Interview Strategies: Telephone Interviews, Without the Hang-Ups

Interview Strategies: Telephone Interviews, Without the Hang-Ups

Valerie Fontaine and Roberta Kass
Special to
January 19, 2010

Editor's note: This is the second article in a series providing interview tips and techniques for attorneys. A link to the first article in the series follows this article.

In this economy, prospective employers are looking to save money wherever possible, and telephone interviews can be cost-effective. Phone interviews usually are used by prospective employers for screening candidates to determine whether to spend the time and money for a face-to-face interview. Telephone interviews can be especially useful in situations where the candidate lives in a different city from the employer, or to determine whether the candidate possesses a specific, possibly esoteric, expertise, which would create a reason for a personal interview. At minimum, an initial telephone contact will validate statements made on the resume and will be used to assess the candidate's personality, oral communication skills and level of interest in the employer and the opportunity.

As a candidate, your objective is to assure the prospective employer that an in-person interview is warranted. Telephone interviews are often a make-or-break situation and must be taken as seriously as in-person interviews.


In most cases telephone interviews are scheduled in advance. Determine whether it is best to have the interview at home or in your office, whether you will be making or receiving the call, the exact time (taking time zones into consideration) and the name(s) and phone number(s) of all parties who will be involved. When scheduling the interview, take advantage of any time zone differences to allow you to have the interview at home before or after work, but still within the interviewer's regular business hours. Ask how long the interview is expected to take.

If, for some reason, the interviewer does not call or is unavailable at the appointed hour, be sure to call the interviewer and leave a message expressing your interest and a request to reschedule the interview.

Although you will usually have advance warning of a telephone interview, there are times when a prospective employer might just pick up the phone and surprise you with a call, so it is best to be prepared. If you receive a surprise call and it is not a good time or place for you to talk, ask whether you may call back and make appropriate arrangements, as outlined above. If you decide to take the unplanned call when it comes, ask the interviewer to hold a few seconds, take a deep breath, center yourself and forge ahead.


During your job search, make sure that you have a message machine or voice mail available, that the outgoing message sounds professional (i.e., no music, sound effects, jokes, funny voices or children), and that you check your messages frequently. For all job search conversations, use a static-free phone, preferably not a cell or speakerphone, which can cut out or sound hollow or tinny. Ask your secretary to hold calls, or, if at home, ignore call waiting.


In preparing for the phone interview, research the companies and positions for which you are applying and have that material handy. Also, have your resume by the phone, including a listing of representative transactions or cases, notes regarding points you would like to make and questions to ask, along with your references' names and telephone numbers. Have your calendar within reach in order to schedule the follow-up personal interview at the end of your conversation.

Keep a pad and pen handy to take notes during your phone interview. Do not use the computer, because the clatter of keys can be heard and is distracting. Your interviewers may wonder if you are answering e-mail during the conversation.

Have a glass of water by the phone and be ready five minutes early. Be in a quiet place, turn off the television or music, banish any barking dogs and ask your co-workers, family or roommates to be quiet and not to disturb you during this important phone call. Stand up in order get your energy going. Warm up your voice -- and smile (it can almost be heard over the telephone).

Dress in a businesslike manner to put yourself in the proper frame of mind and sit or stand with good posture. Although your interviewer cannot see you, these things affect the quality of the image you project through your voice. You want your interviewer to imagine you perfectly groomed and sitting in an office, rather than lounging in your pajamas.


The primary disadvantage of a telephone interview is that non-verbal communication is lacking; everything must be communicated through your voice. Therefore, speak slowly and clearly with moderate volume and plenty of enthusiasm, positive energy and inflection, keeping your mouth about an inch away from the mouthpiece. Do not eat, chew gum or smoke. (We can hear you puffing away through the phone). Always answer your phone in a professional manner, whether at home or at work, because you never know who may be calling.


After the initial introductions and pleasantries, open with a positive expression of your interest, based on what you have learned about the opportunity and the firm. Then say, "I am looking forward to a personal meeting with you. In the meantime, what can I tell you about my qualifications?" Be prepared with a brief "commercial" summarizing your strengths and accomplishments, tailored to the position you are seeking.

Throughout the interview, use interesting, descriptive language and proper grammar rather than slang ("yes" rather than "yeah"). Do not use profanity under ANY circumstances, even if your interviewer does so. Avoid fillers such as "ums" and "errs". Try to avoid yes or no answers; answer in short, complete sentences. Conversely, do not run off at the mouth. You might want to ask a trusted friend for feedback on your telephone technique and/or practice with a tape recorder beforehand.


Make sure you get all parties' names with proper spelling and pronunciation, titles, addresses and telephone numbers (sometimes there are several interviewers on speakerphone). Periodically, use their name (their surname until invited to do otherwise). Say "yes" or "I see", and repeat their words to let them know you are listening. Ask follow-up questions. Don't rush, interrupt or contradict the interviewer.

Make sure you understand the question before you answer. Answer directly, and ask if the interviewer needs additional information. Take notes of the major points of the conversation, and, if the interviewer is interrupted, say, "we were discussing ... ." An excellent technique for establishing rapport is to match the interviewer's rate of speech, volume and pitch (within your own personality range, of course).


During a telephone interview, most of the same rules of in-person interviewing apply. Never say anything on the telephone you would not say in person. Stick to business, and don't let your guard down.


Summarize your qualifications and ask for a face-to-face interview. Say something like, "This seems to be an interesting and challenging opportunity. With my background and expertise, I believe I could make a valuable contribution to your firm. When can we meet to discuss the position in further detail?" Offer some dates that would be convenient for you.

Before hanging up, confirm any agreements for follow-up actions, such as arrangements for an in-person interview or plans to send requested materials, such as writing samples or transcripts. Thank the interviewer at the end of the conversation.


Remember that the best way to get a real feel for a firm is through a face-to-face interview. Therefore, even if you are not excited about an opportunity at the end of the telephone interview, do not jump to conclusions. It could be that the caller is not a good phone interviewer and that you do not have all the information you need in order to make a decision. Hence, if you are lukewarm, ask for that personal interview anyway.


After your phone interview, send a thank you note or e-mail mentioning some of the points discussed, and reiterating your interest in the opportunity. Send any requested material immediately. If, after reviewing your notes, you have some questions, a follow-up call or e-mail is appropriate. Just make sure that your questions are legitimate, intelligent ones and not merely an obvious excuse for contact.


Read other articles in the "Interview Strategies" series:

  1. Interview Strategies: the Basics
  2. Interview Strategies: Telephone Interviews, Without the Hang-Ups
  3. Interview Strategies: Handling Mealtime Interviews With Aplomb
  4. Interview Strategies: Facing and Acing a Panel Interview
  5. Interview Strategies: The Challenges of a Coffee 'Date'
  6. Interview Strategies: Get Ready for Your Video Close-Up
  7. Interview Strategies: Navigating the Question Minefield
  8. Interview Strategies: What Questions Should You Ask?
  9. Interview Strategies: Mind Your Mannerisms
  10. Interview Strategies: Handling a Callback
  11. Interview Strategies: Taking the Show on the Road
  12. Interview Strategies: Be a Powerful Closer
  13. Interview Strategies: A Flawless Follow-Up