Secrets to a Great Phone Interview for Job Hunters


Phone conversations with representatives of hiring organizations are becoming increasingly more important in winning face-to-face interviews and landing new jobs. These interviews are moving beyond phone screenings to comprehensive evaluations of job candidates.

Career-services professionals and a successful job hunter recently shared with me their common-sense yet often overlooked tips for navigating phone interviews. (See also: How to Answer 23 of the Most Common Interview Questions)

At the Start of Your Job Search

After you make the decision to explore career possibilities, prepare yourself for interactions with human resource representatives, recruiters, hiring managers, and potential colleagues. Laying the foundation can involve these steps.

Get a Landline Dedicated to Your Job Search

Paul Bailo, CEO of Phone Interview Pro, inventor of a phone interviewing and evaluation method and system, and author of The Essential Phone Interview Handbook, recommends that you install a landline dedicated to your job search. When you sign up, get the “caller ID” feature so that you know what hiring organization is calling before you pick up the phone.

The main reasons to get a dedicated landline are:

  • You know that whenever the phone rings, the caller is evaluating you for a work-related opportunity
  • You don’t have to worry about spotty coverage and dropped calls that are common with mobile phones

Even though I do not have a landline at my home, I see the wisdom in Paul’s advice. Dropped calls can be unnerving if you are trying to make a good impression. Exchanges during question-and-answer sessions can be difficult when there are sound delays, which are common with cell phones.

Though the landline adds an expense to your job search, you may be able to include these in your itemized tax deductions.

Put Only That Number on Your Resumé

Job seekers often wonder what phone number to place on their resumés. Use a number that will allow you to best portray your professional presence. That is, don’t put your family’s home number on job-hunting documents (resumé, cover letter, application, etc.) if you know that young children may answer the phone or if you have an outbound voice message that is not appropriate for potential employers.

Paul suggests that you place the dedicated landline number on your resumé and no other number, including your mobile phone. In this way, you can better control interactions with potential employers, which is critical:

Do not think of a phone interview as a set time and day to talk with a person concerning an opportunity. It is much more than that. Anytime you pick up the phone or receive a call related to your job campaign, it is a phone interview.

Hone Your Speaking Skills

In a phone interview, you must rely solely on your voice to connect with the interviewer. To give the best impression of yourself, polish speaking skills. Consider these approaches suggested by Paul:

  • Listen to and adopt the styles of radio news announcers, who enunciate carefully and use descriptive language
  • Join a Toastmasters group to learn and get feedback from fellow members on your speaking style

Prepare Yourself to Discuss Workplace Scenarios

Investment portfolio manager and finance professor (and former job hunter) Barbara Friedberg told me that practicing interviewing is the perfect way to get ready for interviews. One way to practice is to recall and retell stories associated with successes like these:

  • New initiatives that you championed and later became critical to the success of your organization
  • Times in which you applied innovation and creativity to solving long-standing problems
  • Major projects that you managed or contributed heavily to
  • Situations in which you exhibited boldness in advocating for your employees and customers, affecting significant policy updates with benefits to the company

Paul emphasizes that you should mention your name when discussing these situations. This technique helps to position yourself in the mind of the interviewer as a person who gets things accomplished for her company. The secret to a successful phone interview is getting the hiring manager to visualize you making money or saving money for the organization, Paul's research indicates, and such storytelling can accomplish this purpose.

Interview Preparation

There are several steps to preparing for a successful phone interview.

Research the Company and the Interviewer

Barbara says that research makes a "huge difference" in the outcome of an interview. She encourages job hunters to learn about the organization, the position, the background of the interviewer, and anything else that is relevant to the specific opportunity.

To research the potential employer, start at the website to get familiar with the company's history, market presence, and major product lines. Follow links to its annual reports. Continue by reviewing news articles that cover topics such as geographical expansion, workforce expansion or reduction, entry into new markets, and product launches. Read about industry trends.

Find out about your interviewer by looking at her LinkedIn profile and reading her work-related blog posts and/or Twitter feed. Avoid digging for too-personal info. Focus on professional information that is readily available and the interviewer wants to be known.

Prepare Questions

Most hiring managers close interviews by asking if you have questions. Don't respond to this opportunity with a "no" and seem to lack inspiration and initiative. Both Barbara and Paul recommend preparing a list of questions prior to the interview.

Specifically, Paul says that job seekers should compose three world-class questions based on company research. He explains that such questions are similar to ones that journalists ask the President during a press conference, not simple questions that yield “yes” or “no” responses. They should demonstrate your ability to gather, interpret, and assimilate information along with natural curiosity and the ability to apply you’ve learned to the company's situation.

For example, ask questions like these:

  • Given pending legislation and greater media scrutiny associated with social-media sites, how do you think the new features will be accepted by consumers?
  • Based on your current processes for product development and marketing launches, what do you see changing with the introduction of nanotechnology to your prototyping activities?
  • Considering shifts in consumer preferences and studies on the demand for experiential learning, how is your company positioned to develop a new slate of offerings?

Be prepared to listen to responses and have a conversation about these topics.

Confirm Your Interview

Paul advises to call and confirm the date and time of the interview as well as the position for which you are being considered the day before your scheduled session. I thought that this tip involved a particularly bold action, but Paul assured me that hiring managers appreciate this initiative (and if they act bothered by your call, then understand that this job opportunity may not be an ideal situation for you).

