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Phone Screen, HR exec explains the most common mistakes and how to prepare

phone screen

Project excitement during the phone interview

Phone screen, the common mistakes

Phone screens are the great unknowns in the job interview process. I believe the phone interview is the easiest interview to prepare for and the intent of this post is provide reasons why and confidence. My goal is to change your view and potential fears of the phone interview.

Most candidates fear the phone screen because we don’t know what to expect with this first call. If we do well in the phone interview and land the coveted in-person interview, we have an indication of what to expect based on the initial phone screen. When it comes to in person interviews, recruiters will often give the candidates some insight into what to expect and the names of the folks conducting the interviews. On the flip side, the phone interview is “first contact” and we don’t know what to expect or prepare for.  

If you are having a tough time moving past the phone screen, then you are probably missing something important on this call and hopefully this post will help.

First and foremost, we need to be positive about the phone interview. Thinking about failure will become a self – fulfilling prophecy and recruiters can sense interview insecurity. It doesn’t smell or wear well. Remember, preparation is the best way to project confidence. 

The number 1 reason you should not be fearful of the phone interview is because you are one of the chosen ones. For most jobs out there, the recruiter or hiring manager has a LOT of resumes to pick from and they picked yours. Yes, for once, you are a horse in the race.

HRNasty’s reasons on why you should NOT be fearful of the phone screen

If you landed a phone interview then you can assume the hiring manager feels you are qualified.

You have to believe you are qualified. If there are no qualified candidates, we will change the headline on the job description or tweak the content of the job description. Recruiters will avoid candidates who are not qualified. We won’t waste anyone’s time, especially ours.

So, don’t fret. You are not just in the ball-park, you are on base. The hiring manager is not just interested in you as a candidate, they are hopeful you will be the chosen one. Concentrate more on being qualified than how you might not be qualified. They called you! Play your cards right Gomer because you can win this pot.

How to prepare for the phone interview

I have conducted a lot of phone interviews over the years and with most candidates, this stage is a weak link. It is surprising to me how many candidates do not have a grasp on the message they want to deliver. I would say that most of the candidates I talk with are technically qualified but they weed themselves out of the process because of how they present during the phone screen.

In most cases, this interview is only 30 to 45 minutes long. What this means for most recruiters is that they only have time to ask about 10 questions. Remember, within this call, recruiters need to make introductions, conduct a little bit of chit-chat to take the nervousness off the candidate and then give the candidate an opportunity to ask questions. This only leaves time for 10 or so questions, but with this limited time, we should know what is coming. They are not going to waste time with “what is your favorite color” or “if you were an animal, what would it be?”.

But what 10 questions are asked during a phone screen?

Any quick Google search for “top phone screen interview questions” will get the job done. If you want to be an over achiever, add more detail to your search with the following:

  • Top phone interview question for Customer Service Representatives
  • Phone interview questions for Product Manager’s

If you are lazy, just check out my link to the interview questions on this site here. These are not necessarily phone interview questions, but show the format of HOW to answer actual interview questions. 

Remember, the scheduled time will limit the number of questions that can be asked. This is not a session on the couch with your counselor. This is speed dating and we need to make an impression quickly.

Here is what I want to know. You should absolutely have prepared answers for these questions.

  1. What are you most proud of?
  2. What do you know about Acme Publishing?
  3. What is your weakness?
  4. What did you like about your last manager?
  5. How much do you want to make?
  6. What is your long-term / 3 year / 5 year plan?
  7. Why should we hire you?
  8. Why did you leave your last job? Why are you considering a new job?
  9. What do you look for in a manager?
  10. When can you start?

If you are like most candidates, you read through the list and felt good about your ability to answer the above questions. Based on the answers I hear, I believe most candidates read each question, formulate the first sentence to their answer (or came up with a general concept for an answer) and are quickly moving onto the next question.

If you were one of the folks that came up with short one-sentence answers and moved to the next question, the interview process will probably end after the phone screen, if not before. You may not know it, but in the recruiters mind, finito. I hear a lot of great first sentences to interview answers during the phone screen but then most candidates stumble. They have a general concept of what they want to say, but they are not able to articulate a complete answer. This is a deal killer. Lack of articulation will equal the lack of an in person interview.

One of the best ways to prepare for a phone interview is to write out a complete answer to the interview questions and then tape record what we sound like when we answer these questions. You will be surprised with what you hear. Remember, there are no “lemme start over” 2nd chances. 

Common problems with phone screen answers:

The most common problem is that the candidate isn’t articulate. There is obviously an idea of what the candidate wants to say, but there is a lot of stumbling and a lack of well formulated thoughts.

Many phone interviews literally sound like this is the candidates VERY FIRST EXPERIENCE with an interview

Having well thought out answers to the questions, writing out the answers in their entirety, and then practicing the complete answer out loud will make a big difference in how we present over the phone. With practice, we don’t miss points we want to make and the answer will flow. This isn’t cheating. If you were hired and later asked to give a presentation to a customer or the CEO, you would practice your presentation. You would not wing it. You would not come up with the first sentence and then assume “I got this bitches”. 

