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Talent Talk: Acing the Phone Interview Is Easier than You Think

Even when life returns to normal, your first contact with a potential employer will be by phone. Follow these three simple steps, and you’ll be well on your way to a second interview.

Until we get to the other end of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all job interviews will be conducted via phone or video call. Even when things get back to some semblance of normal, your first contact with a potential employer will be by phone.

Most companies have talent acquisition departments, or an internal recruiter, who will conduct the initial phone interview. If you want to get past this interview and move forward in the process, it helps to understand a few things. The most important of these is to remember that the sole objective of the first interview — for both parties — is to decide if there will be a second interview. As a candidate you cannot get the job on the initial interview, but you certainly can lose it.

Image: Gajus/Adobe Stock

So, forget trying to impress the interviewer with your idea to take the company into new markets, or your ambition to be vice president in five years. You need to get to the second interview. Period. I’m going to give you my simple, time-tested, three-step approach that has never failed when executed properly. But before we get to that, there are a few more things to understand about the process.

If the interview is one-on-one, as most are, the only person who gets a vote in whether you move forward is the person on the other end of the phone, so you need to connect with them. Detailed technical issues, nuances specific to the role, and similar discussions are for later interview rounds. This is not to say the interviewer won’t be savvy in the business — they may well be, but that’s just not their main interest at this stage. They’re trying to determine a few basic things, like do you have the core skills that the position requires — the “must haves?” They will want to know if you are really interested in the job and, if they hire you, if you will fit in with the culture.

In all the years I’ve been doing this, these three tips are what candidates have thanked me for the most:

  1. Write down key career accomplishments. If you’re early in your career, it might only be a couple, and that’s okay. If you’ve had a long career, you might need to work hard to keep the list down to six or eight accomplishments. That’s okay, too — just don’t go crazy. Keep the list manageable and favor the more recent accomplishments. Include specifics like cost savings, sales numbers, process improvements, and the like. You’re going to have this list in front of you during the interview, and no matter what question gets thrown at you, you’ll have an answer sitting right there. Long-term memory often fails in stressful situations — it’s just how our brains work. Whether the question is, “Tell me about a time when you worked as part of a team” or “What would you do if this situation occurred,” you can look at your list and start to quickly craft an answer in a way that also emphasizes your skills and accomplishments. I’ve had a few people tell me this worked so well they felt like they were cheating. It’s not cheating — it’s preparation.
  2. Have two or three questions prepared before the interview. One question might be about the company’s growth and future direction in terms of products or markets. Another could be about the company’s values and culture, or the characteristics of the most successful people in this role. Too many questions aren’t needed at this stage, and asking no questions could quite possibly get you rejected. A perfect question simultaneously shows that you’ve done some homework and that you are interested in the company and the job. For example: “I read on your website that you recently introduced new products in the medical device space. Is that market a focus for future growth?”
  3. Close the deal to move to the next step. Say something like, ‘Mary, I was really interested in this position based on what I knew before this meeting, but with everything you have told me about the company, the opportunities for growth, and the people, I’m even more excited about the prospects of joining ABC Plastics. I would very much like to move forward in the process. What are the next steps?” I cannot tell you how often I have had a candidate tell me the interview went great, only to have the company pass because “they didn’t seem interested.” If you are interested, make sure there is no confusion on that point. While this applies to everyone, we see it often in technical roles like engineers and scientists. It’s my guess that they are so focused on the technology they just assume the interviewer knows they’re interested. Let them hear a little enthusiasm in your voice, and you’ll have the opportunity to get to that next round.

About the author

Paul Sturgeon is CEO of KLA Industries, a national search firm specializing in plastics, packaging, and polymer technology. If you have a topic you would like to see discussed, a company that is growing, or other ideas for this blog, e-mail Paul at [email protected].

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