The Telephone, Job Search Power Tool

Everyone has one on their desk. Along with your PC, it is one of the most important tools in your job search armory. It can also be a huge time-waster and the single most aggravating part of your networking process. What I want to share with you in this column is how to make better use of the telephone to minimize wasted time and make a greater impact on important contacts.

I'm a 15-year veteran of telephone marketing. No, I don't mean those sleazy calls you get at home in the evening while you are eating dinner. Instead, I am in the business of representing my company and myself while on the phone. This is what you will be doing, too, because telephone skills are required if you are planning to "market" yourself into your next job. In reality, you must become a telephone marketer, opening doors for prospective interviews.

Overcoming the Basic Problems of the Telephone

As you may already know, using the phone to advance your job search is not an easy matter. On the surface, it seems easy. That's the problem ... if you treat the phone as if it were simply an extension of your voice, you will not make a lot of progress. Here are some of the normal stumbling blocks encountered while using the phone to make "marketing" calls:

  • Problem: It is difficult to build rapport on the phone because you do not have the ability to see or use body language. Solution: Don't let this stop you from using body language (even though you may look rather strange to those near you). Sometimes getting your whole body involved as you would in person does indeed help you make a point, because it adds much-needed emotion to your voice. This will make the difference between being excited about something and truly sounding excited.

  • Problem: It is entirely possible that you can accidentally intrude on someone at an inconvenient time, and not even know that you are doing so. Solution: Make a habit out of checking on this in the first moments of your phone conversation. For example, "Do you have a brief moment for a question, or am I catching you at a bad moment?" So many callers to our office assume that they can launch into a 10-minute introductory statement just because someone answered the phone!

  • Problem: Many scientists find that they cannot communicate complicated information as well on the phone as they can in person. Solution: Don't bother with the complicated information. Develop a succinct manner of presenting yourself and your accomplishments, one that whets the appetite to learn more (which written communication or a later face-to-face meeting can take further). Learning to speak in "sound bites" is essential when communicating by telephone.

  • Problem: Communicating without distractions is much more difficult on the telephone than in person. Solution: Don't make important networking calls from the lab. Find a quiet place, and clear the desk for your conversations. Don't have anything in front of you except your notes for this particular call and a pad of paper. Make sure that everyone in your proximity knows that you are not to be interrupted.

The Job Seeker's Golden Rules for Working the Phone

Now that you understand and appreciate the basic weaknesses of the telephone as a tool in the job search, I'm sure you also realize that nothing can replace it. It is essential. But there are some additional cautions that need to be taken into consideration in order to maximize the positive benefits of this communication. Here's my list:

  • Be nice to gatekeepers.As you know if you have already begun your networking, it is very difficult to get information from receptionists or secretaries of important people. I have always called these folks "gatekeepers," for that is what they really do. They are in charge of whom goes "in and out" of that boss's space, much like the gatekeeper of old. Gatekeepers can even keep you from getting through to an individual scientist in the lab, not just the director.
    Basic courtesy goes a long way here. The first thing we do at my company when we need to get through to some hard-to-reach hiring manager is to ask politely if he or she is available, and explain our mission. Secretaries are used to being treated in a haphazard manner and sometimes even lied to by people who want to get past them and to the boss. If you are friendly, and explain your intent, you stand a much better chance of getting through.

  • If rule #1 doesn't work, call when they aren't around.Often you just won't be able to get past that gatekeeper. In this case, try calling at lunch, or before/after normal hours. A busy manager is someone who is at her desk far longer than the receptionist is. You will also find that the automated system that many companies use after hours will allow you to dial the manager directly by a lookup of their last name. We use company phone directories all the time to get to hard-to-reach people.
    Don't forget that e-mail networking works great too, and that the gatekeepers will often have no problem sharing the e-mail address of their boss with you.

  • Never ask for a job.I've mentioned this before in "Tooling Up," and you will no doubt see it again. It's critical to remember that this process uses the phone to gather information that will eventually help you move to the job of your choice. It isn't going to land you a lot of job offers by itself.
    When you ask for a job, it "labels" the conversation. The label that most people in industry will assign to your call is "Send to Human Resources." While it may be perfectly acceptable to talk with HR, it was not your goal. Your goal is to ask good questions about your area of career interest and learn more about "who does what" in a company that is on your target list.

  • Use voicemail to your advantage.Voicemail is either a plague on mankind or a boon to the job seeker, depending on who you ask. Personally, I hated voicemail until I realized that busy people will only return those calls which sound the most professional--in other words, there is a screening which takes place and it is perfectly possible for you or me to land on top of that list.
    Leaving a good voicemail message means including your full name, a phone number, a good time to call you back (or a message which states that you will try again), and a short comment about why you are calling, followed by a promise to be brief. It is very important to state why you are calling. For example, "Dr. Smith, the reason that I am calling is that I have a quick question about the area of clinical affairs. I promise to be brief, I know how busy you are."

In Closure

Those who approach the telephone with the wrong set of expectations can suffer pain and rejection. If you have the right goal ("to gather information and advice that will move me closer to my next position"), then the telephone can be of tremendous assistance in moving you forward.

The telephone: More than a minor part of your "Tooling Up" toolbox!


Here's a book that I enjoyed a great deal and which gave me several ideas for my article this month. Recommended reading: Telephone Techniques: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Working Smarter, by Lin Walker, AMACOM Press, NY, NY, 1999 ($12.95).

Answering Machine Etiquette

Answering machines and voicemail are a fact of life. If you are in the throes of a job search and don't have one, run to your nearest Wal-Mart or call the phone company. There's only one thing worse than a job seeker without voicemail ... and that's a job seeker with a "cute" message on the box.

After years of speaking to job hunters' answering machines, I believe that one of the single greatest things that you can do to shoot yourself in the foot is to personalize your message in any "nonstandard" fashion. I am reminded of the candidate for the Medical Director position whose answering machine droned on with Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze," or the sales rep whose customers were treated to a trio of meowing cats on each message they left.

Throughout the life of your circulating CV, you will no doubt get phone calls from a variety of people to the home number shown on your paperwork. Despite whether it is a Director of Human Resources or the hiring manager that received your resume, most people are not impressed by "cute." Translate that same cuteness to the interview environment ... I wonder how that Medical Director would look in a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt?

(Courtesy of the Bio Online career management site, "Your Career in the Sciences")

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