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Phone Skills

In your search for an internship or job, your resume and cover letter alone are not the only tools to success. Employers will be evaluating you on all forms of communication and how you handle and present yourself. Be a pro on the phone.

Your job search will involve telephone calls for various purposes, as precursors and follow-ups to written email correspondence.

Purposes may include:

  • Confirming names, spelling, title, address and other information for prospective contacts prior to writing a letter.
  • Following-up a letter or email to arrange a visit, ask for further information, explore future employment possibilities, follow-ups to interviews, etc.
  • If you're lucky, employers will call you.
  • You may be interviewed, or at least screened for interviews, through telephone calls. See telephone interviews.
  • Be courteous to everyone with whom you speak. Never treat support personnel in a disrespectful manner; the person you are trying to impress will hear about it, and no one wants to hire people who behave rudely to anyone.
  • Identify yourself, stating your first and last name clearly. Be clear about the purpose of your call. Make reference to any previous contact, conversation, meeting, etc., to remind the person why you are calling. Don't assume the person remembers you right away. Even if he or she does remember you, a brief reintroduction of yourself is a business and social courtesy.
  • Ask if this is a convenient time to talk. And indicate approximately how much time you are requesting, as in "Would you have just a few minutes to chat?" or "Could I take five minutes of your time?" 
  • If you want to talk to someone at length — e.g. to conduct an informational interview, etc. — you should ask to schedule a mutually convenient time for a phone appointment. Then you make the call at the agreed-upon time and stay within the limits of the time set. 
  • Asking "are you busy?" is not the same thing as asking if this is a convenient time to talk (and can be annoying). Most people are busy, but may still be willing to speak with you (or likely would not have answered the phone). 
  • Saying "I have a quick question," is irrelevant to the expected length of the phone conversation; your question may require a lengthy answer, and thus you are asking a large favor of the person you are calling.
  • When leaving messages, slow down when you state your phone number and your first and last name. Don't make your listener have to replay the message three times in order to write down your number; very annoying; and s/he may give up and therefore not return your call.
  • An employer will be more receptive to you if you can help the employer meet their organizational needs, rather than if you are asking the employer to do something for you.
  • Your goal is to start a conversation in which you gain information which will help in your job search. The employer is more likely to engage in that conversation if you seem like a problem-solver, and especially if you seem like an answer to the employer's needs.
  • In asking for information, wherever possible, use open ended questions or statements about your interests and what you have to offer rather than questions which are likely to be answered with "yes" or "no." The best statements show you've done your research.
  • Examples:
    "Will you have any openings in June?"
    Better, not best:
    "I’m interested in learning about your hiring plans for management trainees this summer."
    "I read on your website about your management training program and have followed all the procedures to apply online. I wanted you to know I am flexible on location and plan to attend your information session next month. I'm very enthusiastic about the program and hoped to ask you a few questions at a time convenient to you."
  • Do not ask questions that you could easily find answered on the employer's website. You'll risk looking lazy or unintelligent or both (or that you don't know how to use Internet resources). Asking someone else to take time and do work for you can also be viewed as arrogant (even if that is not your intent).
  • Your voice: Remember that tone of voice carries a lot of weight in a telephone conversation.
  • You don't have facial expressions, body language, and other non-verbal elements coming through in a phone conversation. Smiling while you speak on the phone can help your voice sound more pleasant.
  • Ask friends how you sound on the phone. They know you, but an employer doesn't. Is your speaking voice clear, and not too fast? Have you edited out "ums" and "uhs?" Do you sound cordial or aloof, articulate or fumbling, interested or gloomy?

A telephone conversation is a private conversation between the parties to the phone call. Unfortunately, cell phone use has led many people to conduct phone conversations as a form of public performance. This is annoying and discourteous to others and to the person to whom you are ostensibly speaking by phone.

Additionally since cell phones are typically available any time, any place, users often neglect common rules of courtesy to those with whom they are physically present in person.

Listing your cell phone number for employers:

  • For most students it's your primary phone, so it's logical to place this number on your resume and on your email signature block; do make sure it's a reliable place to receive your calls and messages.

Answering cell phone calls:

  • Don't answer it if you are not in an environment appropriate to receive business calls (noisy surroundings, competing conversations from others, etc.).
  • Under no circumstances should you interrupt a conversation with an employer — interview or other — to receive a cell phone call. This is one of the worst etiquette breaches you can commit.

Once your job search begins, your telephone becomes a business tool. Be prepared to receive calls:

  • Clean up your voice mail. Make it clear, brief and to the point so the employer knows she is reaching the correct number. Employers are busy and don't need to listen to a lengthy message. No cleverness with messages.
  • Timing: If an employer catches you at an inconvenient time and you can't speak, don't hesitate to politely explain this and offer to call back at a time convenient to the employer.

If you are initiating a contact with an employer, don't assume or expect that the employer will return your call. Remember that in calling, you are likely asking the employer to do you a favor; if your call does not serve the employer's needs, and if the employer is busy (most people are), the employer may have no need or desire to call you back. This does not mean the individual you called is not a nice person; there are just many factors determining whether a call-back may happen. Some may hinge on the needs of the organization; some may hinge on the nature and manner of your call or message.

You may need to leave a message, and call again a week later, or do some other form of follow-up.

  • When leaving messages, enunciate clearly. State your full name and give your phone number slowly. Your contact won't be thrilled about needing to replay your message three times in order to understand your phone number.
  • If someone with whom you have had contact does not return your call, try again in a week. They may have a planned or unplanned circumstance that prevents a response.
  • Keep in mind that most working people are not constantly available to take calls and do have other work to take care of. Don't always expect an instant return of your call.
  • If you and your contact are trying to reach each other in a short time-span, this would be an exception to the "wait a week" advice. You might be playing phone-tag to reach one another; but this would be agreed upon.
  • You can leave an email address where you can be reached; enunciate it carefully. However, unless the person has a strong desire to reach you, s/he is unlikely to email you in response to a phone message; most likely you want something from the employer and it is incumbent upon you to make most of the effort to connect. Better: indicate in your phone message that you will follow up with an email; this alerts the employer to notice your email and perhaps give that attention (depending upon the quality of your phone message and your email presentation).
  • Indicate best times to reach you if it is important that you speak directly with someone. However, don't assume that the best times for you are the best times for the employer. Even people who put in long work hours have lives away from work.
  • If your calls are never returned, try another means of contact (email, letter, etc.) or try someone else in the organization. If no one responds to you over an extended time, this is telling you something about the organization and/or your means of contact.