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Top Phone Interview Questions

Here are 5 frequently asked phone interview questions--with best answer strategies--to help you stand out to prospective employers.

Why are so many employers doing phone interviews these days? (Especially with recent college grads and early career-changers)

FACT: The only purpose of a phone interview is to determine whether or not it is worth a hiring manager's time, effort, and expense to bring you in for a face-to-face interview...period.

Your resume has already convinced hiring authorities that you meet their minimum requirements.

Now they want to ask you a few challenging questions to make sure your resume isn't just fluff without much depth behind it.

Employers also want to get a feel for your personality, hear how well you communicate, and see how you respond under pressure.

Note: If you can't pass my Mock Job Interview Quiz, consider rescheduling your interview.

5 Challenging Phone Interview Questions...with Best Answer Strategy

  1. Why did you choose your college major?
  2. Where do you see yourself career-wise in 5 years?
  3. Why do you want to leave your current job?
  4. What are your greatest strengths?
  5. What is your greatest weakness?

Pearl of Wisdom: Always find out the title of the person who will be interviewing you. Most of the time, not always, phone interviews are conducted by someone in Human Resources...and you should expect to feel more on the defensive.

Why is that?

HR has a duty to verify the information you've provided on your resume, and screen you out if you fall short. At best, their attitude will be indifferent towards you.

Don't be put off by this. Many candidates are disappointed after they hang up from a phone interview because they have no idea how well they did. They often are pleasantly surprised when they are invited in for an onsite interview.

Why are phone interviews kind of cold and all business?

Imagine if your job was to phone interview 8-10 candidates a day--every day. Believe me, it's tiresome and monotonous. HR Managers have their phone interview questions listed on a form and they just want to get through your interview as quickly as possible.

It's a process...and for're a name on a resume.

Sometimes job seekers are interviewed by a very personable, warm, engaging HR Manager. Too often candidates get lulled to sleep and don't interview well, but think they did great; then, when candidates get the news they will not be invited in for an on-site interview...they are shocked.

But, the HR Manager was so nice!

FACT: The more job openings a company has on their books, the more mechanical and fast-paced your phone interview will be. The fewer the job openings a company has, the warmer your interview will be.

If you are interviewed by the department manager (your future boss), expect fewer screening type phone interview questions...and more job skills related questions. Phone interviews with the department manager can run twice as long if they like you. I've seen some phone interviews go 45-60 minutes vs the average of 20-30 minutes with Human Resources.

Pearl of Wisdom: Don't prejudge the company or the opportunity based on how you were asked the phone interview questions. You don't have enough information yet about the company or the people you will be working for. Just let the process play out before jumping to any conclusions.

If you are will be more anxious and emotional about your phone interview. When we are under stress we tend to read too much into things and be on the defensive...and sometimes even overreact.

Jump back to short list of challenging questions

7 Bonus Phone Interview you are extra prepared

  1. What was your greatest accomplishment?
  2. What are you currently earning?
  3. What are your salary expectations?
  4. When can you start? - Find out why this could be a trick question.
  5. Will you relocate? - Learn why you could be asked this even for a local job.
  6. Will you travel...and what %? - There is a good reason you could be asked this even for a non-travel position.
  7. Your resume shows you have experience with (fill in the blank). On a scale of 1 -10, how would you rank your skill level? Follow up question: Tell me more.

Bonus Phone Interview Question 2

What are you currently earning?

This is one of those phone interview questions that puts you at some risk, but you're response depends on where you are in your career.

Obviously if you're a recent grad, you won't be asked this question.

However, if you're in your early career, it’s quite common for managers--especially HR managers--to ask you for your current compensation.

The main reason they do this is to save everyone time if you are way over the pay range for this position; however, it puts you at a negotiating disadvantage if you’re too specific about what you earn.

Your first response should be to give the company a salary range of what you’re looking for. Sometimes this answer will satisfy the manager and sometimes it won’t, and you may be asked to break down exactly how you’re compensated (base, bonus, car, commission, perks).

If this happens after you’ve tried the salary range approach, just collapse and give them what they want because at this early stage of the interviewing process you don’t want to come across as being difficult or uncooperative. This could hurt your chances of being invited in for a face-to-face interview.

And...if you don't get invited in, you won't get to the offer stage anyway. So, sometimes you are simply better off answering the question if pressed.

You may be asking yourself: Why do companies need to know this? After all, don't all companies have a salary range for their openings? Pay me what I'm worth!

