Introduction:  Through the course of our work in the search & placement industry, we have researched techniques, and expertise on the interviewing process.  The following article in it’s entirety should be beneficial for candidates preparing for and succeeding with phone interviews.  

Acing the Telephone Interview
by Ross MacPherson, President, Career Quest

We all want to get that phone call from the recruiter, manager, or HR person for an interview. However, sometimes, before they officially decide to interview you in person, they'll want to conduct a quick interview over the phone.

First, fear not! Winning the telephone interview simply requires the same type of preparation as a regular face-to-face interview, along with an understanding of how you can address the challenges inherent in using the phone. With your usually solid preparation and a few added tricks I'll show you, you'll be well on your way to acing your next phone interview.

Why Telephone Interviews?

There are a number of potential reasons that a telephone interview might be required. For example, if it is a position for which good telephone skills are required, hearing your telephone skills right up front makes a lot of sense from the employer's standpoint.

However, more often than not, a telephone interview is designed to narrow down the employer's list of candidates to interview. Obviously, from their perspective, it's unrealistic to interview 25 candidates - it would take too much time and cost too much money. This is especially true if the position is some distance away and they would have to pay for your travel.

The interviewer is simply trying to narrow down the list of quality candidates to a more manageable number to interview. Think of it as a trial run for the face-to-face interview, and your objective is to win that face-to-face interview!

Because it's a number's game, the telephone interview is therefore designed to screen people out…but that doesn't mean you can't "wow" them so much that they immediately screen you in.

The Challenge

Regular interviews can be can be nerve-wracking enough, but telephone interviews have added a new level of stress and complexity to an already discomforting process. The challenges are obvious:

You can't see your interviewer face-to-face, and therefore can't read their body language, see their eyes, or get other non-verbal cues

Likewise, they can't read your fantastically positive body language or see your brilliant smile - you have to make a great impression with the only thing you've got on the phone… your voice

If they call you "out of the blue," you haven't had a chance to properly prepare and psyche yourself up

How to Prepare

If at all possible, I always recommend having a dedicated space in the house where you work on all your job search activities. This spot should be quiet, ideally has a door that closes, and is somewhere you can easily talk on the phone. Have this area available and at the ready with your files of what jobs you've applied to.

Tip: if you really want to be ready, create a small file for each position you apply for, including the job posting (with highlighted key points), a copy of the resume you sent in (if it was modified for the position) and any potential objections or shortcomings that might come up if they ask.

Like any other interview, know what you have to market about yourself - know the top 4 or 5 qualifications that you offer and be well practiced in talking about them.

Because they may be trying to screen you out, you have to be well rehearsed in handling any potential objections they might have. What questions would you hope they don't ask? What skill gap did you identify in the job posting? Are you lacking any specific experience? If ever there was ever a time for these issues to come up, it's now, so you need to be ready to address them.

Keep a pen and paper at the ready to take notes. Write down the interviewer's name when you hear it, and don't be afraid to ask again for clarification (they would much rather you asked again than get it wrong). You might also hear something important about the position or company that you could refer to later, so take notes.

What to Do When the Phone Rings

If this telephone interview was set up by a recruiter or search firm, there's a good chance that you will know when the call is going to take place. This is obviously the best scenario, because it gives you an opportunity to prepare. Do whatever works for you to get yourself into that state of confidence and in interview mode (I have even known people to get dressed up in their suits, fix their hair, and otherwise prepare for any other interview simply to get them into the right headspace for this very important phone call). You know what works best for you, so get yourself ready.

You could, however, also get a call completely "out of the blue" and they'll expect to interview you right then and there. Your first step, be calm! Say something like "Terrific…could you give me a moment to go to a room where we won't be interrupted?" or "Could you give me just a moment to close the door?" When they agree, cover the voice piece on the phone and go to your quiet area where you have all of your job search material prepared, take two or three deep breaths, and then continue.

The worst thing you could do is panic and try to conduct the interview where you are, especially if you're not prepared. You are not going to be at your best standing in the laundry room, just getting out of the shower, or otherwise not in professional mode.

If you are genuinely tied up or it is simply not a good time - you're feeding your 2-year old, the laundry machine just overflowed, or the dog is frothing at the mouth - politely ask if you could call them back. As long as you're polite and professional about it, it should be no problem.

Tip: telephones have a tendency to amplify background noise. If you think you might need to shout at your kids to be quiet, yell at your husband, put away cutlery, or otherwise do anything very noisy in order to get some quiet time, ask if you can call them back. Do not just put the phone down, because chances are they will hear everything you are doing.

How to Talk on the Phone

Sounds obvious, but there are certain tips to keep I mind when you are interviewing by telephone. Remember, they only have your voice to go by, so here are a few tips to keep you at your best: :

  • Listen to the questions, and don't interrupt
  • Be polite and professional
  • Be enthusiastic and smile - your smile will actually come across in your tone of voice
  • Consider standing up when you're talking on the phone - your voice will sound stronger and many people find they sound and feel more professional
  • Be brief when answering your questions - you want to be thorough and keep up your end of the conversation, but you also don't want to ramble
  • Speak directly into the telephone, and do not smoke, eat, or chew gum when talking
  • Use the interviewer's name occasionally and likewise refer to the company by name a few times
  • If you hear anything about the company or position that is particularly interesting or attractive, say so - remarks like "That sounds exciting", "What a great opportunity," or "I worked on a very similar project with my last company and loved it" can convey your interest in the position and the company, which could help increase your chances of being invited to the face-to-face interview

The Dreaded Salary Question

The salary question is one of the primary ways they can screen you out, so ideally you want to avoid the salary topic wherever possible. If they ask, try to say something like, "At this point I'd really like to meet in person to find out even more about the position. Once we know we're the right fit for each other, I'd be glad to discuss salary."

They may also ask you what you're earning now. You can say something like, "I'm currently earning $ X, not including (benefits, bonuses, % commission, etc.). If we're the right fit, which I think we might be, I have no doubt that we can work out a mutually agreeable number."

Many interviewers are pretty savvy, however, and may press you for a figure, so have a salary range at the ready just in case.

Closing the Interview

When it feels right and it sounds like the interview is wrapping up, ask for a date to meet for face-to-face interview. Say something like "Well, I'm excited. This sounds like a great position and I know I could step in and contribute. I'd really like a chance to sit down with you in person and discuss this even further. When could we meet for an interview?" Show you're interested.

If the interviewer hedges or says "I'll call you", try to politely probe a little further. Ask "When might I likely hear back from you?" or "I'm really keen to know if we can meet face-to-face, Mr. Brown. If I haven't heard from you by next Friday would you mind if I gave you a call?" This tactic can show your enthusiasm and your professionalism (and is particular important if you're applying for a sales position where they might be expecting you to demonstrate such salesmanship).

If you are invited for the face-to-face interview, be certain to thank the interviewer and get the important details - when, where, with whom you are interviewing, is there anything in particular you need to bring, etc.

Telephone interviews are really not that different from face-to-face interviews, but there are a couple little tips you need to keep in mind to be at your best when the phone rings. The most important thing, however, above all else, is that you demonstrate energy, enthusiasm, and 100% commitment to your ability to do the job. That alone could put you miles above the competition.

Best of luck!

Ross Macpherson is the President of Career Quest, a Certified Professional Resume Writer, and a Career Success Coach who has helped thousands of motivated professionals advance their careers. To receive more valuable career advice, sign up to join his monthly newsletter "Career Accelerator" by visiting