Get Hired - 3 Tips to Pass Every Phone Interview

A few months ago I started a blog series on how to improve your chances at each stage of the interview process. In the first two parts I focused on the top of the funnel – specifically, how to make your applications and resume jump out of the applicant pool so you get more interviews. Check out part 1 and part 2 for some context. In this blog I’m going to focus on the next phase of the job search process – the phone screen.

Also, if you haven't already, check out my blog on resumes. I'll show you the resume I use and give you access to my resume template for Microsoft Word.

The Job Search Funnel

The Job Search Funnel

The phone screen is a standard step in most corporate recruitment processes. Human resources departments and recruiters need to reduce the field of candidates down to a subset that actually stand a chance of getting the job.

Of all the stages in the job search process, the phone screen is the easiest for you to control. There is no reason to fail at this stage if you execute the correct strategy. I’d go further to say that it’s actually quite critical for you to convert phone screens at an extremely high rate in light of the rapidly growing competitiveness of job searches today. Unlike the first stage i.e. getting noticed, and the latter stages i.e. in person interviews, the phone screen is actually quite easy to master – it’s formulaic. But to master the formula you must first understand the mindset of the phone screener.

Phone screens are typically conducted by an in house HR person or an external recruiter. Sometimes you’ll actually have to go through both. In either case there are three primary motivations that govern their behavior and decision making.

1.       The need to reduce the field: The phone screener’s job is to reduce the total pool of possible applicants down to a more manageable number. If fifty resumes meet some basic level of qualification, the screener needs to reduce the field down to 7-10 people for the hiring manager to actually interview. This has implications on the tactics you need to employ to make it through this step. You can’t win the job in this stage – you can only lose.

2.       The desire to avoid the big mistake: Whether the screener is an internal resource or an external consultant, the last thing they want to do is waste the hiring manager’s time by passing along a bad candidate. Some candidates will be better than others, but under no circumstance does the screener want to risk putting forth a completely unqualified or incompetent candidate. Again this has an impact on your optimal strategy. You generally need to play it quite safe and conservative so the screener can be confident you won’t embarrass him or her.

3.       The mandate to identify cultural fit: One of HR’s primary roles in the company is to maintain and grow the corporate culture. Since the screener most often lacks the specific domain expertise to measure depth of competence, they typically focus on personality and cultural fit to help determine which applicants advance to the next stage. You job in the phone screen is to appear like someone who will be easy to work with – I’ve seen many candidates fail at this stage because they come off as over confident in their misguided effort to convey competency.

There are a couple of things may have jumped out at you in that list. For one, screeners tend to be quite defensive in their approach i.e. they aren't typically focused on hitting a home-run but rather they focus on passing along consistently solid candidates while avoiding the big mistake. Secondly, because phone screeners aren't generally experts in the field or function they’re screening for, they tend to rely heavily personality fit and on the job description as the measuring stick for qualification – sometimes to a fault.

So what does this mean for your optimal strategy? Here are three tactics to employ on your next phone screen. They take advantage of what we know about the motivations of the screeners themselves and are designed to help you take advantage of the system to get past this step and onto the in-person interview more consistently. If you can raise your batting average at this stage, you’ll significantly improve your overall chances of landing a job.

1.       Master the job description: The job description that you read on the internet was probably the last communication the hiring manager had with the phone screener about what the ideal candidate should look like. Because the screener is not an expert in the field or function he or she is interviewing you about, they will treat the job description like the bible. Your best opportunity to pass this stage of the process is to study the job description, break it down piece by piece and have a prepared answer for every aspect of it. If there are qualifications in the job description that you don’t have, you should have an answer prepared in advance for that with the strongest counterpoint you can think of. For example if applied for a marketing job that required experience in a marketing automation system or software program that I didn't have, I would prepare the following response and deliver it with confidence:

“I see that you’d ideally like to find candidates who have experience with application X. As you can see from my resume, while I haven’t used that specific application in practice, I have proven to be a quick learner when it comes to new systems and processes. So much so that I spent a few hours over the weekend watching tutorials and videos on best practices for using application X and I’m already making progress towards learning it.”

2.       Deliver the keywords: Phone screeners are taking notes and looking for some key points to underscore in their case for why you are a good candidate to pass along to the hiring manager. It’s your job to make it easy for them to build that case. The best way to do that is to focus on saying the most important keywords over and over again. Look through the job description again and pick out your strongest points relative to the requirements. Then identify the most powerful keywords from the job description that you can leverage. For example if the job description requirement was:

“Extensive experience developing front end interfaces using JavaScript and Jquery.”

