Phone Interviews: Secrets, Tricks and Tips

February 1, 2010 at 6:11 am 35 comments

In today’s tight job market, scoring an actual interview with a company is often looked upon as the Holy Grail for job-seekers. It seems like more and more these days, companies who are interested in a candidate begin their screening process with a phone interview – usually conducted by an internal company recruiter or an HR person. The purpose for the phone interview is obvious – they want to determine if you are worth their decision-maker’s time and effort to bring you in for a face-to-face interview. They would rather not commit to that step until they pre-screen you on the phone first. The unfortunate truth is that they want to see if they can eliminate you! [If you are lucky enough to have already passed through the phone interview and graduated to a face-to-face interview … read “Face-to-Face Interviews: Secrets, Tips and Tricks.”]

Don’t make the all-too-common mistake of treating a phone interview any less seriously than a formal in-person interview. It’s just as important, since it’s a necessary step towards the ultimate goals of getting in front of a decision-maker, receiving an offer and accepting a job. Your immediate task should be very clear: you want to advance to the next step in their process and not be eliminated! Phone interviews can be very tricky. Obviously you don’t have the benefit of seeing the person you are talking with (no eye contact, body language, etc.) All you have is your voice. After coaching and prepping hundreds of candidates for phone interviews over the years, here are some secrets, tricks and tips that I’ve learned that may help:

Try to set an appointment rather than taking a spontaneous call.
It happens so often – the phone rings unexpectedly, and wham … your suddenly in the middle of an unplanned phone interview! Don’t get caught off guard. Simply say: “You’ve caught me at an inconvenient time, and this sounds too important to rush. Can we schedule a different time that’s good for both of us when we can talk?”  You really need to prepare for a phone interview. Winging it is usually a bad idea. Set a time and date, and clarify who is to call whom.

Research the industry, the company and the players.
This would apply to any interview – phone or in-person. Find out everything you can about the place, their business, their products, their position in their industry, their reputation, their competition, their financial stability and the key decision-makers who work there. You certainly want to sound like you’ve done your homework, and that you are informed about them when asked the inevitable question: “How much do you know about our company?”

Go to a quiet place, and use a land line (not a cell phone) if possible.
Try to arrange to take the phone interview call in a private place, with no noises or distractions. Land lines generally sound better than cell phones, and are therefore preferable. If you must use a cell phone, make sure you are in a location with good service. The last thing you need here is a dropped call! If you are at home, or someplace where there are others around – tell everyone that you need quiet and privacy for a phone interview to avoid interruptions. Nothing sounds more unprofessional than a crying baby, screaming kids or a barking dog in the background!

Have a copy of the Job Description in front of you.
Print it out, lay it on the table and refer to it during your conversation. (If you don’t have one, ask the person who set up the phone interview to email a copy to you in advance.) Think it through before you get on the phone, and prepare concrete examples of when, where and how you have done all the specific things described in that job description. Be ready to tell your stories and demonstrate with details how you fit each and every requirement they listed.

Have a copy of your résumé in front of you.
Print it out, and lay it on the table in front of you. Refer to it when asked about your work history, your qualifications, and your accomplishments. No doubt, the interviewer will also have a copy in front of them … so it’s best to see what they are seeing as they ask their questions.

The Mirror Trick: It’s all about the sound of your voice – Smile!
Since all you have is your voice here – you need to remember to speak clearly, and try to convey enthusiasm and energy through your tone of voice. Smiling helps (really, it does!) An old trick used by inside sales people is to set up a mirror in front of yourself, and look at your face as you talk. Smile as much as possible during the conversation. Try it … you’ll notice that you actually sound very different when you talk through a smile. It does subtly come through on the other end.

Match the vocal cadence of the interviewer.
Another sales trick is to listen to the speed and tone of the interviewer’s voice, and try to match it with your own. I don’t mean imitate the person’s voice or accent … but simply talk slower or faster to match the way the other person sounds, and mirror their general tone and level. Doing this subconsciously makes the other person feel more comfortable with you, and helps you form a connection with them. (By the way … this trick also works when leaving voice-mail messages!)

Projecting a Positive Attitude is a critical key.
Again, it’s all in your voice. Concentrate on projecting positive energy and enthusiasm. Try to express passion for your work, a sense of humor, and a genuine aura of optimism. Those are the qualities that make a person attractive to others. It’s nearly impossible to fake those qualities, and frankly it’s one of the main reasons people get hired. Being able to convey a positive attitude over the phone is critical. [For more on this, read: “The Power of a Positive Attitude.”]

