Top Tips for a Telephone Interview

Telephone interviews are becoming more and more common amongst recruiters, but that's only half the story when it comes to job hunting. Find out why, when you're looking for work, the phone can be your best friend or your worst enemy.

Before

Even in these days of online applications, it's still possible to make human contact in the initial stages of the job-hunting process. You might, for instance, ring for an informal discussion with the head of department or the current post holder. Beware of the word "informal": it does not mean that you should be over casual in your approach or that the chat will be off the record in the strictest sense of the term.

Do some background research on the company and the job before reaching for the receiver lest you come across as ill informed. Given that first impressions count, it may be very hard to rectify this later. Philippa, who runs a post-graduate unit, took a call from someone interested in a newly created senior role. "It became clear that he hadn't read the advert in any detail - right down to not realising where the job was located. I asked what attracted him to the position and he hadn't even considered that, even though it's an obvious question. When his application form arrived, it was sound enough, but we had plenty of other solid candidates and his performance on the phone was the reason he didn't make the shortlist."

Philippa cites a few other common failings at this stage. One failing is being brusque when requesting information from support staff as it reflects badly on you, ultimately. Another is complaining about some aspect of the job, the form or the selection procedure. "There's a right and a wrong approach if you have a difficulty. Being belligerent about the date of the interview is not the way to get it altered. Nor is demanding to speak to the Equal Opportunities Officer when the deadline can't be changed."

During

So you've negotiated all the pitfalls above and a phone interview looms. There is a common sifting device amongst employers who are overwhelmed with good quality applicants and want to whittle these down to a manageable number. A phone discussion is a quick and cost effective way of sorting out the candidates. Typically lasting about 15 minutes, it's a minimalist version of the traditional interview. Expect the same sort of questions that you'd have at any normal interview, mostly based on the job description and the reasons why it appeals to you.

Here are a few suggestions as to how you can avoid the most common hazards and give a good account of yourself.

  • Time is limited, but resist the temptation to talk too quickly.

With no non-verbal cues, it may be hard for the interviewer to follow you. Pausing before you answer a question is fine, if you let the interviewer know this. It is better to say "I'm just thinking about that," than leaving a heavy silence while you gather your thoughts.

  • Be succinct.

Hone anecdotal evidence and your own key selling points to their basic components. If you want to give fuller detail, check with the interviewer e.g. "I can go into more depth about that if you wish." The name of the game is to market yourself sufficiently to reach a full blown second interview. Pare down your answers, rather than omitting essential information.

  • Don't surround yourself with notes and paper "cribs".

You won't have time to delve around for these. Instead be armed with a series of bullet pointed note cards, signposting responses to obvious questions and also to key facts you wish to make about yourself.

  • Bizarre as it sounds, some candidates like to look smart even though they can't be seen.

Wearing your best suit could be a bit overboard, but dressing up rather than down may put you in a better frame of mind. For the same reason, you may want to sit behind a desk or stand, rather than slumping on the settee.

  • Choose a quiet location where you are unlikely to be interrupted.

David took part in a phone interview while he was travelling by train. Apart from the fact that it meant the entire (fascinated) carriage could hear details of his CV, the connection went astray in a tunnel. The recruiter called back, but was less than impressed, and David had lost both his thread and his confidence. "It was going fine then I blew it. In my mind, a phone interview was less demanding and more laid-back than a face to face meeting. It's not. If anything it's extra taxing and you need to concentrate."

  • That last point really boils down to being professional.

Be ready and waiting when the phone rings and stave off any chance of someone else - child or flatmate - intercepting the call before you. Observe the usual courtesies. Introduce yourself with a good morning / afternoon and thank the interviewer before hanging up.

After

Hopefully, all the above will ensure that you make the final cut and get a second interview, plus the job. What if you fall at that last hurdle? Phoning for feedback is always worthwhile. Granted that sometimes recruiters won't say anything beyond a few bland comments, but there are others who will provide pointers that can only enhance your next interview. Some will even contact you without your asking them. After an interview on a Tuesday, Lisa took one such call late on a Friday afternoon when she had already realised that the job wasn't hers. "It was disconcerting because I wasn't expecting it. But I received some very full advice which told me what had worked, as well as where I'd gone wrong."

There may be other hidden advantages. It was with some trepidation that Sharmilla requested feedback, as she thought the interview had not gone well. Sure enough, they told her that they hadn't felt that she was quite right for the opening. Then they offered her another temporary role - which eventually led to stable employment. Jeremy went one step better: he had failed to obtain a permanent position and phoned to find out why. This morphed seamlessly into a more extended discussion, at the end of which he discovered that the successful applicant had decided not to take up the post. The recruitment team had been debating which of several other candidates to contact and his timely phone call clinched it in his favour.

Telephone interviews can certainly be daunting, but they can also work in your favour. Prepare well, and be confident!

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