Telephone Interviews

Preparing for a telephone interview

Companies often prefer to conduct telephone (screening) interviews before inviting candidates to their offices for a face-to-face interview.
This applies particularly:
• When candidates will have to travel a long way
• When there are large numbers of candidates
• When screening by CV is difficult (when for example, personality is more important than experience or qualification)
• When a large part of the job will involve talking to people on the telephone.
If this telephone interview has been arranged through an agency/recruitment consultant you should know exactly when to call the hiring manager, or when they will call you. In other circumstances, you may have to be prepared to receive a call ‘out of the blue’.

From the telephone interview, your objectives should be:
• To obtain enough information to decide if you would like to proceed with the interview process
• To give just enough information to answer the hiring manager’s questions and persuade them that you are indeed worth interviewing face-to-face
• To ‘close’ the interview effectively and agree a time, date and place for your face-to-face interview

Preparation for a telephone interview is as important as preparation before any other form of interview or meeting. The impression you create in the opening moments, and the manner with which you present yourself will determine whether or not you will be successful.
Find out as much as you can about the company and the job description. If your telephone interview has been arranged by a third party, you should receive much of this information from them. But in any case, do your own researches – company websites are one of the best sources of information. Find out about the size and structure of the company, its products and its markets.

Make a note of any questions you would like to ask. Ask about things if they are important to you, especially if your decision whether to proceed depends upon the answers (for example: will I have to relocate? (if that is something you don’t want to do!). Otherwise, ask broad questions such as ‘What training will be given?’, ‘What opportunities are the for advancement?’.
Have these questions written down.
Have a notepad and pen ready, along with your diary.
Have your CV at hand. In all probability the hiring manager will have a copy of it too, so you probably won’t be asked to describe your background in detail.

Prepare mentally, or better still in writing, a very brief ‘potted history’ to answer the demand ‘Tell me about yourself.’ Managers ask this not because they want the information (they already have your CV!), but because they want to listen to you, to find out how communicative you are, and how you sound.
Example: I left college and decided to get into sales within the scientific field, but I needed a job straight away, so I took a stop-gap job as a clerk in the local tax office. I hadn’t intended to stay so long, but there weren’t many opportunities in my area for the sort of job I was looking for. After about six months however, I got a chance to join X-Company as a telephone sales person, selling scientific supplies, and I’m still there now. I wouldn’t be looking for a new job except that there are no opportunities in my company to progress into field sales. This is why I’m particularly interested in joining your company Mr Brown.

The Call
If you have been asked to call at a specific time, call at precisely the correct time. Too early shows over-keenness and may damage your negotiating position later on, or your chances of getting to the next stage. Too late shows lack of interest – excuses won’t be tolerated. If you can’t get through (manager busy), leave a message with the secretary/receptionist to show that you called at the right time. Ask when the manager is expected to be free, and try again then. Repeat the same procedure until you make contact. If you have been told that the hiring manager will call you – do not expect the same rules to apply! They will call you when they want to! (They’re the one with the job after all!)

Tone of voice This is the most important aspect of this form of interview. The detail is of very little importance – the manager has your CV, so they know exactly what you’ve done, and in all probability wouldn’t be talking to you if they weren’t essentially interested.

The main rules are:
• Think about how you normally answer the phone at home. When you answer the phone, do so by announcing your name, in an enthusiastic style: ‘John Pickles, Good Morning!’ If this is not your natural style, change it!
• Sound interesting/interested, energetic and enthusiastic
• Be succinct (don’t waffle)
• Ask open-ended questions (beginning with who, what, when, why, where, how: these all ask for information, and keep the ball in the other person’s court). Be prepared that they will do exactly the same!
• Don’t use jargon
• Don’t swear or use colloquialisms (local phrases: ‘I covered the whole of London on Shanks’ pony’)
• Be polite: speak to Ms (not Miss or Mrs. – even if you know their marital status), or Mr. Jones. If you are invited to use their first name, then use it. Use their title if you know they are for example, a doctor.
• Use the other person’s name regularly throughout the conversation (but not all the time). Also, use the company name a few times.

