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Mastering the Phone Interview

By: Alison Green

More and more employers are using phone interviews as screening mechanisms to narrow down their applicant pool before deciding whom to interview in person. Phone interviews can range from short and perfunctory, to long and in-depth, but they’re generally intended to obtain some basic background information about you and to get a better sense of who you are.

The keys to acing a phone interview are being professional, prepared, and enthusiastic. Here are 10 ways to ensure you are.

1. Be prepared. You want to go into the call understanding who the employer is, so before the interview, go to its website and read enough to get a good feel for its clients, work, and general approach. Don’t leave the site until you can answer these questions: What does this organization do? What is it all about? What makes it different from the competition?

2. Know the job description. There’s nothing worse than a phone interview where the candidate doesn’t seem to grasp what the job is all about and why it would be a good fit. So as part of your advance preparation, go through the job description line by line and think about how your experience and skills fit with each line. Don’t be alarmed if you’re not a perfect fit; people get hired all the time without being a line-for-line match. The idea is simply to have thought through how you are a match, so that those thoughts are easily retrievable and can be turned into answers on the phone.

3. Think about the questions that you’re likely to be asked, and write out your answers to each of them. At a minimum, cover these basics: Why are you thinking about leaving your current job? What interests you about this opening? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What experience do you have doing ___? (Fill in each of the major responsibilities of the job.)

4. Think about how you’ll answer questions about salary history or expectations, so you’re prepared with an answer and not caught off-guard if this common topic comes up.

5. Come up with several questions of your own, because at the end of the conversation you’ll likely be asked what questions you have. Good questions at this stage are about the role itself and open-ended inquiries about the office culture. Make sure to end by asking what the next steps are and what the timeline is for getting back to you.

6. Pay attention to your tone of voice. On the phone interview, the interviewer can’t see your body language or gestures, so tone of voice matters more than ever. Your goal is to sound upbeat, interested, and engaged, not sluggish, distracted, or unenthused. And let your personality come through; after all, a major reason for the phone interview is to get a sense of what you’re all about.

7. While you shouldn’t sound stiff, don’t have an overly casual manner either. While the interviewer wants a sense of your personality, a phone interview is still an interview, not an informal phone call with a friend. I’ve phone-screened candidates who I’m pretty sure were lounging on the couch, watching the game with the sound down, and snacking while we talked. That’s not the impression you want to make!

8. Remember that a great benefit of phone interviews is that you can have notes in front of you. Take those answers you wrote down in step #3 and keep them in front of you. Just make sure you don’t sound like you’re reading a script.

9. Keep your answers to-the-point. One thing employers look for in phone interviews is the ability to answer questions directly and concisely, because they want to hire people who can organize their thoughts and convey needed information quickly. So keep your answers fairly concise. Of course, if there’s more to tell after your short answer, you can certainly ask, “Does that give you what you’re looking for, or would you like me to go more in depth about this?”

 10. Don’t do a phone interview while you’re driving. You won’t be able to fully concentrate, and if the interviewer realizes you’re driving, it will come across very poorly—because of safety and because it looks like you’re not treating the conversation as a priority.

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