Job Interview By Phone? - What to Say


10 years later, in 1993, I finally realized the mistake I had made. It wasn't until I noticed a pattern in some of the weaker candidates I was interviewing that I realized I had been making the same mistake myself.

If you know me, I'm a pretty chipper person. Usually a pretty positive guy. And throughout my career I've generally kept a great attitude and I've been able to recover gracefully from the inevitable disappointments that happen.

But back then I was in a slump. I was de-motivated because I was at a company selling an uncompetitive product I didn't really believe in. I started to feel really beat down. If you've ever been on the job hunt for an extended period of time, then you know what I mean.

So I started looking around and interviewing for a new position. And in those days the "screener" interview by phone was the absolute first point of contact after you sent in your paper resume. There was no social media for employers to use to pre-screen you like they do today.

So I was getting nibbles on my resume and some initial calls from employers, but I after my first round of phone interviews I got absolutely zero callbacks. I would do another phoner. No callback. Then another. Silence. I knew I must be doing something wrong, but I wasn't sure what. Here's what I learned the hard way:

When you do your very first call with HR ⋯ Your energy, your attitude, and your tone are what they're really looking at. They don't necessarily want to hear your personal history or a full-on sales presentation from you. They want a personable, upbeat conversation that mostly verifies the credentials on your resume and demonstrates that you are going to "fit in" at their company.

Back to my example. I had been so beat down by this job I had (and other life events at the time) that I was kind of depressed — and even though I was really excited for the positions I was going for, I didn’t always let that translate through the phone. This was a mistake.

I was also taking interview calls at my desk or in the conference room where I worked. So I was often kind of speaking in hushed tones, or I would pause when my coworkers were in earshot. This was another mistake. I wasn't letting my full, likable personality shine through.

10 years later when I started doing heavy candidate screening (outbound first contact over the phone) it became really obvious to me who the GOOD candidates were — and they weren't the "hushed" candidates who sounded tired. They spoke quickly, confidently, in a friendly way. They laughed at appropriate times. They were likable. I felt like I could probably bring them in to the office with the confidence that they would reflect well on me.

I could "hear their smile" through the phone.

You may have heard this phrase before, and it does sound saccharine … but it’s so true!

So that was part of my problem at the time. Even though I was qualified enough on paper to get the first HR interview by phone, I was blowing it by my lack of energy and the fact that I was kind of whispering, and keeping it "official" rather than being me usual jovial self.

On the contrary, when I was doing the screening, I was pleasantly surprised that the good candidates were asking the right questions on that first call ... questions about the company or the position that:

  • Show the HR screener or hiring manager that you've done your homework, and
  • Get them to start selling the company to you, rather than you selling yourself to them.

When I heard this pattern, I finally realized that maybe I didn’t know how to LISTEN that well back then. Or think about other peoples’ goals and what motivates them. I wasn’t putting myself in their position. I talked too much. I wasn’t thinking about what they were looking for. I made it more complicated than it needed to be.

… So ask yourself, who would you rather work with? Someone who smiles and sounds upbeat, or someone who doesn’t? This type of question operates at the unconscious level when they are screening you, and it matters more than you might think.

So here's a point of advice: keep your energy level high during the call. Stand up. Smile. Look at yourself in the mirror, if you need to. You are "meeting" the person for the first time. Make a good impression just like you are shaking hands with them in person.

Let them "hear your smile" through the phone. Pretty basic advice, but you'd be surprised. It's the difference between someone who gets called in for a face-to-face and someone who gets no callback.

What to say when HR calls

The HR person is your generally your friend. They WANT to get you (or somebody else) into a meeting with the hiring manager. They WANT to like you; they WANT to believe in you. Give them what they want.

But the HR person is also the “bouncer” at the velvet rope — they are there to screen you out if you don’t pass their test. Keep in mind that if they bring you in, your personal presentation is going to reflect on their professional judgment.

So, here's some advice on what to say to start your call:

  • If you are expecting to do a job interview by phone, don't answer with an empty "hello" — followed by silence and crickets.
  • Answer using your first name. Keep it professional. After years in business, when answering the phone I always say "Good afternoon, this is Bob."
  • Try saying it out loud: "Good afternoon, this is _______________."

Sorry if I'm insulting your intelligence here! 😛 ... but you wouldn't believe the number of qualified-seeming candidates that start out on the wrong foot on the first call. Don't be one of those people.

Again, you are making a first impression. Saying a couple more syllables when you answer the phone for your interview gives the caller a better sense of your vibe, right off the bat. It makes THEM more comfortable. Use your first name when you answer, and be upbeat. Set the tone.

Caller: "Hi, this is Alan Smithee calling from XYZ corp. We got your resume and I wanted to ask you a couple questions. Is this a good time?"

You: "Oh great, thanks so much for calling! Yes, please, go ahead. How can I help you?"

Or: "Fantastic. I'm glad you called. Yes it's a great time to talk! What can I do for you?"

Or: "Oh hi Alan, I'm so glad you called! I've been really excited to speak with you guys but I'm in the middle right now. Can I shift gears then call you back in about 10? ... What number should I ring you at? Ok, 10 minutes. Thanks! bye bye."

If this is your first call, you've got to expect some standard "screener" questions that are used to see how interested you really are:

"So, what do you know about our company?"

"Ok, tell me a little bit about yourself"

I'm not going to go into specific answers in this article (try here: phone interview tips) but what I will do is give you some good questions for YOU to ask while you are on the call.

Questions To Ask The Interviewer

YOU: "How would you describe the company culture there? Is it a good environment? What do you like about working there? (this lets them be personal. Plus, HR people love talking about "company culture")

"Is it a new position, or how did it open up?"

"Do you have any tips or advice you could offer me?"

Remember, you're just trying to confirm their suspicions that you are a confident, competent professional — so you get invited in for a meeting. So keep it brief, be upbeat & conversational, and get yourself invited in:

"Alan, can I get your email address and the best phone number for you?" (don't forget this)

"It sounds like a great opportunity and I'd love to be able to come in and meet in person."

"That sounds a great match for my skills and experience. Do you have your calendar out? ... When could we meet in person?"

Your Action Items / Next Steps

— Prepare with this free .pdf on common interview questions and answers

— Don’t ask any questions that could be answered with a simple google search.

— Let them “hear your smile” through the phone. Keep your energy level up. Be business appropriate.

— Ask some questions to get them to sell to you. Keep it brief. Don’t forget to get their contact info. Close the deal by asking to schedule a time for you to come in. Always ask for the interview!