied across the board to all job specs.
We asked Premierline Direct's HR and Training Manager Marie Brown, who has more than 20 years' experience in the sector, and who has interviewed hundreds of applicants, for some tips to help SMEs get the best out of a job interview.
The good news is that Marie believes most aspects of good interviewing technique are actually common sense.
First, be precise about what the job actually involves. Don't be vague. Spec it out and decide what skills are required.
This helps your business be clear about why it needs to hire someone at all and it also makes it clear to the applicant exactly what is required of them - something they certainly will expect to know.
Role Profile is the modern term, and is more commonly used these days than the old Job Description - but they amount to the same thing: what the role involves and what, precisely, is the person employed to do?
Once you have the profile, we can break down the requirements to general attributes, then specifics, and then establish whether additional training is likely to be needed for the role.
'Role profiling should be done pre-interview,' says Marie. 'It's then used as part of the process of selecting job candidates for interview, which is where the interview process really starts.'
Once the specifics of the job are detailed, it should be a relatively easy task to compare a CV or letter of application or a completed application form to that role.
'I always think an application form is a good idea,' says Marie. 'Because, for many people, who might make excellent candidates, writing a CV can be a daunting task. They may have lost a job after 15 years and they have no recent experience of compiling a CV.
'Plus, a job application, with its specific questions, allows you to focus on the areas you are interested in. Otherwise, you run the risk of receiving waffle!'
Marie recommends an initial, pre-interview screening. Again, this can help save wasting time on applicants who are unsuitable, even if they appear to have the right experience on paper.
'I see this phone call as more of a conversation than an interview,' says Marie. 'It's an opportunity for the candidate to sell themselves, and to think on their feet. This often gives you a more genuine picture of what kind of person they are you'll get in a more formal interview.
'Call out of the blue,' recommends Marie. 'But obviously, always use common courtesy and make sure it's convenient to talk. Offer to call back, or ask them to call you, if it's awkward for them.'
This is also a good way to judge phone manner.
'Whatever the job, whether you're looking for a hairdresser, an office receptionist, a mechanic, or for someone to work in the kitchen of a restaurant, this person will have contact with your customers, even if it's infrequent. Everyone, these days, needs at least some basic customer-facing skills. And, if you arrange for someone to call you back and they don't, well you can make a judgment about that.'
What about the interview itself?
Always start the interview on time, says Marie. 'You expect the applicant to be on time and will judge them if they're late, so give them the courtesy of being on time too.'
If there's going to be a written test - basic numeracy or literacy perhaps - then do it before the interview, or it will interfere with the flow of the discussion.
It's important to remember that, for most SMEs looking to take on staff, personality will be important. Even if the new recruit is not directly customer facing, you need to know that other members of the team - and you - can work with them. Are they a good fit?
'It's important to ask yourself whether you like the person,' says Marie. 'I think it's worth asking: Could I sit round a dinner table and enjoy their company?'
So, personality AND relevant experience are two factors to weigh carefully.
The interview is a stressful time for most applicants and is by its nature a fairly stifling environment, so an interviewer should try hard to put applicants at ease as much as possible.
'Explain the format of the interview, explain you are looking for a fit, make it clear this is a two-way process,' says Marie.
'Chat through the job and I usually also invite an applicant to chip in if they want to - this is a good way of getting a discussion flow going.
'Asking in detail about their current job is a good initiator of conversation and can be revealing.
'What I think it's important to look for from any candidate for any job is a Can Do, Will Do attitude. It's nice to see if people draw positives from past experiences, so I often ask: What was the best team you've worked for and why?'
Asking what they do in their spare time is a tricky one. I usually suggest leaving this off application forms because it elicits often unbelievable responses. Some people list such extensive after-work activities that you have to wonder how they mange to ever get anything else done!
'But it can be important to ask at interview - they may be in the TA or mountain rescue, for example, and this may have an impact on your business.'
The interviewer's target should be to ensure the job candidate does the lion's share of the talking.
'Some HR managers aim for 70-30%, others 80-20%. There's no magic formula - the main thing is to make sure you let them do the vast majority of the talking.'
Asking candidates what they know about your company can be revealing, says Marie.
'Obviously, your expectations about what they will have researched will depend on what level of candidate you are recruiting; but, certainly if your company has a website, then you should expect any interviewee to have at least done some basic research.'
It's important not to make assumptions throughout the interview - ask questions and look for details if you're uncertain about any aspect of the candidate.
'Don't assume either that the applicant will necessarily want to accept your offer. If you like them, suggest that now they know more about your company and the job, would they be interested in working for you.
'Vitally - because all of us are prone to kick ourselves later for failing to ask some important question - leave a door open for the interviewee to come back. This can be done by phone or email. It doesn't really matter, so long as there is a channel of communication. It's useful for you too.'
Finally, always ask if the person has been dismissed or disciplined, going back five years. Any offer made should always be subject to satisfactory references and should always be put in writing along with the terms of the job offer. Email is fine these days, but get the prospective employee to sign acceptance.
'Never, ever let someone start work without signing a contract,' says Marie. 'Make clear the hours of work, the duties, holiday entitlement, sickness policy and so on. You can get a template for a contract like this from a Citizens' Advice Bureau.
'A lot is common sense, I suppose, but it's also easy to get wrong.'
'Keep in mind this simple approach and you won't go far wrong,' says Marie. 'Above all - treat people as you would want to be treated, if you want to get the best out of them.'
If you're looking for a commercial insurance provider who works as hard as you do, then look no further than Premierline Direct, a leading direct provider of business insurance in the UK.