Why should employers benchmark my potential offer from what I'm making?

Good questions and thoughts, but here is what hiring authorities are asking themselves while you're going through your mental tempest.

  • Can we afford you?
  • If we hire you at the top of our salary range, how can we give you a raise unless we promote you?
  • Where is your salary in relation to others who already work here?
  • How can we work around any salary equity issues with existing employees?
  • If you make well below our salary minimum, why? Are you flawed in some way?

Unfortunately, sometimes your only option to this phone interview question is to simply answer it and let the chips fall where they may.

If you know you are highly paid, overqualified...or you just can't live without this's ok to add that you are flexible on the salary.

But...understand that when you add this little tidbit of information, what you are really saying is, I'll settle for less. How do you know if they might be perfectly willing to pay you at or above your current salary?

Jump back to bonus questions

Bonus Phone Interview Question 3

What are your salary expectations?

Ok--you just got over the discomfort of telling them what you earn; now they want you to name your price.

I can see the beads of sweat on your brow as you reach for your handkerchief. (does anyone carry one of these anymore?)

There are ways to answer this phone interview question without taking away your negotiating leverage at the offer stage.

More on this in a minute...

Always try and find out as much as you can about a company before you interview with them. See if you have a friend who knows someone who works there or has worked there in the recent past.

Ask your friend to introduce you to this insider so you can pick up some intelligence about this company. Sometimes insiders will actually share with you some of the company's phone interview questions. This will be much easier to do if you are signed up with LinkedIn.

If you are working through an Executive Recruiter, they will know the salary range and should be able to ballpark what is within the realm of possibility. Recruiters are paid a fee based on a percentage of your offer. They have a vested interest in negotiating the best offer for you.

NOTE: Recruiters often know some of the phone interview questions and will gladly share these with you.

Unlike the previous salary do have some wiggle room

As a matter of fact, you should actually try and avoid giving them a direct answer. This isn't always possible, but you should always try before collapsing and giving them a number.

Let's listen in on a hypothetical phone interview to see how our golden candidate answers this phone interview question. In this dialogue, let's assume the company has already asked the candidate what they are currently earning.

Company: What are your salary expectations?

Candidate: I'm pretty flexible and open. I'm sure you will make me a fair offer.

Company: Can you give me a ballpark range of where you need to be?

Candidate: It really depends on the value of the entire package--benefits, 401K, bonus--and the excitement level of the job. I'm not really sure at this point. I'm sure your offer will be reasonable.

Company: You must have some idea what you need in a base salary. What is it?

Candidate: current base salary is $75,000. I would hope to get a reasonable increase over my current base; but again, it depends on the entire package. I'm sure we can work something out.

Company: So, $77,000 to $80,000 would work for you?

Candidate: Perhaps...this might work. Look...I'm not trying to be evasive. I really am flexible, but I just don't have enough information about the job yet. So, I'm hoping you will invite me in for an interview so I can share with you my strengths and get a better understand the scope of the job. I'm very excited about this.

Notice in this example how the company escalates the pressure for an answer and how well the candidate handles it. I wanted you to experience this because most interviewers will not grind you this long for an answer.

Most interviewers will give up after the first 1-2 attempts and move on to other phone interview questions; however, I wanted to give you the worst case scenario just in case your interviewer is Attila the Hun.

Reality Check: It's really premature to be negotiating your salary because you're not even sure at this point if you want to work there, and the company hasn't established yet the value of your service to them; but, sometimes you don't have a choice if your interviewer wants to go there.

The above gambits have worked well for me over the years. Even if you collapse and blab a number you later regret, you can still recover at the offer stage--especially if the company really wants to hire you.

If this is your dream job in your dream location, it might make sense to accept a lateral move pay-wise. On the other hand, if you are a walk-on-water candidate, the company might give you an unexpected generous offer with a sign-on bonus. All this value and desire is only established in the actual on-site interview.

Jump back to bonus questions

Bonus Phone Interview Question 4

When can you start?

This seems like an easy phone interview question to answer. Why should you worry about this one?

Three good reasons:

  1. Employers want to fill their openings yesterday, and prefer you start 2-3 weeks after accepting their offer.
  2. Companies want to make sure you are a serious job seeker...not just a tire kicker seeing what's out there.

  3. If your start date is a long ways off, companies fear you'll keep interviewing to find something better.

Let's look at each one of these company concerns in greater depth.