I would make a point of saying “JavaScript and Jquery” at least three or four times in the phone call. And at the end of the call I’d make sure I closed with a summary of the keywords I most aligned with. This way you make certain the screener has some specific notes on your strengths in relation to the job description. It should go without saying that if you’re asked about your strengths specifically on the interview, you should make certain your answers align to what is written in the job description. It doesn't do you any good to talk about your strength as a “great communicator” when communication skills weren't listed as a key requirement in the job description.

3.       Prep your cultural message: Inevitably in the course of the interview the screener will ask you a rather innocuous sounding question about the type of work environment you like or what your former colleagues would say about how you were to work with. Most of us consider this to be a softball question so we don’t adequately prepare for it. I've seen more than a few candidates do quite poorly here and cost themselves a shot at the in-person interview. Here are a few simple do’s and don’ts for the cultural question:

  • Don’t talk about work-life balance. It’s always interpreted as “I’m lazy”.
  • Don’t ask about standard work hours or what time people come in and leave. It’s another red flag.
  • Don’t describe yourself as a perfectionist. That gets translated into “I’m a handful and control freak”
  • Do talk about being collaborative. Even if you’re not, you can never lose by saying you are.
  • Do talk about being hard working. A good work ethic can make up for limited skill sets.
  • Do talk about being detail oriented. The better option to “perfectionist”. It says you can be relied upon.

4 Rules for Negotiating a Job Offer

Getting a job offer is a very exciting time. It often comes as a huge relief after a prolonged period of emotional and financial stress for you and your family. It feels like massive weight has been lifted from your shoulders. This is one of the reasons why so many of us mishandle this very important final step in the job search. We so badly want to secure the job that we are afraid to do anything that might make it go away. We rush to get the deal closed as quickly and quietly as we can because we just can’t bear the thought of screwing it all up at this point. It’s a completely understandable fear. Understandable … but unwarranted, and very bad for your career.

As a hiring manager I have the opportunity to make job offers all the time. I’ve also received a few offers myself over the years. I’m surprised how consistently candidates either don’t negotiate at all or approach the offer negotiation stage without a proper plan. If you’re not completely comfortable with negotiations – don’t worry, you’re definitely not alone. Here are some tips I’ve used over the years to get the most out of job offer negotiations without putting the offer itself at risk.

Let’s start by making one very important first point: You should be negotiating 100% of the job offers you receive. There is no scenario where not negotiating is ok. I realize it can be easy to convince ourselves that negotiating adds risk or might offend the future employer, and a host of other reasons to avoid it – but they are all wrong. You need to negotiate your job offer. There are two major reasons why this is the case. Reason number one is that if you don’t negotiate, you’re virtually always accepting the employers low ball offer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said something like, “Ok so we’ll offer 65K and take 70K if she counters …” Basically every offer is made with a contingency buffer of 5%-10%. You need to take advantage of this buffer or you’re just leaving free money on the table. The second reason you should always negotiate is that not negotiating sends a very bad message to your prospective manager. As a hiring manager, I want my future staff members negotiating – it tells me they are serious professionals who know how to communicate their value and have the strength to fight for it. There are so many practical applications of negotiation skill in almost any job whether it’s negotiating priorities with internal teams or negotiating terms with a vendor or customer. Negotiation is just a basic professional skill we all need to develop. In fact, each time I make an offer and the candidate doesn’t negotiate, I worry if I’ve hired the wrong person. That may sound a bit harsh, but it’s true. The good news is if you negotiate correctly, you introduce almost no risk into the equation and reap all the benefits.

Here are 4 basic rules I use to guide my job offer negotiations. Try them out next time you have the chance.

1.    Keep it friendly and constantly reaffirm interest.

I first learned this valuable lesson when I was travelling in Egypt and Morocco after university. The market vendors there have a magical way of negotiating extremely hard but making you feel good about it the entire time. A practical lesson you can take from that is to constantly reaffirm how excited you are about the job while you’re asking for better compensation. By contrast, one thing you should never do is use feigned reluctance as a bargaining tool. “Playing hard to get” is one of the absolute worst things you can do when negotiating an offer. When I counter an offer I find several occasions to reiterate just how much I want the role and just how perfect I think I am for the job. And I never use ultimatums. You want to create an image in the mind of the employer that this is the perfect match for both parties and all that stands in the way of a win-win is a small concession. If you keep negotiations positive and avoid presenting ultimatums or binary decisions you never have to worry about the offer being pulled. This is vital to being able to negotiate with confidence.

