How to prepare for a successful telephone interview

In these days of decentralised workplaces, telecommuting and extreme mobility the traditional face to face interview in an office is increasingly being replaced by telephone or webcam-based interviews.

If English is your second or foreign language, telephone interviews can be particularly challenging. Whether by telephone or face to face, many of the same principles for effective interview technique apply, including the golden rule:

Prepare, prepare, prepare!

In this post we’re going to look at some particularities of preparing for phone and webcam interviews.

What is a phone interview?

Telephone interviews are real interviews, sometimes used as a preliminary interview to sift out applicants who will then be invited for a face-to-face interview.  They may also be used as a final interview in the case where the work is telephone or Internet-based, where telephone skills are paramount, or where you are applying for a job abroad.

The length of phone interviews varies from 20 minutes to about an hour, with the average length being half an hour.  The advantages for the employer: they are time and cost-effective, they test the candidate’s verbal communication skills, and also their ability to cope with the unexpected.  There are also advantages for the candidate: the ease of referring to your CV and application form or letter during the interview, the possibility of being interviewed in a casual or informal environment (in your pyjamas if you prefer!), and the fact that there is no time or money wasted in transport.  Actually – wearing pyjamas is not such a great idea. You will feel more professional if you are seated at a desk, and dressed for action.

Telephone-only interviews have some disadvantages too.  You don’t have the same visual clues to help you gauge the reactions and responses of the interviewer.  They can also seem very short, not allowing much time to think about your answers.  There is not much of a lead-in: very little small talk or ice-breaking at the beginning. Often the interviewer launches straight in to the difficult questions.

What’s the best way to prepare?

If at all possible, make an appointment with a specific time and date for the call.  There is nothing worse than a prospective employer calling you when you are doing your grocery shopping, about to take the dog for a walk, or just hopping out of the shower.  If you are given a general time slot rather than a specific time, ensure you keep your mobile with you, charged, topped up and switched on.  If the interview will be held using a landline that you share with other users (family members, flatmates etc.), ensure you prime anyone who answers the phone to try and sound professional.  You may also want to replace any joke answerphone messages with something you would want a prospective employer to hear, just in case they call at a time you are not able to answer the phone.  You will need as quiet and private a location as possible for the actual interview.

During the interview

 Keep a copy of your application and company information handy, along with what you need to take notes. Where possible access to the Internet may be helpful if you need to check any details about the company, for example.

 Make a list of your USPs – unique selling points.  What makes you better than most of the other people who will be applying?  But don’t just read out your notes – it will make you sound unnatural.

 If not using a webcam, smile as you speak – it will make a positive difference to your tone of voice, and make you sound more lively.  Also, remember to use verbal signals to communicate that you are listening, such as « ok », « uh-huh », « I see », « I understand », « yes » etc.  You can also reflect back what the speaker is saying to show you are listening, with phrases such as « I hear what you’re saying », and « So, if I’ve understood correctly, … »

 Speak clearly, and not too fast.  If English is your second language, remember that SPEED is not the same as FLUENCY.  The interviewer may not be familiar with your accent, and will be more impressed with your clarity than how fast you can speak.  Have a glass of water on hand – you don’t want your voice to crack up at a crucial moment.

 If you know you will be having a series of interviews, immediately after the interview make some notes on the questions you were asked, and think about how you could do better next time.

What questions will I be asked

They will probably be the same as what you could expect in a face to face interview.  Here are some examples of the more difficult typical questions. These are the kinds of questions that, if you don’t prepare the answer, you are unlikely to answer well:

  • Why do you want to work for our organisation / in the job you have applied for?
  • What qualities do you think are important for the role you are applying for?
    KEY POINT: don’t ever talk about qualities without giving evidence to back it up.  It is no use saying you are « motivated » without demonstrating exactly how or why. If there is no proof, you may come across as being superficial.
  • What do we do?
    KEY POINT: don’t bother attending an interview of any kind without first finding out as much as you can about the company.
  • Tell me a time you have demonstrated good teamwork / communication skills etc.
  • Tell me about a time when you have had to cope with pressure.
  • Tell me about a challenge you have faced.  How did you meet this challenge?
  • Tell me about a challenge you faced with a co-worker.
  • What is your greatest strength?
  • Tell me about one of your weaknesses.
  • Why shouldn’t we hire you?
  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
  • Do you have any questions for us?
    KEY POINT: « No thanks, I’m good » is never an appropriate response to this question.  Make sure you have some intelligent questions to ask the interviewer.

Do you have any other tips for effective interviews over the phone or webcam? What are some of the more difficult interview questions that you have heard? We’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.

For further reading:

How to tackle three of the toughest interview questions.

6 questions to ask during your interview.

 
photo credit: SanShoot cc

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