Employers want to fill their openings yesterday

Most companies today are operating very lean. Employees are shouldering more work than ever before. When companies downsize, the workload is divided up among the remaining employees who already have more than they can handle.

During sluggish economies, companies would rather not hire someone unless they have no other choice. This means that a company has to be in a significant amount of pain before they add someone to the payroll.

When they do finally decide to hire someone, they want the position filled yesterday. They don't want to hear that you will start in 4-5 weeks.

Most likely you will have a lot of competition for the job you are interviewing for.

In many cases employers will have 2-3 excellent back-up candidates they can hire if the leading candidate starts sending signals that they are lukewarm about the job.

All things being equal, the one who can start no later than 2 weeks, will be the one extended an offer.

Employers don't like tire kicker candidates

When times are tough or a company is getting shaky, people get nervous and want to see what's out there.

There is nothing wrong with this; however, about half of the time these folks will not pull the trigger and go through all the trauma of resigning if a company makes them an offer.

Employers are smart enough to know this. So, if one of the phone interview questions is: When can you start?, and you hem and haw on the phone, they'll suspect you are a tire kicker.

On the other hand, if you respond with, I can start right away...or 2 weeks tops, you get a Brownie point as you sound like a serious candidate.

Employers fear The Shopper Candidate

The other troubling problem employers face is candidates who are actively interviewing and have other offers on the horizon.

In these cases, candidates often delay their start date to buy themselves more time to finish interviewing with other companies.

Even if you are a good actor and hide this from prospective employers, companies become suspicious when you can't start for 4 weeks for...personal reasons.

Look at it from the company's perspective. Their ideal candidate accepts their offer and then negotiates a 4 week start wrap up some personal things.

The company closes off their recruiting efforts, pulls their ads, tells the runner-up candidates they've hired someone else, and anxiously awaits their new hire to show up for work at the predetermined date.

The day before this candidate's start date, the HR Manager is greeted first thing in the morning by the following voice mail:

BEEP...Monday, October 10, 3:09AM...Ahhhh...hello Tom. Ummm...this is Jim Back-peddler calling. I'm afraid I have some bad news. (pause) I've decided not to come to work for Gene Splicing International after all. I'm very, very sorry about this and appreciate everything you guys did for me throughout the 2 month interviewing process. But, another company approached me in the midnight hour with an offer I just couldn't refuse...and...well...I accepted it. Again, thanks for everything...have a nice life...bye.

Notice how our friend Jim conveniently leaves a voice mail at 3:09AM to avoid actually speaking to someone. Return phone calls from the company are usually ignored.

These kinds of voice mail messages are all the same. Another employer miraculously approached them in the midnight hour, and the offer was so unbelievable they just couldn't turn it down.

Candidates hide behind voice mail or email and leave companies in the position of having to start their job search all over again from square one.

And...hiring managers don't appreciate it too much.

This happens more often than you would think. Once a company has been burned by this once or twice, they never want it to happen again. So they stick the start date question on their list of phone interview questions to get a flavor of your motivation to make a job change.

Jump back to bonus phone interview questions

Bonus Phone Interview Question 6

Will you travel...and how much travel is too much?

Your answer to these phone interview questions will vary depending on the following job parameters:

  • Travel is a big part of the job, i.e., sales, supply chain management, supplier quality, auditing.

  • Travel is a small part of the job, i.e., occasional trips to home office, vendors, customers, training.

  • No travel is required, i.e., administrators, coordinators, support type positions.

Let's discuss each of these travel situations in reverse order.

Why would a company ask you if you would be willing to travel if your job doesn't require you to travel?

Three reasons:

  1. There might be another position available that you are better qualified for that DOES require travel.

  2. Many companies like to hire people who are promotable to the next 2 levels above the position they are applying for. One of those positions may require travel. This is a good sign they see you as promotable.

  3. Some companies like to throw you a curve ball to see how flexible and adaptable you are.

Here are some appropriate responses and questions for the travel phone interview question, if the job was advertised as a non-travel position, but you still get asked anyway:

  • Ask your interviewer if this position requires travel...just to be sure.

  • If they confirm that no travel is required, ask if you are being considered for another position that does require travel.

  • If you are wide open to it, just answer the question affirmatively. Travel levels at most companies fall within these parameters:
    • Low: 10% or less
    • Moderate: 20-30%
    • High: 50-60%
    • Road Warrior: 80-90%

  • If you can't travel right now, but would consider it in the future, give them some idea when you could travel. Don't worry about nailing down how much right now. Just tell them you are flexible and open to it depending on the job.

