Success with Telephone Interviews

Telephone interviews can be trying. There are no visual cues from the interviewer, no body language to read and, in some cases, you’ve got to answer questions posed by a panel of voices over conference lines or speaker phones. Here’s some tips on engaging successfully – long-distance or local.

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Under pressure to do more with less and straining to discern candidate differences from a stream of online resumes, managers are conducting more initial interviews over the telephone instead of face-to-face.

“Employers are looking to assess a candidate’s basic requirements when they conduct a telephone interview,” says Omayra Cruz, recruitment manager with Total Recruiting Solutions, a contract and full-time placement staffing firm based in Woodland Hills, Calif. “In smaller companies, the accountants have to wear many hats, so accounting and finance professionals who have gained experience in larger organizations may have more specialized experience and they may not match-up well to the job specs in a smaller firm.”

“We really turn to telephone interviews when we have a large number of candidates who all look the same on paper, or if we are trying to ascertain whether we want to spend the money to bring a candidate in from out of town,” says Karen Kerr, assistant director for recruitment at California State University, Long Beach. “We’re really testing the candidate’s credibility. We want to quickly get a handle on their knowledge and validate their skills and abilities.”

“Remember that a telephone interview is an interaction, not an inquisition. It’s not necessary for the interviewer to drive the entire conversation,” says Cruz. “To be a good (interview) it’s important to be a good story teller. This morning I interviewed a tax manager over the telephone and she relayed her experience to me through a series of vignettes that were very interesting. It really made me listen to her. She demonstrated her skills and experience through example.”

Remember: It’s an Interview

The key to having a successful phone interview might be to remember – it’s an interview. Treat it as you would any important business call, wherever you happen to be.

  • Be on time: Phone interviews are scheduled by appointment, so don’t treat it any differently than an in-person interview.
  • Select a quiet place: No barking dogs, no kids in the background. You want silence and privacy. Close the door to the room, answer the phone yourself and wear a headset if possible so your hands are free to take notes. Shut down your e-mail or anything else that will distract you.
  • Prepare some crib sheets: One advantage to phone interviews is you can have information in front of you. If you don’t know the names of the interviewers in advance, write them down as they are given to you and make a note to help you recognize their voice. For example, Mr. Jones has a high pitched voice, or sounds like your Uncle Bill. Have a print-out of your resume and your experienced-based vignettes in front of you in large type, so you can refer to them.
  • Do your homework: Study the job description and the company’s Web site. By doing so, you can anticipate some of the questions you’ll be asked, and you’ll be able to customize your examples and vignettes.
  • Smile: Okay, it’s corny, but there’s a reason everyone suggests it: It works. Stand-up if it will help you transfer more energy into your voice, and try putting a mirror on the wall in front of you. To prepare, role play with a friend or your spouse and try recording your voice to see how you sound.
  • Speak clearly and not too quickly: Remember that on most conference lines, one person cuts out if two people speak at once. So always wait a second before you start speaking to make certain the other person has finished.
  • Listen: Connections can be challenging and the interviewer who’s the furthest away from the speaker phone can be hard to hear. Focus on what you’re being asked and request clarification if you’re uncertain. It’s always good to start your response by addressing the questioning interviewer by first name. If you’re not sure who asked the question, identify them first before responding.
  • Prepare some questions: Don’t focus on compensation and benefits. Ask about the company, its performance expectations, and the culture. In other words, show interest! Also be sure to close by saying you’re interested in taking the next step and asking if there’s anything else you can provide.
  • Obtain the contact information and titles for the interviewers and send each a follow-up note or e-mail as soon as the interview concludes.

“Because most phone interviews focus on screening a candidate for their knowledge, it’s important to be ready to articulate your expertise clearly and succinctly, but not curtly,” says Kerr. “Avoid ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ because those bad speech habits have a tendency to magnify when you’re speaking over the telephone.” And, she adds, “Although many candidates don’t like phone interviews, in some respects they’re fairer than in-person meetings because the candidates aren’t judged on their appearance, just their competency. So in that sense phone interviews are truly equal.”