2.    Always present a package of options.

Most compensation packages have several components to them and most employers have a variety of vehicles by which they can affect compensation. It’s a mistake to fixate on any one offer component when you negotiate. Too many of us focus too much on base salary. For example, we will respond to a base salary offer of 50K with a base salary counter of 55K. The problem with this approach is twofold. First off you haven’t provided a very good opportunity for a win-win resolution to the negotiation by framing it as a binary decision i.e. either you give me exactly what I want or you don’t. And secondly you aren’t giving the employer enough flexibility to be able to easily accommodate your request. By making the offer decision binary you’ve painted the employer into a corner. This is level one negotiating. Level two negotiating is about creating a package of negotiation points so the employer can pick and choose and customize a revised offer that gives everyone a chance to win. For example, rather than the counter a base salary of 50K with 55K, I would say something like:

Thank you very much for the offer. I am extremely excited for the opportunity to work with the company and I’m confident I can make an immediate and positive contribution. In terms of compensation specifically, I’m hoping we can find a way to create a package that is more in line with my skills and experience, and that can work for everyone. I would very happily execute an offer that contained the following amendments:

  • Base Salary: $52,500
  • Annual Performance Bonus: $5,000
  • Sign on Bonus: $2,500

By presenting a package like this you've done a bunch of very good things. First off you’ve given yourself a chance at the home run i.e. that they give you everything you’ve asked for, which in this case goes far beyond the 5K increase you would have otherwise requested. Secondly most of the increase you've asked for is in the form of bonuses which are contingent on you achieving a certain level of success. This takes the risk out of the equation for the company and gives you the chance to earn more money. Lastly, this gives the employer the chance to reject parts of your counter while still giving you a win i.e. They can reject the sign-on bonus and the base salary and you still end up with 55K or they can reject the performance bonus and you also end up with 55K. There are many more paths to success with this approach. One final detail to mention – notice in my example message that I don’t position this counter offer as an ultimatum. I only say how happy I would be execute the offer if certain things were amended. I make no mention at all of what I might do if they don’t acquiesce. This allows me to stay confident in my negotiation strategy and not worry that they might walk away. My worst case in this scenario is that they’ll say no to the changes I proposed and I’ll have to stick with the original offer. Whereas if I had framed it as “I can’t accept this offer because of xyz,” I’d be introducing a bunch of risk into the equation unnecessarily. Stay positive and don’t make ultimatums.

3.    Never … ever negotiate vacation time.

I won’t spend too much time on this one but it’s something I feel quite passionately about. You are much better off negotiating for more salary or bonus or stock options than negotiating on vacation. People who negotiate for more vacation send a very clear message that have a poor work ethic. I’ve had several occasions where I chose one candidate over another solely based on this point. Do not, under any circumstance negotiate your vacation time – find something else to ask for.

4.    Don’t negotiate live or over the phone.

This is another one I personally feel strongly about though I’m sure some people may disagree. I never negotiate live or over the phone if I can help it. The reason is I want to think very carefully about everything I say and ask for. I want the benefit of time to consider an offer before countering and to craft my response in the best way possible. Having to respond in real time presents too many opportunities for mistakes and doesn’t give me the time I need to build a thoughtful counter offer. If I’m presented with an offer in person or on the phone I’ll just politely ask for 24 hours to speak to my spouse about it and then respond via email later. An important point here is that I don’t ask for time to “think it over” because that sounds too negative – like maybe I don’t want the job after all. I prefer to ask for time to speak with my family about it because that is a perfectly reasonable thing to request and sends no negative message whatsoever.

How to Jump out of the Job Applicant Pool - 5 Secrets from a Hiring Manager

Part 2:

This is part two in a series of blogs I felt compelled to write after hearing story after story from friends and family members about the escalating challenges in the current job search environment. In the first blog I talked about the legions of job-seeking superbots you now have to compete with in every career opportunity you pursue. You may not realize it yet, but your competition are applying for hundreds of jobs using a combination of technology and sweat equity to play the numbers game in hopes of muscling their way into finding work. Seemingly every job posting now has 200, 300, even 500 applicants. The strategy that got you a job three years ago won’t work anymore. It’s a new playing field and it’s getting tougher every year. But rather than lament the situation, we need to change our own game plans and stack the deck back in our favour.

