5 Essential Tips for Nailing the Phone Interview

Written by Janna Kefalas

Picture it: you’ve been applying for jobs and networking for months to no avail.  All of a sudden — PING — an email pops up from the recruiter of one of your target companies asking to schedule a phone interview.  Your stomach does a little somersault and you reply with your availability. 

Oh, wow! Tomorrow at 9:30 am it is.  You’re nervous and excited, but more than anything, you have your work cut out for you! 

There’s a lot of advice out there on how to prepare for an in-person interview, but the phone screen can be a whole different beast.  These 5 strategies will help you get prepped and in game-mode for your very special phone call.

Essential Tip #1 - Treat the Phone Screen Like a Real Interview

Even if the recruiter refers to it as a “brief chat,” don’t be fooled.  This is a real interview.  Job seekers often make the mistake of thinking it’s a casual “get-to-know-you” session and go in totally winging it.  But remember, how you do on this call determines whether the recruiter passes you onto the next round.  This “gatekeeper” wields a lot of power!

Now it’s true that phone screens can greatly vary in length, from 15 minutes to an hour.  Sometimes the call is with an HR assistant with limited knowledge of the position.  And other times the call is with one of the hiring managers from the department who’s ready to dive into tough questions.  Knowing who the call is with, of course, will give you some insight as to how to prepare.

But regardless, it’s best to prepare for the toughest possible interview.  It’s always better to be over-prepared than under-prepared.  And the more you prep for this initial screening, the less you'll have to do for subsequent interviews — so it’s a win/win.

Your first task is to do as much research on the company as possible — and not just on their website.  Look at all their social media pages (and read the comments).  Also check out articles about them on industry blogs and other outlets.  Have at least three specific pieces of news (product launches, awards, new offices, etc.) at the ready to talk about. 

When it comes to preparing interview questions, here are a few you should have down pat:

>  Tell me about yourself.

>  What interests you in this company/position?

>  How are your skills and experience a fit for this position?

>  What are your greatest strengths/weaknesses?

>  Why are you leaving your current position?

>  What is your salary requirement?

Additionally, anything on your resume is fair game, so be prepared to give a very brief description of your past positions (without reading your resume), as well as why you moved on.  Depending on the interviewer, you may be asked about the more technical aspects of the position.  Scour the job description for the most salient job responsibilities, and be prepared to talk about how you’re qualified to solve their unique problems. 

If the interview is being conducted by phone (as opposed to Skype), you have the golden advantage of being able to refer to notes.  It's helpful to bullet point out your answers in large font.  Next, practice answering the questions out loud, paraphrasing your notes.  This way when your nerves kick in on the call, you’ll be able to remain calm and focused.

Essential Tip #2 - Create Your Perfect Phone Interview “Station”

It's one hour till go time; the countdown is on!  Where you conduct the call and how you set up your station is virtually as important as your prep work. If you’re home for the call, choose a quiet space with good phone reception and a large desk or table, so you can spread out your notes.

You’ll want to print out and highlight your company and employee research, the job description, and your resume — marked up with additional information and accomplishment statements.  Also, have a notepad and pen (or laptop) handy for taking notes.  Be handsfree on your phone so that you can easily grab what you need.

If you’re taking the call in the middle of the workday, schedule it at a time where you can physically leave the office.  (Don’t whisper from your office or a conference room.)  Get out, drive your car to a quiet street and have your notes handy.

If the interview is being conducted over Skype, you unfortunately lose the advantage of having your notes in front of you.  But the upside is getting to read nonverbal communication, which is painful lacking on a phone call.  When it comes to Skype interviews, you obviously want to dress professionally and make sure you’re in a well-lit, quiet spot with a simple background.  I once heard a story of a candidate doing a Skype interview with laundry hanging in the background.  Yikes!

Essential Tip #3 - Smile When You Talk

As you can imagine, this only applies to phone interviews (not Skype).  And yes, it does sound creepy.  But smiling lifts the soft palette and makes you sound warm and engaging.  On a phone interview, you ONLY have your voice, so make sure you speak slowly, crisply and with energy.  (Watch those “ums,” “uhs,” likes” and “ya knows.”)  As long as you can see your notes, it might make sense to stand while you talk.   If you’re sitting, use good posture.  You’ll feel more confident and energized. 

The lack of visual cues can be a major issue on a call.  As you’re answering questions, you might be thinking to yourself, “Am I making any sense?”  “Are they bored…confused…even listening?”  Candidates will hear a brief silence and think they need to keep talking.  A 20-minute conversation can easily turn into a 40-minute one without any real added substance.  That’s why rehearsing your answers is so essential.  Most questions can be answered in anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes.  Beyond that, you're probably rambling. 

So here’s a simple strategy: if after answering a question you hear an awkward silence, it might be good to ask, “Was that helpful?  Or would you like me to elaborate further?”  That way the interviewer can easily guide the conversation.

Essential Tip #4 - Ask the Right Questions at the End

So the interviewer finishes with their questions and asks if you have any questions for them.  The worst thing you can say is, “Nope, I’m all set.”  Instead, show them you have a sincere interest in the opportunity and want to gain further insight.  These questions will also help you determine if the position and company are the right fit for you. 

>  What do you like most about working at XYZ Company?  What brought you to this company?

>  What do you see as the most rewarding aspects of this position?  What are the greatest challenges?

>  What are the attributes of someone who’s been successful in this position/on this team?  And some attributes of someone who hasn’t been as successful?

And save this question for last:

> What are the next steps in the process?

(This last question will help you with the next tip.)

Essential Tip #5 - Follow Up Like a Champ

The phone interview is finally over.  Phew!  All that prep actually paid off.  But wait, your job isn’t over yet.  You’ll want to email a thank you note after the call.  If your interview was in the morning, send it in the afternoon.  If it was in the afternoon, send it by end of day or the next morning.  Here are some things to include:

•    Thank them for the opportunity to interview with them.

•    Reiterate your interest in the position and why you think it’s a great fit.

•    Touch on one or two topics you enjoyed discussing/things you learned. 

•    Indicate that you’ll follow up again within the timeframe they mentioned.

Generally speaking, a thank you note isn’t a place to do a hard sell.  Their impression of you has already been made.  However, if you felt like there was one question you completely bombed or gave a confusing or incomplete answer on, you could write a sentence or two and give a quick clarification.  This is definitely not a requirement — only if you feel like it’ll help your cause.

Let’s say they told you that they’d be contacting candidates in a week to set up the next round of interviews.  If you haven’t heard anything after ten days, go ahead and send a follow up email.  The key is to avoid sounding like a needy, impatient candidate.  You’ll want to thank them again for the interview and reiterate your genuine interest in the position.  From there you can ask about next steps.  Always thank them for their time and consideration.

So there you have it.  While phone screens can cause serious misunderstanding, armed with these strategies, you’ll be on your way to making a great first impression and sailing onto the next round! 

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