By Christopher L. Neumann
Even experienced executives can stumble during a job search – especially during an initial conversation which typically occurs over the phone. This important stage of the executive recruiting process is a candidate’s first impression to a potential employer. If the employer is represented by an executive recruiting firm, it is critical to remember that the firm has been hired to represent its client. Knowing this, you should treat the recruiter(s) the same as you would anyone at the hiring organization. A memorable phone conversation is important. Executive recruiters will be more inclined to advance your candidacy if you are effective in engaging in a meaningful dialogue and conveying experience and skills relevant to the hiring organization’s needs. A candidate’s initial impression will also be discussed and sets the tone for how your candidacy is received.
During an initial phone conversation, part of the recruiter’s job is to determine your level of interest in the position. Communication style and level of professionalism are also noted during the phone interview. The hiring organization expects the recruiter to present thoroughly vetted candidates who fit with the organization’s culture and are best equipped for the opportunity. The phone interview is where everything starts.
There are a few things to keep in mind before, during, and after phone interviews. Best practices are highlighted below, as are “Classic Phone Interview Mistakes to Avoid.”
- Do your homework. Prepare as if you are meeting the hiring manager or executive team in person. Review the job description in detail and research the organization as best you can. This includes looking up recent news, financial performance, marketplace feedback, and researching the backgrounds of key leaders, especially those within the department you have applied to be a part of or lead. Also, researching the person you will be speaking with is a good practice. You may find out that you have something in common, which makes you more memorable.
- Be inquisitive. Come up with a list of a few broad questions. These can be as straightforward as to why the position is open, to what the most important goals or objectives are that measure success, to what type of leader fits well in the organizational culture. If you have more detailed questions, those will come in handy later in the interview process and will also help the interviewer gauge your level of interest.
- Create the right environment. Find a quiet and private place to speak for at least 30 minutes. Use a landline if possible as these are more reliable than cell phones and do not have the risk of poor reception or a dropped call. If a landline is not an option, make sure to test out the signal strength and quality of where you will be speaking and fully charge your phone. Do not get too comfortable, as your tone could become relaxed and lethargic if you are lounging. Also, have water with you in case you need to clear your voice between responses.
During the Call
- Be friendly and thankful. Start the discussion with friendly pleasantries and thank your interviewer for their time up front. If you have time constraints, be up front about when you will need to hang up. This will help your interviewer guide the conversation and touch on the more important topics. You should also be prepared to start the interview by describing your interest or potential interest in the position – it is a natural conversation starter and the reason you are speaking in the first place.
- Give strong responses. Your answers should be straightforward and clearly answer the interviewer’s questions. Avoid speaking in generalities, hypotheticals or giving responses which are too broad. Candidates should be clear about their professional experiences by giving examples of accomplishments, ideally with data or specific instances supporting your answers. You can anticipate questions and prepare answers by reviewing materials ahead of time.
- Be self-aware. Initial phone interviews typically last 30 minutes, so do not spend too much time answering one question. You want to engage your interviewer, but not dominate the conversation. Being long-winded will put the interviewer in a tough spot, as they have certain areas they will want to cover and need to devote ample time for each. If the interviewer would like more detail about your response, they will likely ask you to elaborate further. You can also check with the interviewer if you are giving them the type of answers they are looking for after responding.
- Wrap up right. Towards the end of the conversation, ask the interviewer if there is anything else you can provide or if there are any outstanding questions. If the recruitment timeline was not stated in the job description or at the beginning of the call, ask your interviewer so you know when you will be hearing from them next. Asking what potential next steps are is also appropriate at this stage as it shows you are engaged and interested in continuing dialogue.
- Say thanks. Send a short thank you email to your interviewer. While a handwritten thank you note will always be memorable, it is more appropriate to do so later in the recruitment process.
- Pose additional questions. If you have any outstanding questions or think of questions you did not get a chance to ask, do not wait to ask them. A follow-up email thanking your interviewer and listing a few brief questions highlights your continued interest in the job.
- Continue to prepare. As a candidate, you will either be invited in for a more formal in-person interview or given the feedback that the focus will be on other candidates. Be prepared for either outcome. If you are invited to an in-person interview, make sure to get further feedback from the initial interviewer on who you will be meeting with and what areas they will be most interested in discussing with you. If you are regrettably not chosen for next steps, solicit advice on where you fell short during the phone interview or what you could have done better to present your candidacy.
- Keep in touch. Make sure to keep a positive relationship with the interviewer or recruiter as other opportunities may arise in the future. This is especially true with recruiters who work on multiple engagements at a time or have colleagues who may have opportunities you could be interested in.
Classic Phone Interview Mistakes to Avoid
- DWI (Driving While Interviewing): The odds of a dropped call are increased, and the quality of your voice over a Bluetooth connection is diminished.
- WWI (Walking While Interviewing): While pacing may help you think while talking, it also can speed up your answers. You may also run into disruptions or unknown dead zones with poor cell reception in your home or office.
- IWS (Interviewing When Sick): If you happen to become ill prior to your phone interview, reschedule it. While it is commendable to push through when not feeling well, your energy level and lethargic demeanor could be noticeable over the phone.
- FED (Forgetting Environmental Disturbances): Executive recruiters encounter candidate phone interview blunders all the time including dropped calls, candidates sounding like they are underwater, or hearing pets, kids, spouses and other distracting sounds in the background. Anticipate these potential problems and do what you can to minimize them.
- STC (Serious Time Crunch): If you fail to block off enough time for the phone call or are not up front about any time constraints and you time expires before the interview is complete, your interviewer may need to schedule additional time to speak with you. This can hurt any momentum you may have had during the first call or be perceived as unprofessional and not respectful of your interviewer’s time.
Phone interviewing is an opportunity for you to put your best voice forward as a candidate. Failure to prepare and/or treat this initial step as important in the interview process will result in a negative first impression. This could derail your candidacy before you have the chance to meet anyone in-person. It could also be your first step to landing that dream position.
Christopher L. Neumann is a senior associate based in Witt/Kieffer’s Irvine, California office. Chris identifies executive leaders on behalf of hospitals, health systems, academic medical centers and managed care organizations nationwide. He has nearly 10 years of experience in executive recruiting, client service and sales.