If you haven't seen it already, check out my blog on how to build the perfect resume. Also check out my resume template for Microsoft Word. Its the one I recently used to beat out a ton of competing candidates to land my dream job.

Get my resume template for Microsoft Word.

A Typical Job Search Funnel

A Typical Job Search Funnel

There is a pretty standard five step process a typical applicant needs to go through in order to ultimately get a job offer. It helps to look at each step kind of like a level in a video game. Each level requires its own special set of tactics in order to pass. You need a strategy at each stage or you won’t consistently differentiate yourself enough to get the volume of job offers you want.

I have the benefit of interviewing people virtually every week so I’ve seen the best and the worst job search tactics out there. I’ve compiled a set of strategies for each stage of the job search process that I would use if I were looking for work right now – they’re like cheat codes for finding your next career.

In this blog we’ll focus on stage one – how to jump out of the applicant pool. There are two fundamental issues I see job seekers struggle with at this stage. The first is getting your application or resume seen in the first place. A friend of mine recently applied to 10 jobs on LinkedIn and told me several weeks later only 1 of the 10 applications had even been read. How are you supposed to make those numbers work? This is like a baseball player only getting one at-bat per week and expecting to perform – you need a certain minimum number of opportunities at the plate to give yourself a reasonable chance of hitting a homerun. Thankfully there are a couple tactics I’ve seen that will help you get your applications in front of more eyeballs.

The second issue many of us struggle with is how to differentiate our resume in the event it is actually read. To play the baseball metaphor again this is akin to making a good swing when you finally get a pitch to hit. You can’t hit a homerun if you don’t take a homerun swing. A recruiter I trust recently told me she spends about 30 seconds scanning each resume she reads to create the initial pool of applicants to screen. What do you need to do to make your resume stand out in 30 seconds? I’ve got a great tip that is proven to help you stand out in a pile of resumes.

Here are a few tips the will dramatically improve your success at the first stage of the job search funnel. Adopting these tactics will get you further in the job search process and ultimately improve the probability of getting a great job faster.

1.       Two Tips to Get Your Resume Seen

Use a Multi Touch Approach: If you’re only applying for jobs by sending an email to one person or applying through one channel you’re not maximizing your chances of getting noticed. The most successful job seekers take a multi touch approach to campaign for the jobs they want. Here’s a nice summary of that approach by professional resume writer Michael Howard. Rather than sending your resume to one person and hoping for the best, you need to research a variety of people in the company who might have influence on the job you’re pursuing and reach out to all of them. That list might include HR staff, the hiring manager, the department head, potential peers or even junior people in the department. You can use LinkedIn or the corporate web site to get email addresses and phone numbers for a wider number of potential influencers for the role you want.

Upgrade your LinkedIn account:

While the first tip requires a time investment, this next one requires a financial investment – albeit a small one. There are many differing opinions about the value of a premium LinkedIn account but for the purposes of making your applications stand out, I think it’s well worth it. For about $25 a month you gain access to the “Featured Applicant” status (shown in the picture), which makes all your job applications rise to the top of the pile. This is a massive step to getting more eyeballs on your resume and frankly the $25 per month investment, even when times are tight, is worth it if you land a job a week or a month sooner than you otherwise would.

2.       The Number One Way to Make Your Resume Stand Out in 30 Seconds

Build a Visual Resume:

Also known as an infographic resume or graphical resume, the visual resume is woefully underused despite its incredible power to differentiate a candidate from competing applications. Here are some examples of what I’m speaking about. I’ve probably reviewed a hundred resumes this year and maybe one of them was designed with some visual creativity. If a recruiter or hiring manager has only 30 seconds to review your resume, there is NO better way to stand out than to use this type of eye catching, visually compelling resume. Trading in your old word doc, text based resume for one of these will dramatically increase the number of phone screens and first interviews you get. They don’t guarantee you’ll get an offer, but they will get you farther in the process. There are several sites that will guide you through the process of building a visual resume – this article covers the best of them. Even if you don’t pay for a design service, you can create a very simple one like I did using standard office tools. Just by adding some colour, accents and framing around key points, your resume stands out from the crowd.

Give these tips a try and let me know if your job search improves. Next week I’ll be blogging about some sure fire tips to get past a phone screen.

