It finally happened. An actual human being sent you an email about a job you applied for. They say the magic words—we want to learn more about you. Let’s schedule a call. In larger companies, this email may come from a recruiter or HR person, and the call is a prescreen for the hiring manager.  But sometimes, especially when you’re dealing with a start-up or a smaller company, the email comes from the hiring manager. Regardless of whether you’re speaking with someone in HR or the hiring manager themselves, it’s still an interview. Their first impression of you. You need to stand out from all the other candidates who’ve made it to the prescreen stage.

In my younger job seeker days, I didn’t prepare as well for phone interviews as I should have. My goal was to pay my rent, and I didn’t have a lot of experience under my belt, so I focused more on the quantity of jobs I applied to instead of taking my time to research each company and figure out if I’d be a good fit. I assumed that the HR person would fill me in on the nitty gritty details. After all, it was just a prescreen. They didn’t expect me to know everything about the company, right?

Yeah, don’t be like young me. Take the initial phone interview as seriously as you would a first in-person interview (but you can totally wear your pajamas). In fact, since they can’t see your body language and facial expressions, a phone interview is a unique beast. Sarcasm, for example, might not be perceived as such, and your enthusiasm might not come across as well.

So, how do you rock a phone interview? Here are 5 things I’ve done that helped me move on to the next stage:

1. I’m more selective about the roles I apply for. I get it. When you need a job, you need a job. And those applicant tracking systems seem like they take years from your life. You figure the more jobs you apply to, the better your odds of finding something quickly. Who has time for research? But this method can lead you to landing the wrong role and looking for another job much sooner than you’d like.

Read the job descriptions thoroughly and pay a visit to the company’s website. If they sell vacuum cleaners, and you have a vacuum cleaner phobia, you probably want to skip applying. It’s a waste of their time and yours. It’s also important to make sure you are passionate about the company’s mission or at least have an interest in the products or services they offer. Enthusiasm is a lot easier to demonstrate…when you actually have it.

2. I express why I’m interested from the start. I actually do this in my cover letter—mention why I’m specifically interested in the company I’m applying to and highlight any relevant background I have. But I make sure to reiterate this early on during the phone interview. Here’s an example:

Interviewer: Hi, Tara. Is now still a good time to chat?

Me: Definitely. I’m glad we have a chance to speak further.

Interviewer: Great! What do you know about us so far?

Me: Well, I know you save the lives of a lot of animals every year, and you’re struggling to reach a wider audience. That’s why I’m so excited about this opportunity. I’ve volunteered at shelters for years, and I’ve been a foster mom many times. Promoting animal welfare is important to me. There are so many stories to tell and get out there. I want to make sure you and the animals you rescue are heard.

When you’re passionate about the service or product an organization offers, people can hear it in your voice. You won’t have to fake excitement (which most interviewers can pick up on right away), and authenticity goes a long way.

3. I research what the company does and try and determine how I can help them. It’s never too soon to let a company know how you can help solve their problems. In fact, your cover letter is a great place to mention it. The phone interview might be shorter and less in-depth than a second or third interview—but it’s also 2017. They do expect that you’ve at least visited their website and have a basic idea of their mission and what they do. In the vast majority of my phone interviews, “what do you know about us?” is often one of the first questions they ask. Like I said, I got caught off guard by that question early in my career—and it was a cringe-worthy moment. You see, I tried to be all sly and go to their website while we were on the phone. Only I mistyped the web address and went to the wrong site (with an almost identical name). I bet you can guess how that went. Preparation, my friends. It really is a good thing.

4. I’m not shy about asking questions. Even if I’m talking to a recruiter, I prepare a list of questions. Usually a recruiter can’t answer technical questions about the role or go in-depth about what your day-to-day might look like, but they can answer more general questions, such as what the culture is like, company goals, and why the role is open. Having a few initial questions during your phone interview is a genuine way to show your enthusiasm and interest. It’s clear that you’re prepared, and you’re assessing them as much as they’re assessing you.

5. I reiterate my excitement about the role and ask about next steps before hanging up. If I’m still interested in the job after our conversation, I let them know before we say goodbye. And since it sucks to be left hanging, I also ask about possible next steps and what their timeline looks like. Usually they will say something to the effect of “We need to confer with the hiring manager, but you can expect to hear from us by the end of the week if we’re moving forward.” Fair enough. Granted, there can often be delays—so don’t get too discouraged if you don’t hear from them when you were supposed to. Delays in the hiring process are so very common.

You can’t control the outcome of any phone interview you have, no matter how much you prepare and dazzle them with your ideas. You can only control what you do. So, prepare as best you can for that first phone call and let the conversation take you from there. Sometimes I could tell a role wasn’t a good fit within the first couple minutes. And you know what? I was straight up about it. For example, if they brought up salary right away (some employers bring it up first thing), and it was a lower range than I could accept, I’d ask if they could come up to my range. Sometimes the conversation ended there. That’s cool – no hard feelings. Then there are the cases where you feel a connection immediately. It’s more of a conversation than an interview, you talk about your favorite moments from Buffy (this has happened to me a couple times), and the benefits are killer (come on, that always helps, right?)

At the end of the day, trust your gut and how you feel after hanging up. Is your stomach knotted up with anticipation and excitement or do you feel queasy? If it’s the former, I’m keeping my fingers crossed you’ll be invited to move on to the next step soon! Otherwise, keep applying and moving forward—you want to work for the employer who gets you and loves your ideas.

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