Use the “Nuggets” technique to establish rapport.
“Nuggets” are all those little things that you can pick out about a person or a company that you can make a positive comment about, compliment a person on, and use to connect on a personal level with the person you are talking with. When done correctly, using “Nuggets” in a phone interview can increase your chances of success and cast you in a more favorable light. Everyone loves to hear compliments … and it’s simply human nature for someone to be attracted to someone else who says complimentary things about them, and who seems impressed with them. [For more on this powerful interview technique, read: “Nuggets: A Secret Interviewing Technique.”]

Be a good listener, and never interrupt.
Any good interview is a 2-way exchange of information. Let the interviewer talk and lead the discussion without interrupting. Listen carefully, and then give thoughtful answers. Answer questions directly and completely, but try not to go off on tangents or “over-talk” your answers. It’s better to give a brief answer, and then ask “is that what you wanted, or should I give you more details?”  Candidates often get nervous and talk too much during interviews, trying way too hard to “sell themselves.” This is especially true during phone interviews where you don’t have any visual clues to tell you if the other person seems bored or restless. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve debriefed interviewers who complained about candidates who talked on and on and on during interviews, without letting the interviewer get a word in edgewise! Sometimes it’s better to simply shut up and listen!!!

Don’t bring up salary or benefits … but be prepared to answer the Dreaded Salary Question directly if asked.
Never be the one to bring it up … but if asked point blank what you made at your last job, or what your salary expectations are going forward – don’t play games or avoid answering. You need to prepare direct and truthful responses to those questions. It’s best to be honest about your history, and to give a range for your expectations (rather than a specific number.) Your history is what it is – you can’t change it, and delaying telling them serves no purpose. And your expectations should not be a moving target … you should know what you need as a minimum, and what range makes sense based on your history. Now it is true that if the range you give does not overlap with the range that they have budgeted for the job you are pursuing, they will very likely eliminate you at this stage. On the other hand, if you dance around this issue and/or refuse to give a straight answer, then that is just as likely to raise a red flag that will eliminate you here. There are simply too many qualified applicants for every open job for most HR people to want to deal with someone who can’t give a straightforward answer on this. The bottom line is that if your salary expectations do not match what they can pay, then it’s a waste of both your and their time to bring you in for face-to-face interviews. In fact, that’s one of the reasons companies start with phone interviews. They’ll find out eventually, so it’s better to know sooner rather than later. [For more details on this topic, read: “Answering the Dreaded Salary Question.”]

Prepare a list of questions you can ask.
Almost every interviewer asks near the end of an interview: “Do you have any questions?”  Candidates are often judged by the quality of the questions they ask … and candidates who have no questions at all might be perceived as having no interest in the position. Some suggested ideas for general questions are: “How long have you been with the company, and what do you like about it?” “How would you describe the company culture here?” “What characteristics have made your best employees successful here?”  You might also want to think of more specific questions about the company or their products, based your research. [For more on this, read: “’So, Do You Have Any Questions?’ Nailing the Interview Closer.”]

At the end of the interview, clarify the next steps.
If you are interested in this job, make sure to say so! (“I just want to let you know that I am very interested in this opportunity, and hope we can move forward. What is the next step?”) Don’t hang up the phone without determining what the expectations are for the next steps, and how and when YOU should follow-up. Ask what their timetable is for hiring, and how their hiring process works. Also make sure you get the email address and phone number of the person you spoke with, and send them a thank-you email that same day. Then immediately make a note on your calendar of when your pro-active follow-up call will be if you don’t hear back from them first. If you really want this job, don’t just sit back wait for them to make the next move. You have to go after it!

Entry filed under: Advice for Job Seekers. Tags: , , , , .

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35 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Janet  |  February 1, 2010 at 9:28 am

    Very informative article. Gives you lot to think about.

  • 2. Anne Hydock  |  February 1, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    Thank you, Michael – you captured lot of helpful and relevant points.

  • 3. Mike Rossetti  |  February 1, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    Thanks for the good article. I especially liked the mirror trick. Sometimes we get this one shot so we need to be prepared for it.

  • 4. Joy  |  February 1, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Thank you for the phone interviews article because I had a phone interview today and I used your tricks and tips. It went very well, and I hope to get an in-person interview.

