How to perform well in a Telephone Interview

What are they?

They are real interviews held over the phone rather than face-to-face. You will usually be interviewed by a member of the graduate recruitment or HR team.

A telephone interview will usually be given to candidates who have passed the online application and/or psychometric test stage of the graduate recruitment process and is used to sift out applicants to be invited to a face-to-face interview or assessment centre.

Who uses telephone interviews?

You are more likely to have a telephone interview with one of the large corporate recruiters than with a small or medium sized company. Telephone interviews are used by all kinds of employers – banks, accountancy and law firms, consultancies, retailers, manufacturing companies etc

Companies that use telephone interviews include Tesco, HSBC, Corus, BT, Lloyds of London, Shell, GlaxoSmithKline, Vodaphone, BSkyB and many others.

They are especially common for sales-related jobs, such as recruitment consultancy and particularly (surprise!) telesales, where verbal communication skills are paramount.

You may also expect a telephone interview if you are applying for jobs abroad – in which case calls may come in at all hours of the day or night!

How long do they last?

Based on a small sample of 14 Kent students who have had telephone interviews recently, they varied in length from 20 minutes to 1 hour, with the average length being half an hour: see the pie chart on the right for details.

Advantages of telephone interviews

For the employer:

  • They are time and cost-effective – most last about 20-25 minutes.
  • They test your verbal communication skills and telephone technique.

For you:

  • You can refer (quickly!) to your application form, take notes – even hold on to your teddy bear for moral support.
  • You don’t need to dress up or smarten up.
  • You don’t need to spend time traveling to interview or wonder if the employer will pay your expenses.

Disadvantages of telephone interviews (for you)

“Very distant and cold style of interview: no chitchat. They only want to know if you can fill their criteria. High rate of questions. Not at all easy but a good experience. “

  • You can’t see the interviewer to gauge their response.
  • Tension – you never know when an employer might call to interview you.
  • They can seem to go very quickly, without giving you much time to think about your answers – so be well prepared!

The advertisement may ask you to ‘phone the company.

This gives you total control over the time and place of the interview – although means that you will have to pay for the call. At the time arranged, make sure you are in a quiet location and that you will not be disturbed during the call.

. . or they may phone you in response to your CV/application form

You will normally be advised when the telephone call will be made so always be prepared for this:

One company had telephone screening interviews with 10 graduates and not one had done any research into the company, leading to every single one being rejected! See our commercial awareness page

    • Keep your mobile with you, charged, topped up and switched on at the appropriate time! Make sure that the reception is OK.
    • If you have given a landline number, and share a house with other students/graduates or live in the family home, try and prepare other people in the house for these calls and prevent replies such as: “’Lo. Uh? Who? Oh, right – OI! DAVE! IT’S FOR YOU!”
    • Try and take the phone to as quiet and private a location as possible.
    • If the call does come unexpectedly and you are not prepared say “Thank you for calling, do you mind waiting for a minute while I close the door/turn off the radio/take the phone to a quieter room?”. This will give you a little time to compose yourself.
    • If it really is a bad time, offer to call back, fix a time and stick to it.
    • Check your answerphone message: is it one that you would want a prospective employer to hear? Does it give a professional impression? If not, change it – just in case you do miss a call for any reason.

Telephone Interview Tips

  • Keep a copy of your application and information on the company handy, plus a pen and notepad to take notes. Have your laptop turned on if your application is on this.
  • Before the call, make a list of your USP’s (unique selling points): the things that make you better in some ways than most of the other people who will be applying.
  • Don’t just read out your notes as this will sound stilted.
  • It’s useful to have a glass of water to hand during a phone interview (but move the phone away from your mouth when you swallow …). You will be doing a lot of talking and you don’t want your mouth to dry up at a crucial moment!
  • Smile when you dial! (and, more importantly, when you speak): it really does make a difference to your tone of voice.
  • Although the interviewer can’t see you, you may find it easier to come over in a “professional” manner if you are sitting at a desk or table rather than lounging in bed.
  • In a face to face interview, you show that you are listening via non-verbal signals such as nodding your head.
  • Over the phone you have to show this by the occasional “OK”, “uh-huh”, “I see”, “I understand”, “yes” or similar interjections.
  • Listen very carefully to the interviewer and try to answer with a lively tone of voice. Speak clearly and not too fast.
  • Reflect back what the speaker is saying in other words. This shows you’re listening carefully and checks you are understanding. It is often the most useful way of giving positive feedback to someone: “I hear what you’re saying and take it seriously”. You can’t keep saying “uh-huh” or “yes” for too long without it sounding false.
  • Immediately after the interview, write down the questions you were asked and any ways in which you could have improved your responses.

Example Questions

  • How you choose your university degree?
  • Why do you want to work for our organisation?
  • Why do you want to work in the job you have applied for?
  • What qualities are important to work in the role you are applying for?
  • What evidence can you give to show you possess these qualities?
  • What do we do?
  • Are you willing to be mobile on the job?
  • Tell me a time you have demonstrated teamwork/communication.
  • Tell me about a time when you have had to cope with pressure
  • Tell me about a challenge you have faced. How did you conduct the challenge? What were the advantages and disadvantages of your method? The steps you took? The results?
  • Describe a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer?
  • When have you used your initiative to achieve a goal?
  • Can you mention a time when you have used your leadership skills?
  • When have you set yourself a goal? What challenges did you face?
  • Describe a time when you have exceeded a customer’s expectations
  • Describe when you had to motivate others?
  • What do you think is important when communicating with people?
  • What skills do you have to offer to a team?
  • What is your greatest strength?
  • Why shouldn’t we hire you?
  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
  • What do you think your job would involve doing?
  • Commercial awareness – what has been in news recently that would affect our organisation?
  • Do you have any questions for us?
  • Will I be given any tests?

“The telephone is such an important invention that one day every town will have one”

Alexander Graham Bell

Perhaps – tests can quite easily be administered over the phone. The interviewer may read out a series of statements and you will be asked to say if you agree or disagree. Sometimes this can be done by pressing the telephone keys.

The tests involved are more likely to be personality-type questions than reasoning tests

For example, you may be asked to rate the extent to which you felt the following activities reflect your personal style, from 1 (not at all) to 5 (a lot):

  • Meeting new people
  • Setting yourself targets to achieve
  • Working on your own
  • Repairing mechanical equipment

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