Acing a Telephone Interview

Telephone interviews are becoming more and more popular as a step in the recruitment process. Employers and recruiters use telephone interviews as a way to pare down the number of applicants for a job opening and to develop a pool of qualified candidates. The results of a telephone interview will usually determine whether you are invited for an in-person interview. The advantages of telephone interviews for the employer or recruiter are that questions can be standardized, they don’t take a lot of time, and expenses involved in interviewing out-of-town candidates can be minimized or eliminated.

Your objective during a telephone interview is to secure an in-person interview with the person who has the authority to hire. Approach the call with that attitude.

While you’re actively job searching, it is important to be prepared for a phone interview at any time. You never know when a recruiter or employer is going to call and ask if you have a few minutes to talk. Here are some tips for preparing to interview and acing the interview.

Be Prepared to Interview

Check your voice mail greeting on the phone number(s) you are giving to recruiters and potential employers. Make sure your greeting is short and professional in case an interviewer has to leave a message.

Prepare as you would for regular in-person interviews. Review your resume and make a list of specific accomplishments throughout your career as well as your strengths and weaknesses. Prepare your "elevator pitch" so that when someone starts an interview with "tell me about yourself", you can provide a brief summary of your skills and experience without reciting your resume line by line. It is important that you know your own resume. Be prepared to make your resume "come alive" by demonstrating a career plan and explaining how you advanced from one position to another.

Prepare a list of questions you’d like to ask the interviewer, but keep the list brief. You will have more time to ask questions about the opportunity and the company when you meet with them in-person, and securing that in-person interview is your main objective during the phone interview.

If you know the company you are interviewing with, research the company and industry in advance. You do not need to know the organization inside out, but you should be prepared to demonstrate that you have done your research. You may be asked whether you are familiar with the company and you don’t want to appear unprepared, or worse, not really interested.

Know the skeletons in your closet, such as job hopping, being fired, etc. Rehearse your responses to difficult or uncomfortable issues that may come up in the conversation. Be clear on your reasons for leaving each position. Almost every interviewer, especially at this stage in the process, will ask that question.

Keep your resume, pen, paper and calendar on hand by the phone so they are at your fingertips when the phone rings. Write down your contact information including your phone number(s) and email address in case your nerves get the best of you and you can’t recall them if asked.

During the Interview

Try not to be nervous. You want to come across calm and prepared. Try to relax. Stand up or sit up straight in your chair when talking on the phone.

Use a land line phone if at all possible. Interviews by cell phone can be frustrating to both parties due to background noise and cell phone reception. If you must use a cell phone, never do a telephone interview while driving and minimize background noise as much as possible. Don’t use your phone on "speaker" for a phone interview.

Make sure you have a quiet place to take the call. Evict the kids and pets, turn off the radio and TV, and close the door.

If the call is unexpected, take it in stride. Be positive, friendly and collected. If you can take the call, ask the interviewer if you may put them on hold for a moment, go to a quiet place to take the call, make sure you have your materials handy, take a deep breath, put a smile on your face and pick up the phone. If you cannot take the call, tell the interviewer it is not a good time for you to speak and suggest an alternative day and/or time.

Be enthusiastic. The first 15 seconds are crucial and interest in your voice is key. Just the way you answer the phone has an impact on the caller.

Don’t smoke, chew gum, eat or drink during the interview. Do keep a glass of water on hand in you case your mouth gets dry.

Smile during the call. Even though the caller can’t see you, smiling will project a positive image to the listener and will change the tone of your voice.

Speak slowly and enunciate clearly. Speak with confidence and speak directly into the phone. Avoid ah, er, hum. These come across much more over the phone than in person.

If you have call waiting, do NOT interrupt your interview to take another call. If you can turn off call waiting before the interview, do so.

If you are taking notes, use a pen and paper. Do not type while talking on the phone – the person on the other end can hear it and will think you are not paying attention to the conversation.

Don’t be overly familiar. Call the interviewer by their name using Mr. or Ms. and only use a first name if they ask you to.

Allow the interviewer to ask the questions. The telephone interview isn’t the time for you to grill the interviewer about the company. This is the time for you to present yourself through your answers to their questions, and to secure an in-person interview when you can more thoroughly examine the opportunity and the company.

Don’t interrupt the interviewer.

Take your time. It is ok to take a moment or two to collect your thoughts when asked a question, but make sure you say you need a moment so you don’t have dead air time.

Keep your answers brief and to the point. Try to respond with positive answers and to be positive, even about bad experiences in your career. Negative, self incriminating answers will get you nowhere. Avoid simple yes or no responses and remember to add selling points about yourself at every opportunity. Be honest, but avoid being negative about former managers or employers.

Be factual in your answers. Never lie, mislead or say something that you cannot absolutely support.

Never ask during a phone interview about salary, benefits, paid holidays, etc. There will be time for this later when you get the in-person interview and during the employment offer stage. However, if the interviewer ASKS YOU what you are seeking in compensation to make a change, a good way to answer is to tell them what you are making currently and stating that you hope they will make a fair offer based on your experience and the value you can bring to the company. Another way to answer is to provide a salary range that you are seeking. Remember, only provide this information if asked and do not initiate any conversation about this issue yourself.

The interviewer may ask you if you have questions at the end of the interview. Keep your questions limited; remember you are trying to secure an in-person interview. Thank the interviewer for their time, express clearly that you are interested in the position and ask what the next step in the process is. You may also want to ask if there is any additional information you can provide the interviewer at this time.

If you don’t already have it, make sure to ask for the interviewer’s exact title and name spelling, along with a street or email address, so that you can send a thank you note.

After the Interview

Make notes about what you were asked and how you answered.

Remember to say "thank you". Follow up with a thank-you note by mail and/or email that reiterates your interest in the job.


Allison Grace, CEBS, CCP, CMS, is President and Founder of Instant HR Solutions and a human resources professional with more than nineteen years of experience. As a consultant, Allison has worked with companies in various industries including hedge funds, technology, oil and gas development, recruiting and accounting. Combined with technical training and professional certifications, Allison’s practical experience includes working in all aspects of human resources to establish HR programs t...

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