  • 5. Catherine Gauthier  |  February 1, 2010 at 9:59 pm


    The article is very interesting. I have shared it with some of my colleagues from university, because too often we feel trapped when it comes to phone interviews … We need to learn to “kind of” lead the conversation, and I think that this blog will help them a lot.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Catherine Gauthier, B.B.A
    Student, M.Sc. Marketing, HEC montréal

  • 6. Betzy  |  February 1, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    Pretty good examples Michael. I was mentioning in a group meeting today that it was very important to practice connecting and closing skills in a professional way but with your posting, we need also to be well aware of the tricks, very helpful. Thanks

  • 7. Kathy  |  February 1, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    Mr. Spiro – This was a great article! I, like so many others, lost my executive role in October of 2008. Although I’m working and the opportunity is ideal because I work from home, I do really miss the corporate world so I continue to interview.

    Thank you for this information to help me through this journey. It helped. Kathy

  • 8. Ayça Güneş  |  February 2, 2010 at 2:03 am

    Dear Michael,

    Thanks for the precious tips. Phone interviews can be hard to manage. Simply, candidates shouldn’t treat a phone interview any less seriously than a formal in-person interview.

    Ayca Güneş

  • 9. Vikrant Patel  |  February 2, 2010 at 8:26 am

    Many thanks Michael, with the big freeze (on hiring and weather) over – your posting is very timely for us in the UK. In a culture, where the everyday use of the mobile phone has made us blasé about the art of the verbal-only communication – your tips are ever more important to bear in mind. Thank you for taking the time.

  • 10. Lynette Cable  |  February 2, 2010 at 9:08 am

    Great tips Michael. The one thing I’ve found in life is that the person who is prepared has a far better chance of success than one who waits for the opportunity. Being prepared also assumes there will be opportunity which is like a magnet to attract opportunities. Thanks for the Secrets,Tricks and Tips.

  • 11. Nick  |  February 2, 2010 at 9:26 am


    I am an independent recruiter, having ran my own firm for more than 8 years. I appreciate the knowledge you have shared on your blog. I have learned many of the valuable lessons you have shared and share many of the philosophies and techniques you have outlined. Thank you for putting this together. I am sure it has helped separate you from competition as I feel it has for me.


  • 12. Piper  |  February 2, 2010 at 11:38 am

    Great Tips

  • 13. Orietta  |  February 2, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    Michael – Very good roadmap and prep strategy for the phone interview process. I would add one other tidbit – research your interviewer (LinkedIn, Google). Doing so, helps you visualize who is it you are speaking with and create a virtual rapport with them.

  • 14. Dave  |  February 2, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Michael, very thoughtful tips, thanks. I do have one comment/question. I listened to a teleseminar a couple of weeks ago put on by a career coach who suggested three different responses as a way of AVOIDING the compensation question during an early telephone interview. The notion being the candidate should have the chance to impress the employer, in a second interview, before getting into a compensation discussion under the assumption that once impressed the employer might show more flexibility with regard to compensation. I personally prefer the direct approach but I’m wondering if opportunities are missed as a result, any thoughts?

    • 15. Michael Spiro  |  February 2, 2010 at 4:10 pm

      Unless you know someone at a higher level at the company that you can reach out to (and bypass the HR Gatekeeper who will most likely eliminate you at the phone interview stage if you don’t answer the salary question) then I think avoiding a straight answer will do you more harm than good.

  • 16. Rhonda Skalsky  |  February 2, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    Hi Mike,

    I really enjoyed this article a lot! I don’t think as quick on my feet as I would like so this does give me preparation ideas…..slow down, schedule the interview, etc.

    Thanks again,

  • 17. Ralph Boethling  |  February 2, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Great advice, Mike. As a part-time voice actor, I’ve learned the importance of smiling and other “physicality” to convey interest and a positive attitude. The point about not over answering is also key – I think we all want to “sell” ourselves, which can all too quickly turn to oversell. Sometimes the best way to make a point is to ask intelligent questions and actively listen to the response. As you pointed out, the job seeker’s objective for the phone screening is to pass through to the next step.

  • 18. Steve  |  February 3, 2010 at 12:01 am

    Good advice. The only one I have any issue with is setting an appointment for impromptu interviews. Most times, I prefer to talk to them because it shows that I have the ability to think on my feet and rapidly react to a situation.

  • 19. Betsy  |  February 4, 2010 at 8:38 am

    I am a recruiter who conducts 8 to 10 phone interviews a day domestically and internationally. While I don’t agree with the comment, “the goal is to eliminate you …” I think much of the advice here is relevant. I always schedule a specific time for the interview and allow the candidate to select a time convenient to them. It amazes me that when I call, I find people driving their cars or shopping or babysitting or sitting outside on a park bench with lots of noise in the background and they are not focused on the interview. If candidates don’t have questions or have not researched the company, I suspect that they are just blanketing websites with their resume and I am less interested in them. Don’t be afraid of the salary issue. Give a range and indicate whether you are flexible. If the interview has gone well, I will forward you to the hiring manager even if your salary is higher. My opinion is that it is a wise company that takes the opportunity to hire overqualified people. If you don’t answer the salary question when asked, you probably won’t get passed to the hiring managers. In closing, let me say that when I conduct a phone interview, the only thing missing from my perspective is the physical office and I expect the interview to be conducted in a focused and professional manner.

