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Are you afraid of phone interviews?

By Onkar Tiwari
January 23, 2006 12:21 IST
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If you are thinking of new ways to charm your dream company, there is one skill you must master -- the phone interview.
Popular in the US and Europe since the mid-80s, it caught on in India during the Y2K era. With the clock ticking towards millennium day, IT firms needed a cheap but effective way to recruit coders. The phone interview fulfilled both criteria with constantly falling call charges and the ability to judge technical talent in real time.

However, in the intervening half decade, the old 'resume scanning followed by a regular interview' method has continued to hold fort. Government bodies still follow the exam and interview approach and large companies mostly meet their manpower needs by recruiting in bulk through job fairs and campus placements.

In addition, institutions with a strong campus placement tradition such as the top B-Schools prefer the direct approach, with recruiters and applicants interacting face to face during placement week.

"Only in emergency cases or where requirements are small/ highly specialised do recruiters take phone interviews," says Alex Joseph, a second-year student and member of the student's placement team at SIBM, Pune.

So, the question naturally arises, where does the phone interview fit in?

Why phone interviews are used

The reason for the popularity of the phone interview is different. Its strength lies is in the way it has complemented the existing resume-interview process. As a rule, if the applicant pool is widely dispersed, or limited in size, recruiters use the phone interview to avoid unnecessary travel, by sandwiching it as an elimination round between resume selection and the regular interview.

~ Sectors such as IT, telecom and banking use this tool frequently.

~ Foreign firms recruiting for onsite projects or those with a miniscule Indian presence also favour this approach. Foreign firms recruit through trusted placement consultants who do the physical verification of documents and provide on-ground facilities for phone interviews.

~ An additional advantage of the phone interview is its enormous flexibility. It lends itself to unique situations such as mid-level managers interviewing in strict confidentiality without meeting the recruiting firm (through a conference call via the placement agent), interviewers doing a regular interview with the applicant and their boss joining in on speaker phone from another city, etc.  

Despite the dramatic rise in the use of phone interviews, there is little available by way of literature and training exercises on how to prepare for one. 

So, while trainers think of ways to help you prepare and recruiters make plans to test you further, here are a few things you should remember before any phone interview.

i. It's serious business

Often, the novelty of a phone interview makes candidates drop their guard.

"Those appearing for the interview may mistake it for a 'get to know you better' session," says Manju Dubey, a freelance consultant based in Delhi who specialises in IT sector placements. "They need to remember that it's a selection test."

ii. Be consistent

A general rule for any recruitment process, this is especially important for the phone interview. Telephonic interviews are often combined with a variety of other recruitment tools. A leading Indian private bank, for example, mixes them with personality tools such as psychometric tests (written tests used to gauge your attitude and personality; there are no wrong or right answers here).

The aim of these combined tests is to immediately spot inconsistencies, so make sure you give the right message and the same message in all interactions. If you state something on your resume, and another thing in the phone interview, your chances of moving to the next step are dim.

iii. Get set for multiple rounds

Since most telephonic interviews are with a single recruiter, you may have to sit through multiple rounds, each with a different person. Most recruiters will have at least two rounds -- the first being technical, based on the subject matter, followed by an HR round to check for personality traits. Depending on the nature of the job, additional rounds are common.

"Often, the company follows up the phone interview with a video conference to test the suitability of the candidate," says Joseph. 

iv. Know your environment

At times, the interviewer will call at a time and number of your choosing. This can be used to your advantage by ensuring a familiar soundproof atmosphere, if the location is your house.

Usually the setting is more formal, with hotel business centres or the placement consultant's office being the location for the interview. The interviewer, based in another city or country, calls at a fixed time and candidates are expected to be present at the site. These are preferred as "soundproof rooms, backup phone lines as well as physical verification of documents are easily arranged," says Dubey. 

In such cases, it is a good idea to visit the site an hour or so before the interview and familiarise yourself with the phone instrument.

v. Prepare well to solve problems

The importance of the phone as a business tool is well known. Creating a list of standard questions is the bare minimum as recruiters look for those "who can diagnose and solve problems over the phone." Your interview may therefore contain role-plays where you are asked to "negotiate a deal or to diagnose a technical case study over the phone," says Mayank Tripathi, an MS from Purdue University who currently works with Andor Technologies in the US; Tripathi gave extensive phone interviews while applying for jobs.

In such a scenario, a candidate is asked to assume a role similar to the job being considered. A third person is introduced from the interviewer's side, who describes his problem and asks the applicant for a solution. For example, the applicant is a software coder and the person seeking a solution will describe the module and an error message he is getting. The candidate must give his views as to the possible reasons for the error message.

The aim of such open-ended situations is not to get a simple right or wrong answer, but to test its underlying logic. Above all, with the increasing usage of methods such as conference calls to solve technical problems, it helps judge the candidate's ability to perform in such a setting.

"Preparing a list of scenarios that a recruiter might give, followed by serious and extensive discussion with friends from a similar background, helped greatly in my phone interview with Andor Technologies," says Tripathi.

vi. Be ready with examples

The script for the phone interview is dictated entirely by your resume. Like a regular interview, all statements on it must be justifiable, preferably with examples. "We prepared three to four examples of incidents from our personal experience and made our resume keeping these in mind," says Tripathi, about his phone interviews after post-graduation.

"These are important for the HR questions such as your values and strengths; any silence to get think time does not sound good, especially on the phone."

vii. Read/ write during the interview

One of the great perks of the phone interview is that you can keep reading material with you during the interview. It is perfectly legitimate to do so, unless expressly forbidden by an on-site person monitoring it. However this must be thought out before, and the reading material arranged accordingly so that you don't spend time flipping pages during the interview.

Also, keeping written notes of your comments and the interviewers' comments is a good idea; it will help jog your memory in case you need to appear for a face-to-face interview at a later stage.

viii. Speak slowly and clearly

If the recruiter happens to be from the Far East or mainland Europe, your accent is a crucial factor, so speaking slowly and regularly can help. Even within India and with US/ UK companies, this is an advantage, especially if the quality of the phone connection is suspect.

ix. Smile, the recruiter can feel it

While the interviewer cannot see you, the tone and tenor of your voice give away your mood. It is important to understand that "if you smile, the interviewer can actually feel it. Most interviewers are experienced at conducting a phone interview and can easily judge the comfort level of the candidate, so it's important to smile and stay relaxed," adds Dubey.

x. Keep the goal in sight

A phone interview falls in the middle of the recruitment process. It's ultimate aim, as far as you are concerned, is to convince recruiters to spend time and effort to meet you offline (assuming you do want to work with the company). Therefore, before the interview, it's important to plan the level of detail you will provide. Give too little and the recruiter might not see you as the right person, give too much and the final discussion is a repetition of the phone call.

For example, if the recruiter asks for expected salary it is best to give a range rather than a precise amount. This gives both parties time to meet each other in a final interview and make a better assessment.

In conclusion, it's safe to say that if you believe your resume will be shortlisted in a recruitment process, it's highly likely you will face a phone interview soon or later.

Keeping these simple rules in mind greatly increases the probability that your phone will ring again; this time for a regular interview.


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Onkar Tiwari