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.

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.