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Phone Interview, a recruiter explains why 90% of candidates fail

phone interview

Doesn’t matter where you are or what you are doing, pick up the phone!

Phone interview

“The phone interview is where you make your first impression. Your voice and attitude are the ONLY qualities I have to go on during the phone interview. Negative examples and rude behavior are only amplified over the phone because I take my cues from your voice. The voice tells all.”

You have sent out your resume and are waiting for the call from a recruiter for the phone interview.

I thought it might help to let you know what myself and most recruiters are thinking as we go through the process. Some of this won’t be admitted to publicly, but trust me, it happens. This is why I wear a mask and dark glasses.

If your online profile checks out, depending on my timeline, my next step is either a phone call or email to set up the first phone interview. At this point, I want to confirm that you are still looking for new opportunities, and I want to set up a time for the first conversation. 

What recruiters look for:

  • I want someone to answer the phone when I call and don’t want to leave a message. If you have caller ID and don’t recognize a number, PICK IT UP!!!!  That could be your next employer calling. (I am on a timeline to fill this position because hiring managers are breathing down my back.)
  • If I hear a message, I want it to be a message that would be appropriate within our business setting. I don’t want to hear Rod Stewarts “Do ya think I’m sexy” and a beep. I don’t want to hear an automated voicemail that has your +1 yelling in the background or some cutesy message where you are saying, “Hello?  Hello? I can’t hear you! HELLOO?”.
  • If I get a message (totally understandable), I want to know I called the right person. Your message should confirm who I called. I want something polite, energetic—nothing more, nothing less.

I completely understand that candidates are working or going to school. You may not be able to pick up the phone. We all have lives, and we are all busy people. Please do everything you can to call me at your break or your lunch. I am not expecting to interview you for 30 minutes on this first call. Recruiters want to confirm your interest and schedule a time for the phone interview. We want to know if you exist and are still looking for new opportunities. This confirms whether I should call the next person on the list. 

Delight me

If I do get a real person, I want to hear something that sounds business appropriate and would delight our customers. Yes, I said it, “Delight.” I want to hear a smile come through the phone. I want to hear the energy and would love to hear the candidate announce their first name.  A flat “hello,” followed by silence, is not business appropriate. Although I won’t hang up immediately, you just earned strike 1, and the conversation hasn’t even started.

This is my very first impression of you. Like most first impression judgments, within the first 5 seconds, I am trying to figure out if I can bring you into the office. I don’t want to embarrass myself. Remember, you are going to be representing me. I am going to put my reputation on the line when I present you to the hiring manager. It is in my interest to determine if you are “with me” or “not.” Harsh? Yes, absolutely. Reality? Absolutely. As much as I want to find you a job, I need to protect mine.

To minimize my disappointment on this initial call, I will announce myself and give you a hint. I will literally say something like this: ”My name is HRNasty, and I work with a company called Acme Publishing. You applied for a position with our sales group, and I was wondering if you were still looking for new opportunities. I realize I am calling unannounced. Is this a good time?”

Interview over

I don’t know how many times I have heard the following after introducing myself per the above.  I often hear:

  • “Huh?”
  • “Yeah”
  • “Uh Huh”
  • “What did you say?”
  • “You finally called. What took you so long?” (Yes, I get that)

So many people answer the phone as if they are expecting a telesales person.  With any one of the above answers, the interview is over. Why?  Because at most companies, we want people to answer every phone call like a customer is on the line.  We shouldn’t have to train someone on how to answer a phone.

Great answers sound like:

  • “Thank you for calling. I have been really excited about this opportunity since I first heard about it.”
  • “Yes, this is a great time. I have heard so many great things about your company!”
  • “Thanks for calling. Can you give me one minute? I want to move to a quieter place.”
  • “Thank you for calling. I am at a restaurant / I am meeting; can I call you right back in 15 minutes? I am really excited to talk about the opportunity.”

It sounds corny as I write it and sounds cornier as I read it back, but trust me, this stuff works. The tone has been set:

  • I don’t feel like I must explain myself.
  • You made me feel welcome.
  • Passion for Acme Publishing was conveyed. I don’t feel like I have someone who will take just any job.

See the difference in the two sets of bullet points? The candidate has created excitement. You created an emotional connection with me.

Standard questions

When it comes time for the actual phone interview, I will have a few standard questions. You should know these are coming and be prepared:

  • Can you tell me what you know about the company?  (This is a test which will prove how interested you are in our company. If you can’t tell me anything, that is an indication there was no sincere interest.)
  • What are you looking for in a new position?
  • How much are you looking for?  (I want to know if we are in the same ballpark financially)
  • When can you come in to talk?  (Hint, if you are really interested, you will move your schedule)
    • When the hot girl called you up for a date, you dumped mom’s Sunday dinner to the connection.

Send a thank you

After you get off the phone interview, send a thank-you email. Email “thank you”s are cool. If you didn’t get the email address, send it via postal mail to the attention of the recruiter. Hand delivers it yourself if need be. Be like Nike here, and “Just do it.” 

Suppose you are asked to come in to interview in person (congratulations!). Send a thank-you email, including the following:

  • Reinforce that you are excited about the opportunity
  • Confirm the time and date of your interview
  • Keep it short

We don’t want to ask about benefits, vacation, parking, or pay. (The recruiter will bring up pay. We should not)

See the theme?  At this point, the conversation is about methe recruiter. This phone call isn’t about the candidate “yet’. Don’t get me wrong, I am trying to sell you, but the candidate should be selling their interest in the position vs. their interest in the benefits. 

Questions to ask in a phone interview

  • What do you like about the company?
  • Why were you attracted to the company?
  • Any advice for me? (You will be surprised how easy this is for recruiters. Remember, you represent me)
  • How did this position open up? Is it a new position? (Don’t ask if someone got fired)

This interview will probably last about 30 minutes long. Based on your social profile, resume, and this phone interview, the recruiter is trying to determine your technical and cultural fit. This isn’t meant to be an in-depth grilling. 

A phone interview is to confirm what is already suspected. Based on the resume and social skills over the phone, I just want to confirm your skillset and fit with our company culture so I can bring you in. Treat the conversation as you would if you were interested in the recruiter personally, and the interview will go a lot smoother.

In summary, to be successful in a phone interview, do the following:

  • Return a recruiter’s phone call ASAP.
  • Have a business-minded voice mail message.
  • Answer the phone with a business attitude.
  • Be excited. They want to hear you smile.
  • Ask the recruiter questions.

Why the Phone Screen is the easiest to prepare for AND Phone Screen Interview questions

How to set the tone of the interview

See you at the after-party,


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

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