The other thing that listening to your phone screen answers will do is help ensure that we are answering the question. One of the big phone screen killers is being asked a question and not providing an answer. Having a pre-planned answer and then listening to what our answer is, ensures we are giving the interviewer what they want.

Most candidates that fail the phone screen have one thing in common

The candidates are asked an interview question and the candidate gives a long explanation and background before actually answering the question. The hiring manager is losing interest in us as a candidate when we give background explanations before answering the actual question. Make sure to answer the question first and then provide any necessary background information.

EG:

Q: What do you know about Acme Publishing?

Non Answer: “I have done a lot of research. I have talked with friends, I obviously went to your web page and I have read forums on your customer service. I took a look at your year-end financials for the last quarter and saw you guys have a great Twitter following. I know that you guys did well last quarter and posted a profit. I saw on Twitter that you have 10K followers which is really good. I only have about 300 followers. Your web page says you were established in 1980 and have been in business for 25 years.

I shit you not, I hear this stuff. The candidate thinks they are answering the questions, but they are really just providing me fluff and the first 4 sentences didn’t answer the question. Those first 4 sentences were DOG sentences. Each single sentence was equal to 7 sentences of a dog barking up the wrong tree.

Better answer: Well, Acme Publishing was founded in 1980 and specializes in book binding and color catalogs for sports equipment. Customers are all over the world and include X,Y, and Z. Recently Acme has expanded to online web work and I am really excited about this part of the business. Per the financials, “we” posted a profit of about $1.2M on revenue of 15M and had year over year growth for the past 5 years.

If the recruiter says “enough already”, you know you answered the question. The point is, answer the question.

If you have a phone interview coming up, prepare well thought out and complete answers and then record your answers to ensure that you are presenting your best self. The sighs, the heavy breathing and loss for what to say will disappear quickly.

See you at the after party,

HRNasty
nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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  • Larry McKeogh

    Good post as always and I can attest that the questions asked are pretty much on target. Given that, I’ve got a question about helping the process along. An HR professional has expressed interest in your resume, they schedule the phone screen – what are your thoughts about preemptively answering some of the standard questions ahead of time?

    My main goal is to get beyond the standard questions and get to more meaty discussion for both sides. I am thinking that a day before or the morning of sending a short note to the HR professional with the following gist:
    Hello ,
    I am excited to talk to about . Wanting to make the best use of your time I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on some of the more common questions asked during initial phone interviews.

    Tell me little about you aside from what’s on the resume? How has your career progressed and why did you change past positions as you have?
    — 1 to 2 sentence answer —

    Why ?
    — 1 to 2 sentence answer —

    Do you have experience with as listed on the position requirements? Can you briefly discuss/describe that experience?
    — Succinct description for your 3 strongest selling points that are also listed in the job req.

    These answers offer a little deeper insight to what my past experiences have been. I am looking forward to talking more about how I can help going forward.

    Sincerely,

    Yes, it resembles a little bit of a cover letter and readdresses what should be contained in the resume. So often though I get the same questions and if someone had only taken a little bit of time this information was there already. There is also the HR professional’s need to take some speaking points have to the hiring manager. By writing them out I’d be helping them correctly capture that information and allowing them to forward my name all the more sooner. Or have I just walked all over their reason for being?

    Thoughts?

    • Larry, I like your pro active thinking. Unfortunately, I think that if we answer the questions with a few sentences, the person will STILL ask us the questions. They will pose the question something like ” Thanks for sharing a little bit about yourself, can you elaborate more on why you are interested in Acme Publishing. My gut tells me that the recruiter is in phone screen mode and that is exactly what they are after. Even if you are a candidate they are excited about, they are not in the mentality of learning more. And I think this is a good thing for you. We ultimately want the in person interview where we can shine and spend the time talking. Phone screen usually are shorter in nature and the recruiter isn’t thinking about “going deeper”. They are thinking about their next interview in 30 or 45 minutes.

      That being said, I do think we can give them more than just a confirmation of the upcoming interview:

      Recruiter Johnny,
      I just wanted to confirm our initial phone screen tomorrow at 3:00 PM EST. I am really looking forward to learning more about the company. I head up a Product Management consortium and every year we sponsor a meet up where product managers come in from all over the area to share ideas and listen to new ones. I have heard a lot of great things about Acme Publishing and have been following your company for the past few years. What really excites me about Acme Publishing is, X and Y.

      Or something like that. My goal here is a couple of things. Get the fact that you have founded a consortium on the table as a talking point and showing that you have been following the company and have been following specifically on X and Y. in this way, we can direct the conversation a little bit. But at the end of the day, we want to first make sure that the recruiter gets what they need out of the call to take back to the hiring manager so they are excited about meeting you. And again, I think that you want to be face to face and going deep on topics vs. over the phone.

      Hopefully this helps!

      HRN