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9 Tips for Running an Effective Phone Interview

One of the most important components of having a strong team is being able to identify and hire the strongest players for your team. But these days, interviews are often treated as a waste of time, a total pain -- and who has the time for them anyway?

First of all, make the time. Or delegate the interviews to folks who you trust to be able to pinpoint exactly who would and would not be the right fit for your team. Then, once you select the more promising candidates from your stack of resumes, instead of inviting the candidates into the office for in-person interviews right off the bat, start with a phone screen.

Phone interviews are a great, low-commitment way to learn more about the candidates first-hand, without having to arrange a time and place to meet in person. They're also easier to wrap up quickly once you've finished the interview, without having to worry about sitting in that conference room for another ... ten ... minutes ...

Here are nine tips for running an effective and efficient phone interview, so you step away from it with the details you need to make the right decision, and the confidence that you haven't wasted anyone's time in the process.

1) Don't be multi-tasking.

Focus your full attention on the interview so you can stay alert for important nuggets of information that the interviewee either says or hints at. Checking your Twitter stream or responding to a colleague's email during your interview will not only distract you, but may make you come off as sounding distant or disinterested, which isn't fair to the interviewee.

2) Start by telling them about yourself.

Before you dive in and start asking questions, give the interviewee some context about your role on the team, your day to day priorities, and a brief picture of your experience within the organization. Don't spend too much time talking about yourself, but a short introduction sets a tone for pleasant conversation and two-way communication.

3) Know what you're looking for.

You should begin your interview with a clear picture of your ideal hire. Know what traits and skills you're looking for, and be able to articulate them in rough order of priority. List out which characteristics or experiences are absolutely mandatory for this role, and which ones are good to have but not required. You'll often find that interviewees will ask you about this too, so this is really a key piece to making sure you're both on the same page about what it is you're looking for in the right fit for the job.

4) Ask questions that will give you real insight -- not fluff.

Once you've painted that picture of your ideal hire and listed out exactly what you're looking for, you should be able to ask very targeted questions to uncover whether or not the candidate meets your criteria. Skip the generic interview questions that don't give you much insight ("Why do you want to work for our company? What do you imagine your career looking like in 20 years?") and leverage every minute of your interview time to get to the heart of what you're looking for ("If you started working here tomorrow and we asked you to solve this specific problem, what would be the first three things you'd do? What would you change about the way the company is doing X?")

5) Read between the lines.

This goes without saying, but it's an interviewee's prerogative to make themselves sound as good as possible. A good interviewee is going to be very careful how she phrases her answers to your questions. This is why you should not only be asking the tough questions that are really going to set your good candidates apart from your mediocre ones, but you should also constantly be listening very carefully to their responses and reading between the lines.

For example, let's say you're interviewing a woman for a position on your marketing team, and you ask her to tell you about a struggle she faced in previous marketing positions. She tells you that, when she began her last role, they threw her into the deep end and she had to assume ownership of her own projects, which she hadn't previously done. First, you'll want to press her for more context -- was there any critical information she wasn't given that she needed to get started? How did she figure it out on her own? Listen carefully here -- this is where you should be able to distinguish between a candidate that used this independence as an opportunity to learn and grow vs. someone who needs a lot of hand-holding and has trouble taking ownership. She won't come right out and tell you which one it is -- you need to ask the right questions and listen for the subtext of what she's saying.

6) Make it a conversation.

While it is important to keep the focus on the interviewee and let him do most of the talking, you don't want your only dialogue to be, "Hello, here are my questions, thank you, goodbye." Asking the right follow-up questions, even inserting short snippets here and there -- "Wow, sounds like a difficult situation. How did you deal with that?" or "I understand how that feels. I've had to deal with similar situations myself." -- makes the interviewee feel more comfortable with you, which allows him to be more open and honest with you.

7) Keep the interview on track.

It's easy to steer off course in interviews and go on long tangents, but remember that it's important to keep the interview to a reasonable length. Stay focused on the key points. If the interviewee is rambling off-topic, find a way to bring it back to the topic at hand or let her know you get what she's trying to say and move on to the next question.

It's also okay to say, "Since we only have five minutes left, I'd like to get your thoughts on a few more things before we wrap up." It's your role as the interviewer to keep the interview on track and on time.

8) Ask if they have any questions for you.

An often overlooked, but very key part of running a good interview, is giving the interviewee the opportunity to ask you questions. Not only is this a polite gesture, but knowing what types of questions they ask will actually give you an incredible amount of insight.

The topics they choose to ask about will reveal their priorities, their concerns, and their level of knowledge. For example, if the first question they ask you is, "What is the company culture like?" you know that this is a big factor in their choice of the company they'd like to work for. If they ask about how your team uses social media for lead generation, you can reasonably infer that they are curious to hear more details about how your team operates and executes, which shows that they've already begun to give it some thought.

Often the level of specificity they use when asking questions is a good indicator of their knowledge of the topic.

9) Thank them for their time and articulate next steps.

Be sure that you show that you appreciate the interviewee's time and interest in the role, and thank him for it. Then, set his expectations for who he will be hearing from and (roughly) when, so he's not left wondering where things go from here.

What are your tips for running a good phone interview? Leave your thoughts in the comments -- I'd love to hear some other opinions on this!

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