Speak to the person who will be interviewing you so that you can connect before the formal meeting, if possible. Ask about planned topics of discussion so that you can make sure that the interview is as productive as possible. If the interviewer specifies an area of interest (perhaps a divisional turnaround or high customer retention mentioned on your resumé), then get ready to talk about these topics.

In addition, determine if the interviewer will be calling you, or vice-versa. If you are given the choice, ask to be called in order to reinforce the idea that the employer is pursuing you. Lastly, confirm the phone number that the interviewer will be calling.

Create Your Environment

On the evening before or the day of the interview, get your space and yourself ready to talk.

Place these items in front of you:

  • Resumé
  • Company research
  • World-class questions
  • List of items you would like to cover during the interview
  • Paper and pencil (or pen) to take notes
  • Photo of the interviewer taken from LinkedIn or website (Paul proposes this idea to encourage natural conversation)

Check your phone line, turn off electronic devices, and tell your family not to interrupt you during the interview.

Get your voice ready using these techniques: talk, sing, and/or take a cough drop before the scheduled phone call. The cough-drop idea is touted by Paul; having been speechless when answering the phone, I think that getting your voice prepped to talk is a great idea.

Remember These Timing Secrets

The timing in response to the potential employer's calls influence the hiring decision-maker's view of your talent. Being too eager sends the message that your professional capabilities are not in high demand. Position yourself as a highly qualified professional with valuable skills needed by employers by playing hard, but not impossible, to get.

Specific actions related to phone interviewing include:

  • Don’t always be available when a representative of the hiring organization calls. Unless you have a scheduled interview, let calls go to voice mail. In this way, you can be fully prepared to talk in a professional mindset.
  • Let the interviewer know that you are busy; don’t accept the first interview time offered but suggest an alternate time that should be convenient for the interviewer
  • If the caller is more than 15 minutes late for a scheduled interview, then make yourself unavailable immediately afterwards. Later, when the interviewer calls to apologize for being late, accept the apology and reschedule for another time.

Don't be surprised if seemingly insignificant phone conversations with human resources staff and hiring managers shape how they perceive you and your qualifications. Research, practice, and act like you really want the job in all interactions, and you'll be more likely to land the right position for you.

Interview To-Dos

The interview can be navigated much like any normal conversation in a professional setting.

Be Flexible

When the interviewer calls, figure out what task she may be performing. She may need to screen your qualifications, verify certain information, discover how you respond to tricky questions, or learn how you have approached projects in the past. Quickly assess the style of the interview and respond appropriately.

Paul explains why you should adjust to the tone and pace set by the interviewer:

Both people in the relationship need time and multiple interactions to get to know one another…Both people involved in the phone interview must be on the same page, moving at the same speed.

But no matter how well you prepare and attempt to navigate each situation carefully, something may go awry. Stay calm and show how flexible you are. For example, if your neighbor’s dog starts barking at a critical moment, Paul says to acknowledge the disturbance and move on with the interview.

Worse, though, the hiring manager may not be adept at conducting phone interviews. Job hunters have told me about unusual interview situations for which they felt unprepared; realize that such situations often arise because of improperly trained or inexperienced hiring managers.

Paul concurred with my understanding of some bad interviews, noting that even hiring managers are not perfect. In these cases, take control using your interview scenarios and world-class questions to create a natural conversational flow. And, if the interviewer fails to quiz you about the emphasis mentioned the day earlier, insert this information into the discussion.

Be Human

Show your humanity in your discussions. Paul favors these techniques:

  • Answer the phone by saying “hello,” which is more personable than stating your name
  • Make a connection with the interviewer by noting common interests, shared experiences, etc. using your research about her professional background and key interests
  • Be considerate about any time zone differences; let the interviewer know that you especially appreciate her taking the time to speak with you early in the morning or late at night if that is the case

Show Gratitude and Excitement

The close of the interview should include these critical elements:

  1. Tell the hiring manager that you are really excited about the opportunity
  2. Give three concrete reasons that you will be a good fit for the job
  3. Say thank you for the interview and, without pausing, ask about the next steps in the decision-making process

The interviewer's response to your question about the next steps indicates whether she visualizes you in the position. Paul says that if she quickly explains what's next, then there is a strong likelihood that you will be called back for another interview; if she hesitates, then she doesn't really see you on the job and will probably not follow up with another session.

Saying that you are excited about the opportunity is really important. According to a recruiter friend, companies want to hire only those who are genuinely interested in the position and a great fit with the organizational culture. Managers are reluctant to extend an offer to anyone who does not show this excitement.

Post-Interview Actions

Paul advises this process of saying thank you and staying on the hiring manager’s radar for the next several days:

  • Write a thank-you email 24-48 hours after your interview, recapping the conversation and reinforcing strengths that will enable you to either make money or save money for the company
  • Write a hand-written card on real stationery 24 hours after the email
  • Compose an email with commentary about a news article (scanned and attached to the email) that again shows how you perceive this news to affect the business and how you can help the profitability of the company, 24 hours after sending the hand-written card
  • Call and ask for a status update of the job opening, 24 hours after sending the second email

All of these techniques help close the deal.

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Guest's picture

Another good tip while you're talking on the phone is, to smile. :) Interviewers can hear the smile in your voice, and they will notice you're happy and excited about working with them.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for the tip -- a smile is a great way to sound positive and interested.

Guest's picture
Carl Lassegue

Great article. I always tried to do my research and ask questions about the direction the company was going during the phone interviews and it almost always got me a face to face interview.