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How to Ace Telephone Job Interviews

JUNE 02, 2003

If he played baseball, Kevin Arensdorf would be an all-star; he's batting .500. A UNIX systems admin istrator at Iowa Telecom in Newton , Iowa , Arensdorf has had phone interviews for four different jobs, and he's landed two of them, including his current one. Rick Sheeley is also hitting well in the telephone-interview game. Previously an independent IT contractor who had many jobs and now a data warehouse admin istrator at a major Las Vegas casino company, Sheeley has had about 100 telephone interviews over the past 25 years and estimates that he has landed 15 to 17 jobs from them.

Telephone interviews are becoming more common in today's soft IT hiring market because they save time and money compared with face-to-face interviews. Here are some tips for job seekers to boost their success rates when interviewing by phone.

First, recognize that in most cases, telephone interview are used to screen candidates, not to hire them, says Edwin Pollock, regional president in San Francisco at career management company Bernard Haldane Associates. "They're asking questions to cut down the pack."

That means your goal for the interview should be to secure a face-to-face interview, not to get the job, notes Laurie Levenson, president of DirectAccess Staffing Inc., an IT staffing firm in Carlsbad , Calif. Show your enthusiasm. If you're in another city, say you'd be happy to fly in for a personal interview.

Don't be overbearing, and don't oversell yourself; just work to get to the next level, recommends Ken Hill, who worked for 17 years in human resources before moving over to IT. He's now CIO at defense contractor General Dynamics Corp. in Falls Church , Va.

Make clear how technically adept you are. Look for articles about a prospective employer's IT department, Hill advises. For example, you might learn that it has just finished an SAP implementation. Try to tie that piece of information to your own background and experience.

And don't assume that it will be easy to get the next interview. For instance, for any given IT position, Jace Mouse, manager of application development at in Chicago , conducts about 15 telephone interviews and asks only four candidates to come in for a face-to-face meeting.

Don't try to wing a telephone interview. "My first objective [in a telephone interview] is to see how seriously the candidate prepared," says Oren Ezra, vice president of products services at Atlanta-based Jacada Ltd., which develops legacy-integration applications. "If they haven't taken the time, I get disinterested very quickly."

Preparation Is Key

One benefit of a phone interview is that you can have all your research laid out on your desk because the interviewer can't see you. Take advantage of this.

Sheeley tries to anticipate questions about his technical skills and prepares a cheat sheet with notes about his experiences with technologies and his project successes.

Be ready to describe a few of your accomplishments. Arensdorf makes sure he's comfortable and prepared and in a quiet place for the interview. He reviews his resume and research material beforehand. He likes to schedule interviews in the morning, leaving the rest of the day for other things.

Research the employer. "One of things that turns me off the quickest is the candidate who doesn't know what we're about," says Hill. Candidates who prepare have the edge over those who don't.

Jeff Markham, a manager in the San Francisco office of staffing and placement firm Robert Half Technology, says a lot of candidates take the telephone interview for granted, thinking that the company liked their resumes and that it's just a formality to get interviews. Not true. You can't make up for a lack of preparation with personality, body language or eye contact when doing a telephone interview, he explains.

Phone interviews tend to be fairly short -- 15 to 45 minutes. So be prepared to talk more about what projects you have worked on and what you have done rather than the actual skills you have, says Hill.

Provide Your Own ROI

And don't underestimate the interview's importance. Says Markham : "A few years ago, people got jobs just by having certifications. Today, you've got to be able to break down your accomplishments and provide specific ROI." For example, if a programmer claims C++ development as a strength, Markham might say, "Give me an example of an application you developed with C++ that had measurable results, where it was better, faster, stronger."

Jacada's Ezra likes candidates who are "proactive" and ask him questions about the company, its competitors and growth opportunities on the job. "These types of questions show me the candidate is confident," he says.

Anything you can do to help the interviewer picture you in the job position will help move you to the next level, says Mouse. One of the best candidates he ever interviewed talked about the most difficult challenges he had on the job, specific solutions he devised for them and the benefits that followed. The candidate then asked if there were similar challenges in Mouse's organization. "He let me know what he succeeded in and weaved in a probing question about my company," Mouse recalls.

And smile. Yes, smile, even though the interviewer can't see you. "The other person can hear [a smile]," says Levenson. Show enthusiasm and interest. This is more important with a telephone interview than a face-to-face one because you have such limited interaction with the interviewer.

Horowitz is a freelance business and technology writer in Salt Lake City . Contact him at


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