How to Prepare for a Phone Interview

An early step of any interview process is the phone screen. It can make or break your application process, especially if the position you're seeking requires excellent communication skills. This is your first impression on a company and you need to make it count. The phone screener could be a recruiter, a hiring manager, or just a company employee. Regardless who it is, we've had experience on both ends of the process and have some tips to help you ace your next phone interivew.

We talked with a long-time recruiter and a VP of hiring, both from a fast-growing startup company that has plans to hire over 50 people in the next year. As part of their hiring process, a phone interview is required right off the bat. According to them and other companies, less than 20% of candidates make it past the initial phone screen stage. We have some valuable insights that should help you beat those odds.

5 Expert Tips on Preparing for a Phone Interview

Tip #1: Know the Company Product or Service

You wouldn't believe how many phone screens we've gone through where the candidate hasn't really looked at what the company does. For example, we've seen candidates interviewing to work at a company that creates content. If you're asked about your opinion of the content the company creates, you better be ready to provide some sort of answer. Part of knowing the company product or service before your initial inteview is also being able to ask good questions. One of the best ways to tell if a candidate is both intelligent and curious on the phone is the type of questions they ask. Some people don't ask anything, which shows a lack of interest. Others ask the wrong questions because they're not prepared. If you take the time to dig into the product or service, you'll ask the right questions and the person on the other end of the phone at the company will feel like you just "get it".

You can also stand out above other candidates by using your research and knowledge of the company to your advantage. One strategy that we've seen in successful phone screens is to actually offer an opinion about the product or service, especially if it's a criticism. Just be sure that what you're saying has some validation. Hiring managers are looking for candidates to stand out, and this type of comment is usually not taking negatively because most people aren't satsified with their current product or service. As employees or company owners, we're always looking ahead to the next thing and have many ideas swirling about how to make improvements. As a candidate, if you're able to form that connection by recognizing a weakness that is already known within the company, you can stand out above the rest.

Tip #2: Be Prepared to Discuss Your Background

At the most basic level, you should be able to tell your story. If there are any question marks or holes in your resume, be ready to answer those. For example, if you've changed jobs three times in the past two years, it's going to be something you should be prepared to speak to. You don't have to shy away from the topic, but it's good to explain that you're always looking to grow, learn, and develop more so you continue to seek out the right opportunity.

As you go through your resume history and background, you should think about how to match your previous job experience to open position at the company you're interested in. If your experience isn't completely relevant, use your interests and personal history to make the connection. As you go through the process of explaining your work history, be sure to share what you did at the company. One big mistake we see with candidates is the focus on we accomplishments. Every company is looking to hire someone who drives results, so don't be surprised if you're asked specfically how you contributed to the success of a team or initiative.

Tip #3: Eliminate Distractions and Background Noise

This is basic phone ettiquette but you'd be surprised how often people don't take phone screens seriously because it's not a face-to-face interaction. Don't take your phone interview in a coffee shop, outside, or anywhere that will create distractions for you or distractions for the person on the other end of the phone. We've heard stories of people doing the dishes, driving in the car, and even getting kicked out of a conference room while on the line at their current job. If you're taking this seriously and you want the job, take the time to prepare your surroundings for a pleasant phone experience.

Tip #4: Prepare Answers for These Questions

  • What interests you most about the position?
  • What are your impressions of the position and what do you think you'll be doing?
  • Why would you be a good fit?
  • What are your goals in the next 5 years?
  • What's the most important accomplishment of your career?

The questions above are some of the common things you should expect on an initial phone interview. They might not be the exact questions, but if you prepare answers for these, you'll be prepared for just about anything. Let's look at question individually and discuss what the hiring manager or recruiter is looking for.

What interests you most about the position?

The interviewer is looking for you to understand the company, have some self-awareness, and show enthusiasm. This is where you can show passion and excitement for what the company is doing and why you think you'd fit in. It's about the company and the position so don't be afraid to touch on both. Also, just keep in mind that this question usually gets the conversation started so you'll want to get off on the right foot. Let's be honest, nobody really enjoys a phone screen -- everyone has other work to get to. However, if you can make a good first impression in a conversational way, you'll capture the attention of the interviewer and keep them engaged.

What are your impressions of the position and what do you think you'll be doing?

Be sure to reread the job description and try to understand it as best you can in the context of the company. You wouldn't believe how obvious it is when someone is applying to hundreds of positions and comes unprepared to a phone interview. Those type of people do not bring perspective and are looking to be told exactly what the position entails vs. coming in with some idea (even if you aren't exactly sure). You can always take your best guess and then ask the person if you're on the right track. It shows initiative and interest.

Why would you be a good fit?

This is your chance to align your background and experience to either the position or the company. You might have all the right experience and it's very easy to show. You might have no experience and what you want to show is why you fit into the company. Maybe you're highly adaptable, can bring new perspective, or you connect a different experience to the position. The best advice is to stay humble. Nobody wants to listen to someone brag about how great they would be. Make the connection and draw on your experiences, but show that you're excited to learn more.

What are your goals in the next 5 years?

No question trips people up more than this one. There's no right answer here, but plenty of wrong ones. Generally speaking, people respect others who have goals. You should think through yours and hopefully the goals you come up with are attainable, but also stretch goals. Show that you feel you can achieve big things that are within reason and that you have a specific interest in goals. You can even say that you aren't sure about which path you want to go down, but you have a few sets of different goals depending on the route you choose. Ultimately, it shows that you have thoughts together, you're reflective, and forward-thinking.

What's the most important accomplishment of your career?

With this question, there are two things to keep in mind to answer properly. First, talk about your accomplishment and contribution to that. If it is a team accomplishment and that's all you have, clearly explain your role and how it lead to that success. Second, make sure the interviewer can understand what you're talking about. If you get extremely technical about your accomplishment in your current job or previous job that nobody can relate to, it will have no impact. We've heard over and over that candidates try to impress by getting into the technical nature of their work and accomplishments, but all that happens is that you lose the attention of the person on the phone. Keep it simple and stay humble.

Tip #5: Be Ready for the Next Steps Questions

At the end of a positive phone interview, you'll likely encounter some questions that will determine how the company wants to proceed. You should be prepared to answer when your start date would be. It's amazing how many people go through the interview process, but don't actually think about the logistics of leaving their current position. Keep in mind, companies are usually looking to hire and train fast. You can hurt yourself by not being available within the next two weeks to a month.

Other questions you'll likely encounter will revolve around your salary expectations, if you're interviewing with other companies, and your availability for next steps in the interview process. Our advice when it comes to these questions is to answer them as honestly as possible. The salary question can get very tricky at times, but we recommend giving a salary range that you're seeking. After you provide that, you can ask if it's in line with what the employer is thinking. It helps to do your research ahead of time and use a site like Glassdoor to confirm you're in the right ballpark. No use wasting your time or anyone else's time being way off on salary. There's no harm in being honest about interviewing with other companies either. If you are, it could make things more urgent. If you're not, you can act more passive to the employer, and state that you're content at your current position but just keeping your eyes open for other opportunities. Lastly, just be prepared with your schedule in case the interviewer wants to schedule something else right away.