Better Phone Interviews

A reader writes, "I hire the salespeople for my company. Peers in a roundtable group recommended speaking with candidates over the phone first, then inviting them to come in for a face-to-face interview if I still think they're right for the job. I tried it once, ending up spending over an hour on the phone with the candidate. Though I didn't think they were right for the open position, I had them come in for an interview. I didn't know how not to. What's the purpose of a phone interview anyway?"

Properly handled, phone interviews serve as a time saver and important component of the hiring process. 

Select the Questions

Before picking up the phone, give some thought to what you'd like to learn about the candidate. Consider the type of sales position you're hiring for, the make-up of the current sales staff, and any other factors you deem relevant.

Then come up with a list of questions. For a client at a very fast-paced company, I asked candidates to describe the culture at their current employer. If a company has a short or lengthy sales cycle, I recommend asking applicants to describe the length and steps of the sales cycle for the product or service they presently sell.  

Use open-ended questions that don't give away the answer you're looking for.

Length of the Interview

Different styles exist for phone interviews. Mine run no more than 15 - 20 minutes. Some people limit it to five minutes.  Most everyone asks a pre-determined number of questions (I ask 6 - 8).  

Ask the exact same questions of all candidates. Never deviate. Doing so allows you to compare the candidates' answers more objectively after you have spoken to all of them.

Be Clear

Call the candidates you have some initial interest in. Say something like, "After reviewing your resume, I'd like to speak with you further about our open sales position.  Are you still interested?"

If they say yes, continue with, "I'll be conducting phone interviews with all candidates. The interview should last between 15 - 20 minutes."

Some hiring executives call the candidate, ask if they have a few minutes, and start the phone interview right then and there. I advocate signing them up for a mutually convenient block of time. In my experience, a relaxed, prepared candidate gives a better interview. 

Resist Engaging the Candidate

Some sales people have winning personalities. It's tempting to chat with them for a bit. Avoid doing so. Ask the questions in a neutral and professional manner. Listen to their answers. Take notes. Move on to the next question.

Handling the call this way allows you to compare the candidates more equitably when you've finished the phone interviews.

Limit their Inquiries

Once I've completed the interview, candidates ask questions about the position. I answer only one or two. I want to:

  • see if they try and take control of the interview (a good sign)
  • determine whether or not they've done some research on the company
  • bring the interview to a conclusion

Provide more information about your organization during subsequent, in-person conversations.

Ending the Interview

Struggling for a way to complete the call, hiring executives sometimes get talked into face-to-face interviews by applicants they feel aren't quite right for the job.   

Try saying something like, "I'll be speaking with candidates all this week. After I've spoken with everyone, I'll be contacting those I'm interested in about the next step."

If they push back, just repeat those words.

Benefits of the Phone

In-person interviews often last 90 minutes or more. They really drain everyone's time. A 15 or 20 minute phone interview often tells you a lot of what you need to know.

Final Thoughts

When hiring executives don't get a good feeling for someone on the phone, the face-to-face interview usually doesn't go well. Conversely, when they like what they hear on the phone, the in-person interview is more of a success. This surprises them, at first.

With more practice conducting phone interviews, the more discerning they become about whom to invite back for another conversation.