Phone etiquette: What to do when employers call you

You're chilling at home or at a restaurant with friends, having a good time when suddenly, your mobile rings. It's the human resources manager from your dream company. Do you a) reply, "I'm busy right now. Call back later" b) or say, "hah, what? Speak louder, I can't hear you!" c) in your excitement, you just go blur on the line and say nothing, or worse, d) just hang up on them. Hardly a start to a winning conversation. Then again, if you've practised some good phone etiquette, you could be well on your way to an interview, and more importantly, to that job you want. So, do you have what it takes?

By Joshua Rayan

Winning with voice and words
The prospective employer has probably glanced through your resume and has shown some interest in you. Next, they would usually call to ask for certain details about yourself (personal or work-related details), to arrange for an interview or to test your communication ability.

If you speak well, you’d leave a positive impression. And first impressions are critical. On a phone conversation with a potential employer, they can’t see how you look. How you conduct your conversation – your speaking style, voice and words – will be your ‘identity’. What they perceive will determine whether they’d invite you for a face-to-face interview, or even conduct the interview on-the-spot, over the telephone. And if they don’t like what they hear, they could just hang up – end of story.

It may seem harsh to judge someone, over a short phone call. But that is how business works. Employers have hundreds, thousands even, of applicants to call. What you say, and how you say it, becomes their mental picture of you.

Since you’ve already sent in your application, you should be ready when someone calls. Keep important info like spare CVs, certificates and personal documents at convenient places. This makes retrieval easier when the call comes.

Being forewarned is forearmed. Will they quiz you on a particular skill? Ask for referees’ contact details? Query about previous working or academic stints? Plan what you want to say. Write it down if need be, as this helps to reinforce your plan. It also makes it easier for you recall the details. All this preparation reduces panic and helps prevent conversation boo-boos. You’d sound more confident and composed for an effective phone conversation.

The call
Whether you’re making the call or receiving one, always remember to greet the person on the other side. And don’t forget to introduce yourself! A simple “Good morning/afternoon/evening, this is ZZZ speaking. How may I help you?” would be good. Or “Hi, I’m XXX. I’m calling regarding my application for the position of…Can I enquire on my application’s status please?” It’s all about setting the right first impression, and giving yourself a good start.

A professional conversation
Always be polite and show interest. Don’t be rude, impatient or arrogant. They may ask you questions that make you feel uncomfortable. Be patient and answer professionally. If you think they’ve asked you something inappropriate, ask why that info is relevant to the conversation. This shows composure and maturity. Maybe they’re just testing you. Just as important, show good manners. Don’t talk with your mouth full or with the TV blasting away in the background!

Listen carefully. The better conversationalist listens more and speaks less. The employer is holding most of the cards; best to let them speak more. Also, the employer is evaluating your responses. Think before talking.

If you don’t understand, politely ask the person to repeat his words: “I’m sorry, that wasn’t clear on my side. Can you repeat that please?” would be great. Alternatively, you can take the initiative, and say something like, “Okay, correct me if I’m wrong…but is this what you’re saying?” The other person would either confirm or correct your understanding. Don’t go, “Hah? What? Repeat can or not?” Singlish is fine between friends, but it’s a definite no-no when speaking to a potential employer!

Next, be prepared. You shouldn’t have to scramble for pen and paper when the interviewer is about to give you an address or number to take down. It’s always good to carry some writing material with you for moments like these.

The caller will be impressed by your ability to take down details immediately. If you have to go looking for stationery, don’t put the caller on hold and disappear for minutes! Instead, apologise and say that you need to find stationery. The caller will either wait or find alternative means to give you the details (via email or calling back later).

Names can be a tricky issue. Ask callers to spell names and double-check pronunciations. They’ll appreciate your sincerity to get things right. Speak with a smile. It may sound silly, but your voice actually takes on a more pleasant tone when you smile. A smile will make you sound cordial, even upbeat. Positivity works in your favour.

And, whatever you do, never ask them to call back! It can be misconstrued as a lack of interest in the job or organization. If you aren’t free to talk, then say, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now as (give your reason here). Can I call you back? What time would be convenient for you?” It must be you that does the calling back, and not the other way round, so be sure to get back to the caller as soon as you can!

Ending the conversation
Good phone etiquette also means knowing when to end the call. Generally, it’s best to let the employer have the last word. You want them to be satisfied with you, so let them be the first to say goodbye.

But before they do, summarise the key point(s) and ask for appropriate action. For instance, “Yes, I would be pleased to attend the interview, thank you. Can we schedule a time?” Or “Right, so I’ll bring my notebook to present my final year project to you. Is that correct?” If, for whatever reason, you have to end the call before it’s finished, apologise politely and promise to follow up later. Make sure you do!

The phone professional
Speaking is not difficult. You’ve been doing it your whole life. You just have to raise the bar when talking over the phone to a potential employer. Besides, having good phone manners will stand in good stead for the rest of your life. Not just on the job front, but in every aspect of your life. So, be silky smooth, and always be sure to say it right!

Top 10 phone interview peeves

Career Central talk to career consultants and HR professionals about what upsets them during phone conversation with job candidates. Check out these unbelievable, appaling, and yet very truw accounts.

1. Candidate tells me, “Can you call me back on my land line?” And then promptly hangs up the phone.

2. Candidate continues to eat while talking to me in between bites. She manages muffled “uhuhs” when her mouth is full.

3. When I hear the keyboard clacking away in the background, I ask her if she is busy because I can hear her working on her PC. Candidate insists she is not. Then proceeds to type discreetly, softly and slowly, while explaining why I should hire her.

4. Candidate is at a noisy location and yet insists it’s ok to talk. A shouting match ensues before I decide I’ve had enough. Candidate says, “It’s really ok! I can hear you!”

5. Candidate has no clue what job he applied for or what company I am calling from. When asked, he sheepishly says, “I have no clue. I don’t remember. I applied to too many jobs.”

6. Candidate attempts to walk rapidly and talk at the same time. When quizzed on why she seems breathless, she explains, “I am trying to catch a bus.”

7. Candidate does not answer my call and then SMSes to ask who I am. I call him again. And again, there is no reply. Right after I hang up the phone, he SMSes again, demanding to know who called him.

8. Candidate talks in Singlish in an attempt to be casual and friendly. Conversation is peppered with “you know la”, “I knoe knoe” and “sure can one!”

9. Calls candidate on his handphone. No reply. 2 seconds later, he calls back using his land line and asks if anyone called him on his handphone.

10. Candidate grills me about pay scales, company activities/benefits and job scope. Then proceeds to interview me with, “So tell me more about your company and your job,” and, “How long have you worked there and do you like your job?”

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