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The 4-1-1 on Phone Interviews: Put your best foot forward when you’re not face-to-face

What a relief. You and your resume made it through the first round of the application process and you’ve been asked to interview over the phone. You can do this in your PJs in the comfort of your own home while you sell the interviewer on why you need this gig.

Not so, says Mark Renn, CEO of The CS Team, a Denver-based career management firm. A phone interview should be no different than a face-to-face meeting with a potential employer, he said.

“You should dress as if you’re going to work,” Renn said. “It will put you into your business persona.”

And you should prep for the phone interview just as diligently as you would for any other. That’s part of what will set you apart from the rest of the applicants, Renn said. When it comes down to it, the interview process is really more about who they’re not hiring than anything else.

“Any interview is to look for a way to eliminate you; it’s not to find a way to hire you,” he said. “It’s totally a process of elimination. The last one standing gets the job.”

That’s why details like what you’re wearing, how you’re sitting and your focus, matter. Renn advises clients to never accept an immediate phone interview off the cuff. If a potential employer calls and offers to interview you in the same conversation you learn you’re a candidate, tell him or her you’re between meetings and need to schedule a time, he said.

That will give you a chance to prepare one- to two-minute responses to the most common questions, which include:

“Tell me about yourself.”

Don’t start with where you were born or other personal details that don’t relate to the job in question, Renn said. Instead, craft a response that focuses on what you bring to the table as an employee for that specific position.

“Why did you leave your last job?”

The key here is to speak of previous jobs only in positive terms, Renn said.

“Why do you want this job?”

Your response should be about how you can help the company, not how the job will help you, Renn said.

“What’s your salary range?”

This is a question that can immediately knock you out of the running if you don’t answer correctly. If you don’t know how much the job you’re applying for might pay, ask how much has been budgeted for the position. No matter what the number is, Renn says to respond, “I can work with that.” If it’s lower than you like, this is not the point to negotiate for more. That comes later in the process. Your goal in the phone interview is to stay in the running, he said.

More tips from Renn for phone interview success:

Rehearse beforehand with packaged answers for the questions you’re most likely to hear.

Watch yourself in the mirror as you’re talking during the interview. If that feels too strange, pick another focus object. Use the hand gestures you’d typically use if you were speaking to someone in person. That will prevent you from getting too stiff and nervous.

Don’t use a cellphone; they’re too unreliable. Always conduct phone interviews on a landline. Make sure there are no background noises or distractions, such as unhappy kids or pets.

Don’t have drinks, snacks or your computer in front of you to distract you, but do have a copy of your resume on hand so you can refer to it during the interview.

Don’t talk just to fill silence. Renn says that’s one of the most common mistakes applicants make. Give succinct answers to every question from the standpoint of how you’ll help the employer, and stop talking when you’ve said your piece.

“I think the biggest thing they should really remember is it’s not about them, it’s about the employer,” Renn said. “He has a problem to solve. If you come across as the one who can solve his problem, you’ll continue to move forward.”

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