A terrific resume isn't enough to get you an in-person interview anymore. More and more, you have to go through a telephone screening interview first. Companies just don't have the staff these days to meet every promising candidate face-to-face. Plus, with all the flux in the job market, they're swamped with applications.
After all the effort of sending out resumes and cover letters, you're probably thrilled to get a response. But the minute someone from a company calls, warning lights should go on. Most likely they're not calling to invite you in -- they're calling to weed you out.
Typical openers are so smooth ("I'd like to know a little more about your background") that it's easy to mistake a telephone interview for a friendly chat. Caught off guard, most people disqualify themselves in the first five minutes, says Jackie Larson, a Cary, N.C., consultant who screens about 20 people each day for a computer company.
The most common blunder: not being able to answer the question, "Why are you interested in us?" People who stumble here give the impression that they have sent out dozens of resumes and don't especially care which one leads to a job, says Ms. Larson, co-author of the book "The New Rules of the Job Search Game" (Bob Adams Inc.).
Job hunters who do best in telephone interviews (only 5 percent of those Ms. Larson talks to get follow-ups) prepare just as they would for a face-to-face meeting. At a minimum, that means a trip to the library to look for recent newspaper and magazine articles about the company and the industry.
Give yourself time to bone up by postponing the telephone interview. All you have to say when you get that call out of the blue is: "I'm very interested in talking with you, but this is not a good time. Could we reschedule?"
If all goes well, your next conversation should last 30 minutes to an hour. Instead of immediately trying to sell yourself (a sign of desperation), encourage the individual you're talking with to tell you about the job and what the company is looking for. The interviewer's response helps you highlight the traits that qualify you for the job.
Keep your side of the conversation to two or three sentences at a time, Ms. Larson advises. The average person rambles on, and that's a real turnoff. Better to ask plenty of well-informed questions. For instance: Who are your major competitors, and what are you doing to position yourself against them? Is this a replacement position (If so, what happened to the previous worker?) or is the company expanding its ranks?
As you sense the interview winding down, reiterate your interest in the company and find out about the next step -- perhaps by saying, "You've gotten me really excited about the company. Could you tell me how my background fits with what you're looking for?" One advantage of telephone interviews is that you can keep notes and questions next to the phone in case you get nervous and forget what you want to say.