If you missed the first blog in the series check it out here.

The Best 30-60-90 Day Plan and How to Use It

If you do a google search for “how to build a 30 60 90 day plan” you will get a bunch of misguided information and some random thoughts masquerading as best practices. Many of the so-called experts publishing this content are trying to sell products and services by dishing out click bait caliber advice that’s likely to do more harm than good for your career. Very few articles or tools out there were created by actual managers – the individuals who make the hiring decisions and evaluate your performance over the first 3 months on the job. In this blog I’m going to answer some of the most common questions I get about 30 60 90 day plans and also give you access to a template I built and use in my own career. If you find value in my plan template I'd love to hear about it in the comments section. 

>>> And, if you're a manager or executive, I've just added a special version of the template with a bunch of extra content designed for leaders. Download the manager's version here.

>>> If you're in sales, I've just created a special customized version of my 30 60 90 day plan template built specifically for sales. Download the sales version here.

Here are the questions I get asked most about these plans:

When should I be building a 30 60 90 day plan?

There are two occasions when you would want to build a 30 60 90 day plan. The first is in the final stages of the interview process. When included as part of a strategic planning framework it can help you differentiate from other candidates by demonstrating your capacity to operationalize a strategy. I’m going to focus more on this specific use in a future blog. The second, and our focus for this blog, is the 30 60 90 day plan you will want to build in your first week at a new job. It shares many similarities with the one you’d build during the interview process with the small exception that you’ll create this version knowing you’ll actually have to deliver against it.

Key takeaways:

  1. You should build a 30 60 90 day plan in the late stages of the interview process
  2. You should deliver a 30 60 90 day plan before the end of your first week on a job

What is the objective of a 30 60 90 day plan?

This is where most of the advice on the Internet has it wrong. Most articles, like this one, make the critical mistake of thinking that the 30 60 90 day plan is designed to guide YOU. It’s not. The plan has nothing to do helping you “get up to speed” or “hit the ground running” and everything to do with aligning your boss and management team to a definition and framework for success. It’s designed so your hiring will be declared an unequivocal success after 3 months by the people who matter most to your career. It’s not about making sure you focus on learning or training or any of the other misinformation out there. No one cares about that. The purpose of this plan is to set the foundation for career advancement.

If you don’t build the 30 60 90 day plan as a purpose-built tool to further your own career, you’re leaving too much up to chance. When built correctly, this plan gets everyone aligned to a common definition of what success looks like so you can guarantee you’ll leave the first 90 days on pace to your next promotion.

Key takeaways:

  1. Don’t build the plan to help guide you. Build it to create a common definition of success.
  2. The 30 60 90 day plan is the first step to achieving your next promotion.

What mistakes are most common in a 30 60 90 day plan?

I’ve already covered the first big mistake people make – they build these plans for themselves instead of to align others to a definition of success. The next biggest mistake people make is not being precise enough in their plans. You have to get way past things like “meeting with key people” or “executing company orientation”. These are table stakes activities that you’ll get fired for if you DON’T complete them – there are no points to be scored here. Rather you need to build measurable deliverables that have actual value to the company in your plan. For example, auditing and optimizing one key process or implementing one new program to demonstrate the effectiveness of your process improvement. Another mistake people make is not being clear about what things you’re actually going to deliver and when. There needs to be some way of scoring your success or failure and a clear project plan with tasks and deliverables is a good way to accomplish that.

Key takeaways:

  1. Build your plan with precise definitions of what you will do. No obscure descriptions
  2. Include a scorecard in the form of a task list so your success can be measured

What does a good 30 60 90 day plan look like?

A good 30 60 90 day plan always has the following components:

  • It starts with a clear definition of objectives that are rooted in value to the company … not you
  • It identifies specific deliverables and aligns them back to the objectives
  • It contains discrete themes for each plan stage (e.g. 30 – audit, 60 – process, 90 – program)
  • It provides a clear set of tasks with dates
  • It contains a scorecard so it’s easy to measure and ultimately demonstrate your success

Can you give me a 30 60 90 day plan template that has worked for you?

Here is a template I’ve used in my own career. You should personalize it so it relates more directly to your own job. I’ve intentionally made the design professional but not flashy – it should be easy to customize for your own purposes. 

>>> If you're a manager, check out my latest 30 60 90 Day Plan Template for Managers

>>> If you're in sales check out my brand new 30 60 90 Day Template for Sales