7 Critical Phone Interview Mistakes Candidates Make

Phone interviews are viewed as the easiest, most painless way to interview for a new position. Think about it, you can do them from anywhere, nobody can see you and it ends up being a pretty small investment as far as your time is concerned. They also tend to be the quickest and easiest. If you are interviewing for a technical role, you might not even approach technical competencies because usually these interviews aren’t with a hiring manager. However, just because these first round phone interviews are easier than their longer, in person counterparts don’t mean they aren’t crucial to the process. In fact, in most cases if that first call doesn’t go well it will be your only contact with that company. Now I know that isn’t exactly groundbreaking however you would be surprised as to how many people end up messing something up in that first round. The thing that I consider to be most curious is that often it’s the little, easily avoidable mistakes that end up torpedoing an otherwise excellent interview. In my time in recruitment I have had thousands of first round phone interviews for hundreds of types of positions. Throughout all of these conversations I have noticed a pattern of the same easily avoidable mistakes that just keep popping up. This post will chronicle these mistakes, detail how they adversely impact you and explain how you can avoid these mistakes to make sure they never happen to you again.


  1. Not answering the call


I started with this one because it is the first opportunity you have to either do something correctly or incorrectly during your phone interview. Believe it or not this little mistake happens all the time. As a recruiter, when I call someone for an interview at a time we agreed upon and they don’t answer I can’t help but think, now why in the world would you miss this call? In fact, I think I say in my head “well that’s not a great start”. Some of you are probably thinking, “well yea, obviously that is not a great way to begin an interview, I would never do that”. To those of you with that approach, great job, your head is in the right place. However I bet a second group of you are reading this and saying to yourself, “Ben, what’s the big deal? They probably had a meeting run long or are walking to their car”. In fact, those are the two reasons why people miss the call most frequently. However I look at it like this, in terms of an interview, that’s your first impression and you will not get to make it twice. If I call someone and they don’t answer it is simply unavoidable that I don’t come away with some kind of judgment of their preparedness or perhaps the value they place on my time. The fact of the matter is, if you miss a recruiters call for a phone interview, whether or not you call them back 45 seconds or 5 minutes later, they will reach some kind of conclusion and it won’t be one that positively impacts your candidacy. So, if you feel like you might not be able to answer their call at a certain time, pick another time. It is much better to select a time the recruiter didn’t suggest then simply agree with their recommendation and miss the call.


  1. Walking to your car after you answer the phone to do the interview


So this one is kind of similar to the first mistake you can make. I can’t tell you how many times I call someone and I hear something like this, “Hi Ben, hold on (silence) one second (silence)…I am just walking ..out…to…my…car…”. When this happen I know exactly what is going on, they need to get to a place where they are free to talk. That is understandable, you can’t do an interview next to your colleagues. That just won’t work. Now it’s not the worst thing in the world but I will tell you what, it’s annoying. There have been times where I literally call someone and I am waiting four or five minutes as they walk to their car. So obviously this happens when someone is unprepared. Being unprepared never reflects well on you. You never want to have someone associate you with unpreparedness. Especially when you consider that your qualifications are being closely compared to other people who want a role. But let’s just say for the sake of argument that the recruiter doesn’t consider this a knock on your ability to adequately budget your time. Recruiters are very busy people and often if they schedule 30 minutes for you they are going to need every minute of that 30 minutes. Not only that but they may have someone they need to attend to right before your call and directly after your call. So even if it doesn’t reflect poorly on you in their eyes you might be robbing yourself of the necessary time to have a full phone interview. That three minutes you lost, will it be a question that allows you to sell yourself fully or will it perhaps be your chance to ask questions you were hoping to get answered? Either way, the fact of the matter is having less time to talk isn’t a good thing and if you can avoid it, you should. Make sure you budget extra time to get to that empty conference room or to your car.


  1. Interrupting


This one is pretty simple and straight forward. No one likes to be interrupted. Being interrupted by someone frequently makes it really hard to enjoy having a conversation with someone and it’s important that the recruiter like the conversation with you. Now some of you might be thinking, “Ben, I disagree, it’s really not that important that you like me, just that I can do the job”. And yea, there is certainly merit to that point. We don’t need to have matching friendship bracelets in order for you to be able to code in C# or for you to be able to run an effective Kiazan event. However, if there are four qualified candidates and the hiring manager has asked to see my top three, it certainly behooves you for our conversation to be a pleasant one. Nobody who gets interrupted thinks “Oh man, thank goodness this candidate interrupted me, clearly what I am saying isn’t as relevant as their thoughts”. Luckily this one is a simple fix, just be cognizant to not interrupt and if you do, say sorry.