  • 20. sellvaraj natarajan  |  February 4, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    Excellent informative article. Well done Michael Spiro.

  • 21. Paul  |  February 5, 2010 at 12:59 am

    Thank you for this article.

    The “Do you have any question?” question at the end pretty much always caught me off-guard. So I had to improvise, and sometimes I come up with rather stupid questions like “what is the dress code in the company?” or “Do we talk warmly to managers, or more with respect?”…
    Anyways, I’m so happy when I receive a call from a company that I don’t even need a mirror :]

  • 22. Michael Cuff  |  February 5, 2010 at 4:03 am

    Thanks Michael, The tips regarding choosing the place to take the call and trying to do your talking through a smile were very helpful. I must admit I am prone to taking calls very seriously and obviously my voice would have come out serious but rather cold I imagine previously. The idea of using a mirror to do this on the surface seemed a little strange but after having given it a try and having applied it made me sound so much happier straight away. Once again thanks.

    – Michael Cuff

  • 23. Varun Hatmode  |  February 8, 2010 at 10:48 am

    this is really good… thanks a lot Michael.

  • 24. Ruth Rivers  |  February 9, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Good advice, things we know but forget in this market. After numerous e-mails and return calls to a director I conducted a call in a bus depot traveling to NYC. After returning the missed call to schedule it for another day I was told now was good. While the bus passengers moved about, I spoke of my work history apologized for the background noise and continued. I was told my background was too senior for the opportunity. Eliminate yes….
    Matching the voice cadence is key for me, I speak faster during telephone interviews.

  • 25. Muthu Chinnadurai  |  February 11, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    As usual, Mike a very informative and helpful article. However, I do have to disagree with the comment ‘the goal is to eliminate’, b’cos more frequently the phone call is really to find the right fit. If the goal is to ‘eliminate’ there won’t be a call itself. The core point here is, “If you are seriously looking for a job, then take the phone interview session seriously.” Everything else about ‘Preparedness’, ‘Presentation’, ‘Persistance’ is accurately represented in this blog. Good job. Looking forward to seeing more.

  • 26. Georg Toecker  |  February 12, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    Mike, This stuff is great……so far everything I have read on your blog is so helpful.

  • 27. Jennifer  |  February 27, 2010 at 6:50 am

    Impressive!, Impressive! Thank you SO much for this fantastic blog. I’ve had so many phone interviews where things didn’t go well. If I had read this first, I would have probably been able to avoid many obvious mistakes. I’m still working my way through your other posts, but I must say this is the best overall source of information for job seekers that I’ve ever found. Don’t stop writing!

  • 28. Angela  |  March 1, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    Very helpful, Michael. Thank you.

  • 29. Shevon Spence  |  March 9, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    This is great information.
    Thanks Michael

  • 30. Cathy Thomas  |  March 30, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    Not a fan of phone interviews, and understand this is part of the “weeding” process. Great article with insight. Thanks.

  • 31. Cassandra  |  April 12, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    I love your blogs!!! Very informative!

  • 32. Aiko  |  February 2, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    What are your thoughts around prescreening questions during the application process? I recently got knocked out of the running due to a yes/no prescreen question where they asked “Do you have demonstrated knowledge of….” and I didn’t want to overstate my capabilities. On the job req, this was also stated as a preferred not a required skill.

    Since I have a direct line of communication to the HR rep, I was also thinking of pulling some materials to show 1) my level of knowledge in that particular area, 2) my ability to quickly research and absorb new information in an area, and 3) demonstrate my interest in the organization and position. Do you also think that would be a good idea?

    • 33. Michael Spiro  |  February 5, 2012 at 10:09 pm

      Your idea about communicating your knowledge, flexibility, ability to learn new things and your interest to the HR rep is fine … but it may be too late if you already got “knocked out of the running” by answering the yes/no question the wrong way. It sounds like you are trying to un-do the damage you may have done. Any question on a application that asks if you have “knowledge of …” something should always be answered yes! “Knowledge of” is such a vague concept — and since it was not even a requirement, it can’t hurt to say you have knowledge of something. A few minutes on Google or Wikipedia will bring you up to speed on just about anything! Saying no to that type of question is a big no-no!