What if travel is a requirement for the job you are applying for

Decide in advance your threshold of pain for travel and stick to it. You might need a job very badly and agree to Road Warrior travel, but deep in your soul you're saying to yourself, no way.

Don't commit to a job with a heavy travel regimen, hate it, put your marriage at risk, have no life outside of work, then quit, making you look like a job hopper or someone who can't stick with things.

Find out what kind of travel you will be doing and to where.

  • Local: mostly driving, requiring occasional or no overnights.
  • Regional: mostly driving, requiring 10-20% overnight stays. Minimal airline travel.
  • National: most trips will be at least a week in duration, frequent airline travel, car rental.
  • International: gone 2-3 weeks at a time, different time zones.

Company expectations are high today. They are looking for committed, flexible, whatever-it-takes people. Even so, to thine own self be true.

Don't be tempted to tell an employer what they want to hear.

Most marriages and families can't handle the stress of a heavy travel job. If you're single, it's still challenging because you have no one at home to manage all of your personal affairs.

It's also hard to develop a serious relationship with someone if you're gone all the time.

Lastly...during your face-to-face interview, find out how long you will be expected to maintain a certain travel regimen. In other words, you might have to travel 50% of the time for the first year of your job; thereafter, your travel will throttle back to 20%.

True Story: 2 Years of Heavy Travel Paid Off with a Big Promotion

When I was a District Sales Manager with Fleetwood I was offered a promotion to Product Sales Manager.

The overnight travel requirement was 30-40%. At the time I had 4 small children at home and this much travel stretched the limits of our tolerance.

When I was offered the promotion I was told I would be a Product Sales Manager for at least 2 years, but the chances were good that I would be promoted to a Regional Sales Director at the end of this 2 year period.

Regional Sales Directors only traveled 10% of the time. Also, their pay grade was more than twice my compensation package.

My wife and I discussed it and felt it would be worth it to make this 2 year travel sacrifice to get to the next level. It was tough, but we did it.

Sure enough...almost 2 years to the day I was promoted to Regional Sales Director and not only was my travel schedule very reasonable, but my work-life balance improved a lot.

Jump back to bonus questions

Bonus Phone Interview Question 7

On a scale of 1 -10, rank your skill level with (fill in the blank)?

I can guarantee you will be asked this phone interview question.

If a particular level of expertise is required, you may also be asked phone interview questions about specific language, methodologies, or protocols peculiar to their system, software, or processes.

Usually there is a minimal level of competency required. So, this question could be a deal breaker as you either know something or you don't. You simply don't have a lot of wiggle room here.

Employers hire people for only 3 reasons

As you are sitting across the table from a hiring manager, s/he is thinking about 3 things.

  1. How will you save our company MONEY?
  2. How will you save our company TIME?
  3. How will you MAKE our company money?

Few people meet or exceed 100% of a company's hiring requirements.

Most companies will phone interview you if you meet 7 out of their 10 hiring requirements; however, their flexibility to move forward with you depends on their pain level and the nature of the problems they need you to help solve.

For example, if they are going to implement an SAP system over the next 18 months and you have no expertise with SAP...guess what?

On the other hand, if they have a mature SAP system, but are having organizational or behavioral issues in this department, your leadership skills are what they need most. They can always teach you SAP.

Before your interview, try and find out an employer's burning issues

If their shortcomings speak to your strengths, prepare your job interview to amplify this. You could be an answer to their prayers despite having minimal SAP or whatever experience.

If your phone interview results in you not being invited in for an interview, send a short email to your interviewer thanking them for your interview, but asking for reconsideration based on...elaborate on why you still feel you are a fit.

Keep your explanation short, but include specifics or something measurable to build your credibility rather than generalities or fluff. This is an especially powerful technique if your interview was conducted by an HR Manager or HR Specialist.

HR might have screened you out without the hiring manager ever seeing your resume or your answers to their phone interview questions. When your email arrives HR often forwards it on to the hiring manager with a note that says something like this:

Brynn...I did a phone interview yesterday with this candidate, but feel they fall short of your SAP requirement. They sent me this email and I thought I should run it by you just in case I missed something. Let me know if you'd like me to set up an interview for you or get more information.

I've discovered this technique works about 30% of the time.

Pearl of Wisdom: Your phone interview mission = get an on-site interview. No one ever hired a resume, and no one has ever received an offer after a phone interview. You need to get in front of a hiring authority.

Jump back to bonus questions

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