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Caught off guard? How to ace phone interviews
“Where do you want to be five years from now?” said the HR lady out of the blue. We were on the phone setting up a time for me to come in for an interview. What kind of a question is that? I wanted to answer, but I had heard that question before and knew that she wasn’t just making small talk. She was asking me something that I’d normally have an answer ready for as part of my face-to-face interview preparation. Thankfully, I got what was going on — this was a job interview too! I had to think fast: five years from now I saw myself owning a cottage in Nova Scotia, which in turn would mean that I had progressed in my career as a copywriter in the company I was just being interviewed for.
But if I had not been so quick on my feet, this question could’ve gone over disastrously. Here’s the thing about phone interviews: you have to prepare for them no matter if you expect them or not. Sometimes you will be aware of one coming up, but, oftentimes, you might find yourself in exactly the same bind as I did and will have to scramble for the right answer on the spot. The best way to deal with it is to simply assume that a phone interview may happen as soon as you apply somewhere.
In the article Phone Interviews, Michelle Garcia writes about them from the point of view of an employer, which is always interesting as it provides a behind-the-scenes look. “Questions to ask during an interview should be simple, basic questions that do not require too much thinking, but that might be deal breakers. For example, if there is a large discrepancy in the salary the candidate is expecting and what the company is willing to offer, it is easy to see that the candidate is not the right fit and it won't be necessary to waste the candidate's or the company's time.”
So, yes, indeed phone interviews are sort of set up to catch you off guard. You should also not lie when undergoing one, for example, by adjusting your salary expectation to much less than what you’d be comfortable with just to get the actual interview. It’s not going to benefit anyone. But if you’ve got nothing to hide and you truly want to make it to the next stage, read on.
Surprise! It’s your interview calling
In the Navy Times article Phone Interviews — Don’t Get Caught With Your Guard Down, some good advice is given on how to always be ready to answer those tough, unexpected questions. Even if you’ve just stepped out of the shower and — as the article suggests — are wearing bunny slippers and boxers, you can still ace the interview.
- Always keep in mind that the mission is to get invited for a face-to-face interview. The above article suggests assuming the role of a “seller” — in other words being able to sell your skills and abilities so that the person on the other end will want to bring you in for the real interview. If you’re not sure what your strong points are, perhaps doing some personal branding exercises may aid you in finding out.
- Have your resumé and a list of questions you want to ask ready and accessible (by the phone) at all times. If possible, keep a list of employers you applied to with some brief outlines about the companies as well as notes on how your particular abilities relate to the position you’re being interviewed for. We suggest checking out our Targeting Your Dream Job for some ideas on how to research companies.
- If possible, make sure that you have the proverbial peace and quiet around you during the call. You can pre-empt that by ensuring you keep even your mobile in one spot and create an interview-ready station right by whichever phone you’re using where you’ll not only have some privacy but also all the essential information you need.
- Don’t dominate the conversation but remain confident and enthusiastic. Remember to speak clearly and don’t rush to get your pitch out. Keep your answers brief, don’t ramble. Actually, if possible, practise your phone interview beforehand or at least have a good idea of what you might say. One way to practise for it is by having your Elevator Pitch worked out (Not sure what that is? Click on the link and you’ll find out).
- Like with a regular interview, do ensure you’ve some questions to ask in the end. “Show that you’ve done your homework by asking intelligent questions based on factual information about the opportunity and the company. You can glean this information … from the company’s website or through other research methods.”
- Finally, there’s nothing wrong with suggesting a face-to-face meeting yourself if you think that the interview went over well and you’ve got a good feeling about it. Say you’re really interested in the opportunity and find out if it’d be possible to schedule a time to meet.
Expect the unexpected
In the Workopolis article Opportunity Calling: How to Ace a Telephone Interview, Colleen Clarke discusses phone interviews that you know are going to happen. Unlike having to sell yourself over the phone on the fly, with pre-arranged phone interviews you can really aim for the perfect impression. Make sure you apply all of the earlier suggestions (setting up an interview station, having privacy, knowing what questions to ask, etc.). Here are a few other suggestions on how to make your phone interview experience even better:
- Be ready for some icebreaker chat before you go into the actual interview. It’s important for the interviewer to like you so build a rapport from the get-go. If in doubt, weather is a safe bet with most Canadians.
- Write your STAR stories:
- S = Situation (Briefly describe the situation.)
- T = Task (Talk about what you were trying to achieve.)
- A = Action (Explain what you did to achieve your results.)
- R = Result (Describe your results.)
- Unlike a regular interview, make sure your stories don’t go over the two-minute limit. If you absolutely must tell them in great detail, ask the interviewer if they’d like to hear more, before launching into a longer tale.
- Consider doing your interview ... in front of a mirror. Clarke says that “the best sales reps make their calls to clients with a mirror in front of them so they can remember to smile. Believe it or not, you can hear a smile in someone's voice. It makes you sound a lot friendlier.” She also suggests walking around as it’s supposed to give you more energy and make your voice sound stronger.
- If you’re actually not into the job, tell the interviewer — why waste your time. And, “If you are keen for the position, passion sells and is often a deciding factor to short list you for an in person interview. Tell them how you feel.”
- Thank-you notes are important even for a phone interview. Check out our You've Got Mail: Other Letters for some suggestions on how to write these.