Do you have any tips for phone interviews?

Q: I was told by a potential employer that the initial interview would be over the phone. I have never had a phone interview; do you have any tips to help me get through?

A: One of the parts of my job that I love the most is conducting phone interviews with candidates. This past week I’ve conducted more than 50 of these interviews, with other members of the staff team conducting at least 70 more! Regardless of your feelings about phone interviews, you can develop techniques and skills that will maximize your phone interview’s impact on the hiring staff. Here are some phone interviewing tips to get you going:

  1. It’s important to prepare for a successful phone contact even as you are applying for positions. When providing your phone contact information, it’s important to list the number(s) at which you can be reached, indicating whether or not it is acceptable to be contacted at your current position. Also include your email address if you check it often.
  1. In certain circumstances it may be important to give additional contact information. For example, if you are currently working, you may include something like, “Between the hours of 8am-5pm, I can be reached at this number” or ” I check messages frequently throughout the day and can usually return calls during breaks.” Finally, if you will soon be moving, include “until” dates with your phone, email and mailing information.
  1. A trend observed by many recruiters is voicemails that treat incoming callers to the jobseeker’s favorite song of the moment. When I was 20-something, and going through a break up, I felt that two-minutes of “She’s Out of my Life” by Michael Jackson was a unique expression of my coolness and grief over the breakup; as a staffing professional, I am mildly annoyed by the concert. As a rule, I’d say cut the music.
  1. It is helpful if recruiters can be sure they’ve called the right number. For privacy and security issues, many people do not list their first names, last names, or telephone numbers on their voicemail greetings. My recommendation is usually to leave one of these identifiers in the message. Again, each job seeker must determine what is comfortable.
  1. If someone other than you may answer the phone, it is important to work out a system of message-taking. Twice this week, I have called a candidate only to be greeted by a toddler who told me, “Daddy’s in the shower” before she hung up. If you anticipate a “season” of job searching, it might be a good idea to invest in a personal voicemail.
  1. Create a mini-job log to have near the phone. Make a list of the companies at which you’ve applied and the titles of the positions applied for. Also include the qualifications requested for each position. This way when you are called, you will have some idea of which job they’re calling about. Ideally, the interviewer would like to think his or her company is the only employer to which you’ve applied. But this hope dies quickly when you say something to the effect of “now what job is this again; I’ve applied for so many….?” At best, it makes you look disorganized and at worst, as if you are sending out hundreds of resumes desperately.
  1. If you receive a message from one of the decision makers, return the call as soon as you can. As you are returning the call, remember that the recruiter may have called 10 other people that day about the same or a different position. When you return the call, give your full first name and last name and indicate that you are returning the recruiter’s call regarding the xxx position.
  1. If the message was left for you at 1 pm, and you didn’t get it until you returned home at 7:30, call and leave a voicemail then. Give your full first name, last name, specific position and your contact information for the next business day. Be prepared, in case the recruiter is still there at 7:30 and wants to do a phone interview right then!
  1. Ok, now here we go, the moment comes! The phone rings, and you are there to answer! Our standard recruiting rap goes something like this “Hi James, this is Carla calling from LaneStaffing in Houston, TX. I’m calling regarding our water quality position and would like to spend about 10 minutes on the phone with you asking some preliminary questions. Is this a good time to talk, or could I arrange a time to call you back?” Many interviewers like to make sure that interviewing now is convenient for the candidate. Most recruiting professionals will give candidates this courtesy, particularly when calling a candidate at her current place of employment. Where there is less universal agreement among recruiters, however, is your answer. Many recruiters want you to talk to them when they call, and may not want to call again later. They may have only one or two clarifying questions that would take just a few minutes. Or they may want to do the full 10-60 minute phone interview with you, and they want to have you do it immediately. Other recruiters want the candidate to feel composed and settled and have a quiet place to talk and think, and may not mind making a later appointment. If you are good on the phone and quick on your feet, you may want to go ahead with the interview. If you are in the middle of something, running out the door, or can’t remember what the job is, it may be best to suggest an alternate time. A good way to phrase this is, “I’m so happy you called. I have about 10 minutes before I have to run out the door. Is that enough time, or can I call you back later this afternoon?” This way, you are expressing your interest, being clear about the time you have, and suggesting a time to connect later.
  1. While you are talking, make sure that your phone battery is not about to run out, that your children are not screaming in the background, and that you will be able to concentrate. It may help to have your notes and resume in front of you, and to have a pen in your hand to take notes. If the entire hiring committee is on the other end in a conference call, you will want to write down each person’s name/role down so that you can refer to it later.
  1. It’s important that you are clear about whether or not you can hear the interviewer clearly. Don’t say, “Can you speak up?” Do say, “I’m having trouble hearing you. Can you hear me clearly?” The latter is slightly less confrontational and clarifies whether the connection between you is bad or if the problem is on the recruiter’s end.
  1. As with any interview, be prepared to ask questions at the end. You want to have the recruiter(s) hang up with a good impression of your interest in the company.
  1. Immediately after the call, write a short thank-you note. I suggest something like, like “Thank you for spending time with me on the phone today talking about the enrollment management position. I enjoyed the conversation and have a better understanding of the job. I am very interested in an on-site interview, and would welcome the opportunity to further discuss the position.”

The phone interview is the second step in the process for many recruiters. During a phone interview, interviewers can check out whether you are as good as you sound on paper, if you are articulate and if you’d be a good fit for the position. Most importantly, a phone interview serves as a way to narrow down the pool to finalists and semifinalists. Few people are hired solely on the basis of a phone interview. The phone interview is a way for both the candidate and the interviewer to test the waters. So, relax, be professional, and be yourself! Remember, the best thing about phone interviews is that you don’t have to wear a suit!