How to ace a short phone interview - 10 Prep steps

‘Sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step of your life. Tip toe if you must, but take a step.” – Naeem Callaway

“A recruiter just sent me an email request for a 15-minute phone interview. Seriously? What on earth can he accomplish with me in just 15 minutes? I have no idea how to prepare for this. I’m more scared of this interview than any face to face interviews I have had. What advice do you have for me?” - Marty

The truth is, a good recruiter can learn a lot about a candidate in 15 minutes. Marty, your instincts are right: if it’s 15 minutes, it’s not an interview. It’s a phone screen. Those can be tough! However, there is a bright side: if you’re well-prepared, and the phone screen is well-run, it can be great for you and them. The recruiter will either move you up to the front of the candidate line … or spare you from wasting a lot of time and energy on a dead-end road. Let’s assume the position will be a great fit for you, and talk about how to make the most of the 15 minutes.

What the recruiter wants to know – quickly!

The recruiter’s goal is quite simple: to screen you in (and schedule an in-person interview) or screen you out. Your goal needs to be the same: to get the next interview. Remember this: a phone screen is NOT a full-fledged interview. The recruiter won’t be trying to decide “Should we hire Marty?” He’ll be trying to decide “Does he seem like a strong potential? Should we bring him in for an in-depth interview?”

The fastest way to get booted during a phone screen is to talk too much. This can be tricky to avoid. Many people talk too much when they get nervous. I sat on the hiring side of the desk for years and I’ve got to be honest with you: my biggest fear every time I called a candidate was that I would not get through all of my questions. Most candidates get nervous, excited, or both … and talk too much. As much as I love learning about people, I simply did not have the time to chat much at the initial stages of a hiring process.

Remember that this is just the beginning. You’ll have plenty of time to talk more, and ask your own questions, later.

The recruiter needs to learn 4 things about you in a phone screen:

1. Can you DO the job? Are you qualified? Do you meet the minimum requirements (skills, education and comparable experience)? About 50% of the people who apply for jobs don’t meet the minimum requirements, so this is the first thing the recruiter will be focused on.

2. Are you at the RIGHT PRICE? Will you take the job – and be happy - at the pay they have to offer? If there’s a small gap, and wiggle room for you and/or him, he’ll probably move you forward in the process. However, if the gap is large he will not … nor should he. It is terrible to drag a candidate through a 10-hour hiring process, only to have them walk away angry at the last minute over money. Or worse … to have them take the job and feel underpaid. Underpaid employees do one of two things: stay in the job, resentful (and often unproductive or negative) or quit 3 months later for a bigger paycheck. It happens all the time. That’s bad for everyone. A recruiter’s job is to ask the tough questions and make sure the money expectations line up on both sides.

3. Are there any glaring GAPS or CONCERNS (reasons why you should not be considered)? This can be all over the board … from commuting issues (like a candidate who says “I really don’t want to drive any more than 15 minutes to work, but I need a job so I’ll make the 45-minute commute for this job”) to things like cultural fit. If the last employee quit because the hiring manager was rarely available to give direction or feedback and you say

“I loved my last boss! She handed me marching orders every Monday morning and checked in with me every Wednesday afternoon. I knew exactly what she wanted, and how to give it to her,” you will get bumped from consideration … and you should! You’ll be miserable in the job, and unsuccessful. The recruiter usually knows things about the job and culture that he probably won’t share with you. It’s his job to pay attention to those things, mitigate risk and bump candidates who won’t be happy or successful.

4. Do you WANT the job? Do you just want a paycheck, or are you seriously interested in their company and open position? Of course you can't commit to taking the job this early on, but you will certainly know if you have any interest in learning more. If the recruiter doesn't think you are very interested, he'll go find someone else who is.

How to ace a short phone screen – in 10 steps

1. Prepare! Research the company, the job and the recruiter. Map your skills to their needs. Anticipate the potential gaps and practice talking briefly through those gaps. Practice answering the tough interview questions clearly, concisely – in less than 30 seconds. Prepare 5 questions you want to ask him (if you have time and if he asks).

2. Dress like you are going in for a face-to-face interview. You will feel better and perform better.

3. Spread out your papers on your desk so you can see them easily. You need your resume, the job description, your notes and a notepad and pen.

4. PUT THE DOG AWAY. You might love your barking dog, but the recruiter will not.

5. Stand in front of a mirror to make sure you are smiling a lot during the phone conversation. It sounds silly, but it makes a world of difference in how you come across over the phone.

6. Stand up – and stay standing – when you take the call. Your oxygen and breathing will be better, and you will sound more professional and enthusiastic to the person on the other side.

7. Listen and take notes while the recruiter is talking.

8. Stop. Breathe. THINK before you respond. Try to arrange your thoughts in 2-3 bullet points before you answer a question. Buy yourself a little time if you need it. You can simply say “Great question. Let me think about that.” By all means, ask him to clarify a question if you don’t understand what he’s looking for.

9. Give brief responses … but not so brief that you just say “Yes” or “No.” For example, if he asks you “Have you ever managed a budget?” you could say “Yes, I’ve been setting - and managing - budgets since 2008. They have ranged in size from $30,000 to $1.5 million.”

10. Tell him you want the job! You have GOT to say something to express your enthusiasm to learn more. This is not the same as saying “I’ll take the job.” You won’t know enough to make that kind of commitment. However, if you do not express in some way that you’re excited to learn more, you’ll move to the back of the line. If you think you are remotely interested in the position, say “Yes! I would love to come in for an interview!” You can always change your mind and walk away later … but you’ll never get a second chance to be invited in.

Catherine Byers Breet
Tue, 05/21/2019 - 07:00