Telephone technique, part two

Credit: falcorpic/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

In part one of this two-part series on telephone use during the job search, I wrote about how important the telephone is as a business and job-seeking tool: It’s still the second most important communication tool of all, after face-to-face encounters. In part one, I explained the basics of good telephone practice, and I made suggestions on how to get over the fear of talking to people you don’t know well.

But where good phone technique really becomes important is when a potential employer calls you up. Your first interview with an employer may be formal (a prearranged conference call with several people on the line) or informal (a seat-of-the-pants call from a hiring manager). Either way, you need to be prepared to handle it well. This is how hiring works.

If the hiring manager, a human resources staffer, and a few other stakeholders are on the line, you can be assured that their interest is real.

Take control

The first contact from an employer is usually by phone, and the call always seems to come at the most inconvenient time: You’re changing the baby’s diapers or out walking the dog—or you were sleeping in after a late night in the lab, and you’re still groggy.

If this has ever happened to you, you’ll agree when I say that one of the keys to a successful phone call is to dictate the call’s time and place. You need to be able to focus, so you need some time to get ready, collect your thoughts, and prepare your mind. That is why my number-one rule of job-related phone calls is, do not accept the call when it comes at a bad time.

The trick is to take control, but without being annoying. “Jorge, thank you so much for your call. I’m very happy that you called, and I’m eager to talk. I’d prefer to talk later this afternoon, if you have a slot available. If not, I can get organized and call you back in 10 minutes. What would work best for you?” Be sure to note the caller’s full name, and double-check that phone number! Close the call by restating the arrangements: “OK Jorge, thank you. I’ll call you at 2 p.m. Central Standard Time at 314-555-8181. Talk soon!” If you can keep your composure and pull that off, you’ll make a good first impression on the caller.

Whether you talk 10 minutes later or the next day, use the time to learn what you can about the caller by searching Google or LinkedIn. Before the interview, get out a notepad and a copy of your CV, and do a few minutes of deep-breathing exercises. Be at your best when the call comes in, focused but relaxed.

Protocol for the first encounter

A few companies avoid calling until they’re sure the candidate a great fit, but most are more flexible. Some will notice a few enticing items on your CV, which match up well with items on their must-have list, and spontaneously decide you warrant a screening call. This call is your chance to shine.

When the call comes, remember that the caller probably will not have a lot of time, so expect the conversation to be focused and short. Don’t be offended by brisk efficiency, and don’t waste the caller’s time. 

Right now, the caller has a tight focus centered on a few position specifications, so expect him or her to explore aspects of your skills and experience that may or may not fit their needs. Be prepared to make the best case for yourself. The interviewer’s goal is to take a large pile of CVs and make it smaller; your goal is to make sure that doesn’t happen at your expense, by succinctly reassuring the caller that you’ve got the right skills and experience, and—by handling yourself well—that you belong on their short list.

Here are a few bonus tips for that first telephone encounter:

  • Be prepared to give short examples of experiences that highlight your comfort and familiarity with the techniques and skills required for the job.
  • Express enthusiasm and gratitude that the conversation is taking place. Don’t be phony; just be the “you” that is fun to work with, and let your enthusiasm show.
  • Keep food away from your workspace, and banish sources of background noise, music, and disruptions—including dogs and small children.
  • Don’t ramble. Rein yourself in. Be amiable and efficient. Give them the information they ask for in condensed (but friendly) nuggets. Invite follow-up questions in case they want to know more.

The telephone conference call

It’s the ultimate telephone introduction: The employer finds you so interesting that they invite a few of their closest colleagues to interview you all at once!

Sure it’s intimidating, but an invitation to partake in a group conference-call interview is a very positive sign. If the hiring manager, a human resources staffer, and a few other stakeholders are on the line, you can be assured that their interest is real.

These telephone group interviews typically follow the “panel interview” script, which I’ve written about on Tooling Up before. Panel interviews are tough in the best of circumstances; they’re even harder over the phone, with keyboards clicking, muffled voices, and no visual feedback. Talk about a trial by fire!

Here are my suggestions for managing a conference-call interview:

  • Those “bonus tips” listed in the sidebar above still apply, as do many of the tips from last month.
  • Your callers will be in a conference room, gathered around a speakerphone—so whatever you do, don’t use a speakerphone yourself. Hold the receiver up to your ear, or get a headset. (For a meeting like this, your little Bluetooth ear device will not be sufficient. You’ll want a pair of “cans” on your head to pick out the nuances of different voices and hear people far from the speakerphone.)
  • Everyone will likely be introduced. If not, you can ask for introductions. Listen to their voices and note who is who, so you’ll know who is asking which questions.
  • Without visual clues, you’ll be unable to tell how your answers are received. This lack of feedback can be disconcerting, but put it out of your mind. If you don’t get an immediate comment, do not assume your answer fell flat.
  • Gaps will occur in the conversation, and that’s OK. The people in the conference room may be deciding who will ask the next question, or they may have the speakerphone muted as they discuss something amongst themselves. Gaps are fine; the worst thing you can do is to fill them in with talk. Sit patiently and wait for the next question.
  • Because this call was requested in advance (conference calls are rarely sprung on you by surprise), they’ll expect you to have a few good questions lined up. Don’t disappoint.

It seems strange to say it in an era of ubiquitous phones, but professional-level telephone skills are in short supply. For you that’s an opportunity. A little work invested in developing this important skill set will help you make that important cut and ensure that this screening call leads to a real, in-person interview.

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