Prepare to answer these questions
You can’t prepare for every possible question, but there are a few which frequently come up:
• Tell me about yourself! (see above)
• What do you know about our company? (see above)
• What are you looking for? (More tricky. Be wary about saying things which the manager might not want to hear: ‘I want to get intomarketing’ unless you know for sure that this possibility exists. Keep your answer general: ‘I’m looking for a chance to join a progressive company which gives hard workers a chance to shine. What opportunities exist at X-Co. Mr. Brown?’)
• What would you like to know about us? (A good opportunity to ask your prepared questions. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. If there’s something about the job which doesn’t suit your purpose (or vice-versa) there’s little point in proceeding.)
• What are your strengths? (Again, be careful. If you know for sure what the manager is looking for, you can tell him (‘I’m strong in ion-chromatography’) but if you don’t know this, you’re better off saying you have general, positive characteristics (‘I’ve been told I have energy, enthusiasm and 100% commitment to the job I’m working on’). Don’t over-egg it though – the manager may want you to substantiate your claims!
• What are your weaknesses? This may be disguised – ‘What areas will you need support and training in?’ (Obviously, don’t shoot yourself in the foot -‘I’m lazy!’) If you know you’ve got a weakness in respect of this particular job, you might as well admit it. There’s no point in getting a job under false pretences – you’ll only be found out. But there’s no harming in saying ‘Well, I can’t claim to be an expert in ion-chromatography Mr Brown, but I’m very keen to learn, and I’m quite prepared to study in my own time to improve. Tell me, what training does your company provide?
• What else would you like to know? (An ideal opportunity to ‘close’ – see below)

Be prepared to answer ‘objections’
If the manager says something negative, try to overcome the objection.
Example: ‘I don’t think you’ll be suitable because you have no ion-chromatography experience!’
Answer: ‘This is true Mr. Brown, but I’m very familiar with other forms of chromatography, and I’m a very quick learner. I didn’t know anything about gas-chromatography when I started with my current company, and now I’m regarded as an expert. If I was prepared to use my own time to study, would you be prepared to train me?’
If it’s crucial that Mr Brown has to hire a ready-made expert, you probably aren’t going to get the job. But you could try to keep the door open by saying ‘Well, if you don’t find what you’re looking for Mr Brown, please call me as I’d be really keen to join your company’.

Having tried your best to overcome the objections, always ask a question, in order to throw the ball back in the other person’s court.

Closing the telephone interview
Part of the purpose of the telephone interview (from the hiring manager’s perspective) is to find out how keen you are, and (especially in the case of sales jobs) whether you have natural closing ability.
As soon as it seems appropriate during the conversation, ask for a date to meet for a face-to-face interview. Say something like ‘Well, this certainly sounds like just the job I’m looking for Mr. Brown. I’m sure I can contribute a lot to your company. I’d really like to visit you to show you what I can do for you. When can you meet me?’
You may have to be content with the response ‘I’ll call you’, but at least you can ask ‘When am I likely to hear from you?’. If the manager hedges, decide upon a reasonable time scale, and suggest ‘Well, I’m very keen to know if I’ve got a chance with you Mr. Brown, so if I haven’t heard from you by next Friday, would you mind if I call you then to find out?’
This approach is particularly important if you are applying to sales jobs, as you are expected to demonstrate your natural salesmanship. But even in the case of other jobs, most people will appreciate your keenness and enthusiasm. If they don’t, and you lose the job on account of being ‘too pushy’ (most unlikely) well, is it the sort of job you wanted anyway?

If you are invited for a face-to-face interview, thank the manager, and ask for details:
• When?
• Where?
• With whom?
• What should you take to the interview?
• What will the procedure be?
• Will they be able to make a decision after the next interview? If not, what will happen after that?
• How many people are you up against?
• What is the most important thing the company is looking for?

Don’t worry if you don’t feel able to ask all these questions. The first three questions are the most important obviously.

If your telephone interview has been arranged by an agent/recruitment consultant, telephone them immediately to let them know the outcome. They should be able to find out the answers to the other questions, on your behalf.
Remember, the most important things that all employers are looking for, in any circumstance is energy, enthusiasm and 100% commitment to the job.
Good luck!