Telephone Interviews: Tips for Improving Your Performance

Telephone interviews are highly effective screening tools used by employers to save time and money, screen “on the fence” applications, or whittle down an oversized file of good possibilities.   As an HR professional I’ve done a lot of phone interviews, almost always for the purpose of deciding whether to include or exclude someone who is not otherwise a clear choice. Headhunters use them–a lot more often–to build a slate of candidates.

I’ve screened and been screened using the phone interview; it isn’t quite the same as interviewing in person, because you can’t rely on your physical appearance, clothing choices, or body language to get yourself screened in.  But you can set yourself up for success through planning and self-management.  Here’s how:

  1. The interviewer should schedule the interview in advance, identifying a time, phone number, and the name of the person to whom you will be speaking.  Be sure that you a.) confirm who is to call whom,  b.) confirm your interviewing phone number, if you are going to be the call recipient, and c.) schedule it for a time when you can devote your full attention and control your surroundings.  “Now” is never a good time.   Never–even if it’s “just a few questions.”  The polite response to that is “This is not a good time.  May I return the call?”  Believe me, it will not ruin your chances.
  2. Do not interview on a cell phone.  But when you ignore this advice because you think I’m either old or crazy, do the following: Make sure the battery is fully charged and that you have reliable service.  If your house is a dead zone, don’t do the interview there.  Use your hands-free head set; if it’s the Bluetooth, make sure it’s charged.   Cell phone functional difficulties interrupt the flow of your conversation, and that is not helpful to you.
  3. Don’t use the speaker setting on whatever phone you choose.  It makes you sound distant.
  4. Do not participate in the interview from work, from your car, from a public location like an airport or shopping mall, from a place where there are barking dogs or demanding children, or anywhere that interferes with your attention.  Don’t ask a friend to join you and signal you or help you.
  5. Dress for success.  While you may not need to wear a suit and carry a briefcase to the phone interview, some people do this to provide themselves with the cue that this is that important.  I do not recommend doing an interview in your jammies, unless you want to sound like you are in your jammies.  Somehow it comes through the phone; I imagine there are all kinds of theories about why.
  6. Practice.  Have someone conduct a twenty minute interview with you and give you feedback on a.) how close you hold the phone, b.) how loud you talk, c.) your phone manners, like do you interrupt or talk too long, d.) clarity of your words, e.) ambient phone noise on your chosen telephonic equipment, and f.) pleasantness.
  7. Aim for warmth; smile when you speak.  It comes through the phone in a very good way.
  8. Don’t use your keyboard, make lunch, walk around a room with hard floors, watch tv, or read the mail while on the phone.  For some folks (like me) phone focus is difficult.  But the one split second when your listening falters as you see an email  land in your mailbox will be the second the run-on sentence turns into the question, and you are dead.  It happened to me.
  9. This is an interview.  Manners are the same: “Hi, Bob, nice to meet you.”  “Thanks for your time, Jane, I’ve enjoyed our conversation.”  “Frank,  I hope to hear from you.”  “John, If you need further information, don’t hesitate to call or email me.”  If you do a lot of interviewing, you may by now be used to glancing at name tags or desk signage to remind you of the name of the person you are talking to.  So, when your interviewer identifies himself or herself–and not before–write down his or her name and keep it in front of you.  And use it.
  10. Be certain that your call is disconnected when the interview is over and you believe that no one can hear you.  Oh, yes, it does happen; be sure it doesn’t happen to you.

I’m sure you’ve been having phone conversations since you could talk; most of us have.  But there are tricks to performing well when you can’t see or be seen by an interviewer, someone who can move you along to the next phase or place your candidacy to the side of the “definitely worth a look” pile.  Remember that the phone interview is usually reserved for folks who’ve made it over at least one hurdle—make sure you get over this one, too.

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