  • 34. YouAreBeautiful! (@VotreAme)  |  October 2, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    Amazing blog … where have you been through all the searches that I have done in the past? Wow, what knowledge, practical, humble, and useful … Thank you!

  • 35. Kenneth Love  |  December 19, 2013 at 9:07 am

    Just read the blog! A lot of really helpful “nuggets” of information here:) Ready to rock out on my interview today! Thanks for all your help.


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Michael Spiro

About the Author:

Michael Spiro has been a 3rd-Party Recruiter and Account Executive for over 20 years. He is currently the Director of Recruiting / NE Ohio Region for Jefferson Wells, a dedicated business unit of ManpowerGroup. Other recent positions include President of Midas Recruiting, a boutique head-hunting firm, Director of Talent at Patina Solutions, and Executive Recruiting positions with two of the largest search firms in North America. Before his career in the staffing industry, Michael was a manager in a large non-profit social-services organization. And in a former life, Michael was active in the entertainment industry, with extensive road-warrior experience as a touring performer (singer-songwriter / guitarist / comedian) and as a recording artist, producer and booking agent.  [More...]

Index (by Topic):

Résumés & Cover Letters:
 The "T" Cover Letter - The
         Only Type Worth Sending

 The Brutal Truth on How
         Résumés Get Eliminated

 Explaining Short Job Stints
         and Employment Gaps

 The Résumé Test &
         Checklist: Does Yours

 Beating the Résumé-
         Elimination Game: Where
         Do Recruiters' Eyes Go?

 The Truth About Lying on

 "Why Did You Leave Your
         Last Job?"

 How to Network: A
         Step-by-Step Guide for
         Job Searching

 Looking for Networking in
         All the Wrong Places

 Targeted Networking: How
         to Effectively Reach Out

 The Art of Giving: the Key to
         Effective Networking

 Face-to-Face Interviews:
         Secrets, Tricks and Tips

 Phone Interviews: Secrets,
         Tricks and Tips

 Video Interview Tips
         in the Pandemic World

 Nuggets: A Secret
         Interviewing Technique

 Answering the Dreaded
         Salary Question

 20 Surefire Ways to Blow
         an Interview

 "So, Do You Have Any
         Questions?" Nailing the
         Interview Closer

 Cool InfoGraphic: "What
         You Wish You'd Known
         Before Your Job

Age Discrimination:
 Age Discrimination: Secret
         Conversations Revealed

 Age Discrimination:
         Exposing Inconvenient

 Are You "Overqualified?"
         Handling the Age Issue

 Baby Boomers to the
         Rescue! An Idea Whose
         Time Has Come ...

 Overcoming Job-Search
         Obstacles and
         Redefining Your Career
         After 50

 Advice for Recent Grads
         and Career-Changers

Switching Jobs:
 The Proper Way to
         Quit a Job

 Counteroffers: Just Say No!

General Job-Seeking Info:
 The Real Truth About
         Working with Recruiters

 Contract/Consulting Jobs
         Explained ... Available in
         3 Different Flavors

►  What Recruiters Say
         vs. What Job-Seekers

►  The Dirty Truth About
         Unemployment Statistics

►  Let the Jobs Find You:
         Making Yourself More

 "Help ... I Need a Job!" A
         9-Step Guide for Newly
         Minted Job-Seekers

 Avoiding the "Black Hole
         of HR"

 Is Your Elevator Pitch
         Taking You UP
         or DOWN?

 Time Management: Recipe          for a Well-Balanced Job          Search
 Getting Un-Stuck from your

 The Double-Whammy of
         Rejection and Isolation

 "Unemployed Need Not
         Apply" - Working Around
         This Scary Message

 Using Social Media to
         Enhance Job-Searching

 Warning: That Rant You
         Posted Just Went Viral!

 The Golden Rule for
         Business: Never Burn

 The Power of a Positive

 Why Job Hunting is a
         Consultative Sales

 Top 10 Most Helpful Things
         for Job Seekers

 Top 10 Most Annoying
         Things for Job Seekers

 New Year's Resolutions for
         Unemployed Job-

Job-Seeking Humor:
 Comic Relief: Volume 1
 Comic Relief: Volume 2
 Comic Relief: Volume 3
 Comic Relief: Volume 4
 Comic Relief: Volume 5
 Comic Relief: Volume 6
 "In Transition" and Other
         Awkward Euphemisms

 Candidates Gone Wild:
         Recruiter Horror Stories

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