A few months ago I participated in a phone interview role playing session. One at a time participants went to another room and called in for a job phone interview with a professional interviewer. Those of us remaining in the room would then critique the conversation. Because I had been on the other side of the desk I was asked to talk about the process from the interviewer’s perspective. As I have been growing my own business, I realize that those same techniques work not only for a job interview but also for a project interview for a consultant. Often your first real contact with a potential customer is over the phone, and the same opportunities and issues occur. In both cases you are selling yourself.
Here are some things to think about when you are preparing and while on the phone.
You and I (the interviewer) have different goals. You clearly are qualified, and I need to make a decision on whether to continue to consider you for the position or project. In reality, my goal is to eliminate you. I have other candidates who are just as good, at least on paper. This process takes time from my real job, and I really don’t like to interview any more than you do.
I really don’t care about your weekend or what you do in your spare time. I want to know how you will help me. If this is for employment, I will ask you why you left your last job. In any case I will ask about what you are most proud of, and I will ask you to tell me about a time when the wheels came off. How did you handle it, how did you try to get thinks back on track, and did you succeed. I don’t care whose fault it was, and to a certain extent I don’t care if you actually did succeed – I want to know how you reacted. I will then pick two or three things from your résumé and do a deep dive.
Hint #1: If you can keep these answers related to my business, and even better the reason I need this position filled or project completed, I am much more likely to be really paying attention.
I get easily annoyed by someone who forgets that this is my meeting. Keep your answers short, no more than 30 seconds or so. Make sure I can get in with my next question, and let me lead the discussion. Don’t try to anticipate my next question.
Always tell me “why” and “how” and “what happened” for every question. Why were you doing what you were doing, how did you do it, and what were the results.
Hint #2: Make sure you can talk for a minute on anything that is in your résumé. Practice.
I believe the stress of the interview should match the stress of the job. I can add stress in a number of ways:
- Jump among different topics.
- Interrupt you.
- Ask multiple questions in one breath.
- Ask confrontation questions (Why did you do it that way?).
- Propose a problem with insufficient information and ask for a solution.
- Talk faster.
- Use silence.
Silence can be a weapon. Most people have a need to fill silence. Just for grins sometime when you are on a phone conversation, stop speaking and see if the other person can wait seven seconds without jumping in with something. Most people can’t. Resist the urge. It’s OK to ask something like “Would you like more information on this?” but don’t just start up again. It is too easy to get off your “script” and say something that hurts you.
Hint #3: How do you handle stress?
- Breathe. Often, but quietly.
- Stay calm and don’t react. If I start talking faster, you shouldn’t. Keep talking in your normal voice.
- It’s not personal, and it is OK to clench your fist – I can’t see that.
- Smile – I can hear this.
You are at a real disadvantage with a phone interview. You really don’t know who is on the other end of the call. You should assume there are silent listeners. Don’t be surprised if a new voice suddenly appears. It is OK to ask who it is, but answer the question first.
Hint #4: If you are given a phone bridge to call in, try to call in two or three minutes early. You can often tell when people join and get a better idea of how many are on. If the other person is on a speaker phone, there may be other lurkers.
The worst thing about a phone interview is that there is no body language, and body language is about 55% of communication impact. You can’t see me, and I can’t see you. You need to listen for verbal clues. Watch for negative or positive reactions, and pay attention to where the questions or comments seem to be going. Listen for clues that indicate they didn’t hear what you really intended to say, and take an opportunity to go back and rephrase an answer.
Hint #5: Pay attention to what is not asked. For example, if I don’t ask you about some recent experience that seems to match the job or project, then either I have already decided “no” or I have already decided that you have the technical qualifications and I’m exploring whether you are willing to do the job and will you fit into my organization.
Your voice has to become your body language. It has to indicate your interest, enthusiasm, confidence, and initiative. Stay focused. Don’t plan your answer to my next question while I’m speaking. You probably won’t guess correctly.
Don’t tell me things you shouldn’t. I had an interviewee tell me unannounced product details from his previous employer, a competitor. I guess he was trying to impress me with what he knew, but the conversation ended right then. If you will tell me someone else’s confidential information, you will tell someone mine and I won’t hire you or contract with you. Talk about past projects that could be confidential in general terms, not specific. “I increased sales by 30% the first year” instead of “I increased sales of the Kalinka Model by $5M in the first year.”
Hint #6: Always act as if you are still employed at your last job and I work for a competitor.
Control your mental and physical environment for the call.
- Help your mindset by smiling and dressing for the interview. While you may not need to wear a suit or equivalent, dress like you would for a meeting with the executives of your last job.
- Control your environment. Make sure you won’t be interrupted by family, someone knocking on the door, extraneous noise or other phone calls. If your neighbors or family are likely to come calling, put a sign on your door asking that you not be disturbed for the next hour.
- Turn off your email.
- Make sure you are comfortable. Personally, I prefer to stand during the interview. It makes it more like a presentation than a casual conversation. Whatever you do, make sure that you don’t make noise moving around, including don’t use a chair that squeaks.
- Use a headset, but test it. Call someone you know and make sure you can hear and be heard clearly.
Hint #7: Make sure you have the phone number or email of the admin before the appointed time in case there is a problem with the phone number, especially with a phone bridge.
Unless you are a trained actor, I can tell when you are reading something, and it is a big negative to me. I want someone who can think. I know you have prepared answers for many questions, but don’t write scripts, write notes so you can talk naturally.
Hint #8: Use positive words and action verbs.
Try to minimize the “ah”s, “er”s and “you know”s. If you can without adding even more stress, listen to what you are saying. I watched the same senior person give a similar presentation three times. The first time he had lots of “you know”s, the second time a lot of “well”s but not a single “you know,” and the third time he seemed to start every third sentence with “so.” He didn’t notice while he was giving it, but I did. If you can listen to yourself in real time, you can usually stop the behavior.
Have a set of questions ready. Hopefully you have done your research and know what my company does, and if you have someone in your network that works for me or my company, you may know a lot about what the real problem is. Ask questions that show you have done that research, and show that you are interested in my problem.
Hint #9: Ask what the next steps are. I probably won’t tell you if you don’t ask.
When I’m the interviewee, I try to have a list of what I would do first. The list should be designed to show that you can be productive immediately, that you understand what the main goals are, and that you know what things are important to keep the organization functioning while you do learn.
Hint #10: Smile and enjoy it. I can hear the smile in your voice.
The last word:
Sometimes, unfortunately fairly often, you will get the clueless interviewer. In that case subtly take over. Ask questions about the job or project. Use the interviewer’s answers as invitations to provide information about your related experience, enthusiasm, and leadership capabilities.
Keep your sense of humor.