  1. Not answering questions


One of my personal pet peeves is when I ask a direct question requiring a direct answer and I get something other than a direct answer. When I ask a question during a phone interview, it is usually something that is important to know when deciding if you are a fit for a position or perhaps even a direct question the hiring manager wants to know. So with that in mind, when I ask something like “How many years of project management experience do you have?” and I candidate says something like “well at ABC Company initially they have me in the mailroom and after that….” It drives me crazy. There are times when a question gives you the opportunity to expand and sell yourself however if none of that answer includes the answer to my initial question than you haven’t really done yourself any favors. If you have 8 years’ experience of project management then I am sitting there with my hands on my keyboard waiting to hear your number and if instead you go off on a tangent (regardless of how relevant you feel it to be) it can be pretty frustrating. If you do this one or two times than it won’t be that big of a deal.  However there are people who do this with every other question you ask them and I have to say, these might be the most frustrating people to interview. If you are asked a direct question, respond with a direct answer and if you plan on expanding, at least make sure you answer the question directly on the front end.


  1. Talking too quietly or too quickly


As someone who has spent the lion’s share of their experience recruiting engineers I have to say, this is another one that drives me crazy. Not that engineers talk more quickly or more quietly, just that they have so many acronyms and technical terms. The funny thing is that I totally understand this one, when you talk about what you do for a living you should be excited. And when people get excited or passionate they have a tendency to speak quickly. Totally understandable, however if you are trying to type down every word they are saying so the hiring manager can get an accurate picture of the conversation, this can be hard. I am always an advocate of being passionate. People buy your passion, just be cognizant of the speed at which you are answering these questions. As far as volume, sometimes this can be as simple as a weak connection. Towards the beginning of the conversation simply ask, “are you able to hear me ok?” and let the recruiter know if they have any trouble hearing you to let them know. This is simple, courteous and effective.


  1. Not having questions to ask


If you have been to my blog before (if you have, thank you and if this is your first visit, welcome) then you know how I feel about having questions to ask every person you talk to at every stage of the interview process. Its super important. It shows you prepared, are thoughtful and have interest in the role. All three of those points are important. If you don’t ask questions, how interested can you really be? Plus you are missing out on a great opportunity to learn more about the company. Do yourself a favor and  always have at least five questions to ask everyone you speak with during the interview process. If you need help with the questions check out my post 5 Excellent Questions You Should Ask in Your Interview. You would be surprised how many people say to me “I don’t really have any questions to ask at this time”. It’s quite a few. I have never thought to myself “Jeez, it was annoying answering that candidates questions” however I have thought to myself many times “Really? Not a single question to ask me….ok?”


  1. Not writing a thank you letter


Writing a thank you letter is easy. However even if it is something you consider hard you should totally do it. If someone holds a door open for you, social norms dictate a gesture of gratitude right? Imagine standing a few extra seconds to hold the door open for someone and instead of saying thanks they avoid eye contact with you and walk by you. What would your reaction be? You would probably think to yourself “Well I never?” and then be reluctant to the door open for that person as long as you are able to remember their face. While that is perhaps a tad on the dramatic side, the fact is when an interview has concluded you have two options, you can either write a quick thank you note or you opt to not write a quick note. While perhaps it won’t be the straw that broke the camel’s back in your quest for employment, wouldn’t you rather err on the side of caution? If it comes down to you and one other person with almost identical education, experience and salary requirements, would you not rather be the one of the two that wrote a nice thank you note? When a recruiter gets a note thanking them for their time, on some level they appreciate it, trust me. Even if they don’t respond (shame on them), they appreciate it.  If you want an easy guide to writing a great thank you note check out my post How do you write a thank you letter after an interview? A four step plan for success.


Well there you have it folks. There are the 7 Critical Phone Interviews Mistakes Candidates Make. If you can avoid making these mistakes I guarantee that you will be better off and have a better chance of advancing to the second round. What did you think of the mistakes I included? If I missed anything you consider to be a common mistake I would love to see them below in the comment section, either on my blog or on LinkedIn in the group chat. As always, thanks again for reading. Feel free to follow my blog, add me on twitter or LinkedIn and if you have any questions you would like me to answer, let me know!

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