Phone Interviews: Secrets, Tricks and Tips
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!