How to Get Past the Phone Screen, Every Time

February 16th, 2011 § 1 comment

I’ve been getting a decent response rate to my applications, but I seem to be getting weeded out during the phone interviews. Could you provide some information about how to get past these gateway phone interviews and what the interviewers are really looking for?

With hundreds of applicants for each opening, the initial phone interview has become a crucial tool for professional recruiters. Expect a phone screen to be much shorter than an in-person meeting – 20 to 30 minutes at most – and to touch superficially on a large number of topics as rather than delving deeply into a few. Usually conducted by an HR or recruiting professional, it’s nearly guaranteed you’ll be asked these three key questions that are the pillars of every interview.

Tell me about your experience.

This topic has been covered elsewhere but it always bears repeating. Know backwards and forwards each job, accomplishment and bullet point you list on your resume. When asked something such as, “do you have experience with the Great Plains accounting software?” the correct answer is not simply “yes.” Articulate about everything you’re asked by the interviewer. A great deal of what eventually will determine your success or failure in the phone screen is attributable to your general manner of speaking, something that goes beyond avoiding “like” or “um” when considering a question. Truly “knowing one’s experience” comes from the detail and context provided in your answers in addition to simply being well spoken.

Why do you think you’re a good fit for this job?

While both this question and the previous one are generally discussing one’s skills and experience, the “fit” question tends to be asked in a much more open-ended fashion, making the answer harder to craft. Preparation here begins with a thorough read and re-read of the job description you have. A requirements section will list a range of experience years, degrees, softwares and other practical qualities. Safely assume the recruiter has seen your resume, knows the number of years you have on the market and sees the degrees and technical skills they’re looking for, found during simple keyword searches. Because the interviewer picked you based on these most basic qualities, focus your preparation time on the complexities of “fit” – why the projects you’ve managed line up with the potential employer’s product roadmap or how working for a direct competitor gives you an advantage in making key business decisions. Tell a story that weaves your experience and career goals with the objectives of the company you’re interviewing with. Make them want to hear more about how you can add value to their firm – entice them enough to get you through the phone interview and into their office.

Why are you looking for a new job?

This question is always asked and, at this stage, should be quickly answered. Focus more on your technical skills and impress the potential employer with your research of the company and understanding of the job and not a number of stories about your current employer. Be prepared – really, truly prepared – with a short answer to this question. One of a few answers should almost always apply:

  • You’re looking for new career challenges that, for a concrete and stated reason, your current employer can’t provide to you
  • Opportunities for advancement are restricted at your experience level or specialty within your current employer
  • Your job is being eliminated
  • You are currently unemployed

On a phone screen, absolutely limit your answer to a short summary of one of these four points. It’s important to have your reasoning prepared to dismiss the question quickly and with confidence so that you can move on to far more important things during the short time window allotted.

Multiple failures during the phone screen process clearly means that as an interviewer, you are saying something incorrectly or approaching your preparation wrong. Consider recording your conversation (so long as you live in a one-party consent state!) so that you can review your answers and strive to improve on each word spoken during the phone screen.

It is important to not squander real opportunities in a tight market. Simply getting a response to a resume submission is an accomplishment. Treat it as such and prepare for the phone screen – your first impression on a potential employer – as much if not more than how you would handle an in person interview.

Also remember that not every job you are contacted for is indeed a good match for you. An inexperienced recruiter working with a new hiring manager may need to speak with you in more detail not as part of the vetting process but more to understand your experience and see if the job is within your skill set. There will be times where the fit isn’t there and this shouldn’t discourage you as you continue looking for a new opportunity.

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