The Art & Science Of Acing The Phone Screen

“In every interview I have ever read or seen or taken part in, the final question in our future-oriented society is always, what next?” – Jessica Savitch

Few parts of the slow and dreaded hiring process are as misunderstood as the phone screen. Ask ten people how to play it and you will get ten different answers. Sadly, this is not a good thing but if you continue reading, I can almost guarantee you a definitive plan on the what, why and how of improving your performance on the phone screen. Lets start out with some working definitions:

The Purpose.

First things first. Phone screens are designed to screen you out of the interviewing process, not to bring you in for an interview and let me tell you why. If the recruiter has eight people to screen, they are expected to screen out at least half because if they go to the hiring manager and say, “Wow, they were all great,” they have added very little value. The person doing the screen needs to stack rank the candidates after the call and give the HM the top three. Your mission is to be one of the top three!

The Goal.

Just as a football player has a goal of getting the ball into the end zone, your phone screen has a goal, as well. That goal is to be invited in for an interview. This is the only thing that counts because if you do not make it to the interview, nothing else matters. Remember, the overall objective is to get hired and that will not happen if you get blown out at the phone screen. The question here is simple: How do you best handle the phone screen? Let’s consider how you make the cut.

The Preparation.

The prep for the phone screen is every bit as big as the prep for the interview. Be sure to study the company, its performance in the last year and the industry. Know the stock price. Know the person doing the screen. Research them on LinkedIn and check them out on every other social media site you can find. Will you need this all? Perhaps not, but it is better to have more details rather than less information that you wish you had.

The Call.

The interview needs to be clean and fluid as distractions will not help your cause. Barking dogs, bad phone reception, crying children, knife fights and other noise must be avoided. Remember, you do not have the advantage of an in-person interview where they can judge you on a host of other factors. All they have is you on the phone so you must control things on your end. Sadly, it is impossible to tell you what to say on a phone screen so I will simply give you five guidelines on how to manage it.

1. Let Them Set The Tone

Let the person who is making the call set the tone. If they want to make small talk, let them and you do the same. If they want to jump right into business, just follow their lead and make it business. If you approach the phone screen in a manner that is open and friendly with good energy, you will be starting off well.

2. Think Twitter

Be sure to answer their questions in a way that is clear and to the point. Occams razor says, among other things, that “things which can be explained in fewer words are explained in vain by more.”  Let this be your mantra. Tweets are only 140 characters for a good reason. Be short and clear in your answers.

3. Consider An Example

Some questions require a quick example to illustrate your point. Notice I said “some questions” and not every question. Use your judgment to know when. My thought is that examples are best used when the question posed to you is of either great importance in the role for which you hope to interview or when you have done something grand and want to tie it to the answer. Remember, it’s your conversation and your judgment but a great tip is to simply ask the person the magic question, “Would you like a quick example?”

4. Prepare Some Questions

Write out a few questions before the interview. Good questions that demonstrate depth and insight (nothing self-serving.) To ask if you can work at home on Fridays is not good. “What is the most important thing you need me to accomplish in this role or, “what is the most pressing issue the team faces in the coming year,” are good questions. Ask questions that get the person to open up and discuss the pain and the need because if there was not pain and need, there would not be a job to discuss. If you can understand the problem and the pain, you can interview more effectively. (As an aside, it is best to ask your questions in the second half of the phone screen as opposed to the first.)

5. Ask For The Sale

A phone screen is a sale because you want something. You want to be invited in to meet the team. Furthermore, if you interview with aggressive intent, you are always driving the process to the next step as you should. With this in mind and at some point in the conversation, usually about three quarters through, you will understand the job and what they really need. This is a magic moment. The conversation is flowing, the rhythm is there and all that is left is to ask to come in for an interview. Now is the time. Say to the person, “I really think I can give you exactly what you need in this role and I find the opportunity very exciting. I would love to come in and meet with the team to lean more. Can I come in to see you next week?” Perfect move to press for the next step! Will it always work in your favor? No, but it will show just how deadly serious and interested you are in the role, and further in the world of interviewing, this means a lot.

No one can guarantee how a phone screen will end but if you map it out, do your research and consider the tips you have just read, the odds of your phone screen turning into a face-to-face interview will be greatly enhanced. Now comes the really interesting part; the face-to-face interview. More on that to follow…

(About the Author: A consultant, writer and public speaker, Howard Adamsky, works with organizations to support their efforts to build great companies and coaches others on how to do the same. He has over 20 years’ experience in identifying, developing, and implementing effective solutions for organizations struggling to recruit and retain top talent. An internationally published author, he has written Hiring and Retaining Top IT Professionals/The Guide for Savvy Hiring Managers and Job Hunters Alike (Osborne McGraw-Hill) and Employment Rage (Norlights Press.) He is a regular contributor to )

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