Interviewing Over the Telephone

A landline telephone

Businesses are busy and unfortunately, that means that amongst other things they don't have the time to meet all applicants for a job any longer.  They need to pre-screen them (often via the internal HR group) and only those candidates shortlisted will be selected for that all important face-to-face interview where you can hopefully impress them enough to either get that job or get a callback for a further interview. 

Unfortunately, the job market is tight, there really isn't any getting around that, so here are some good tips and hints to at least get your foot in the door.  The first key point being preparation ... a telephone interview is still an opportunity for you to sell yourself so you need to ensure that you are prepared.  You need to know what the business does, who you are going to be speaking to (do some research on them on LinkedIn), the specifics about the role & your suitability to fulfill those specifics.  You must also be able to speak intelligently about your own past history - specifically any gaps in your resume.

Some Key Hints

  • Time - it is key that you ensure that you are ready and available at the scheduled time for your call and that you allow yourself enough time to complete the interview.  Do not get caught commuting, or walking outside - the person you are speaking to need to be able to ask questions that are understood by you and you need to ensure that your answers are being just as clearly understood.  Try to find a quiet, out of the way place for the conversation and as mentioned earlier, ensure that you are not feeling rushed by making other arrangements.  
  • Know who you are speaking to - I've already mentioned it, but this bears repeating ... know your interviewer if at all possible. Ensure that you have their name clearly memorized and have some basic questions to ask them in return depending on their role in the company (if nothing else, asking about next steps shows them you're interested).
  • Know the job - again another one that must be repeated - being on the other side of the chair, I've often found myself amazed that the person I'm interviewing doesn't know anything about the company, their locations, their products or services.  I've even interviewed people who don't know what they are being interviewed for! - DO NOT be that person!  With the tools available to anyone in today's market, some simple basic research just using Google will give you a good head start.
  • Use a Landline if possible - while cellular technology has definitely improved, landlines are still more reliable and you want to ensure that your conversation is as clear as possible.  As mentioned previously finding a quiet space along with using a landline will guarantee that while you might not always give the right answer, you will at least be able to understand the question!
  • Dress for the interview and pretend it's face-to-face - it's easy to think you can do an interview in your pajamas but let's be honest ... if you dress appropriately and act appropriately (speak with a smile) it will come across in the tone of your conversation.  Phone interviews are always more difficult than face-to-face ones.  It's very difficult to understand body language when you are not able to see the other person, however, if you have a good telephone manner and speak as if the person is there, you will be more successful.
  • Be prepared - sorry for repeating myself once again, but these are the key ones.  You need to know your own resume inside and out.  Prepare 'SAR stories': describe the Situation, the Action taken and the Results achieved. Keep these stories to 1 minute long, and be concise and succinct.  Talk about successes AND failures.  Interviewers want to know not just how good you are at your job, but also how you'd deal with adversity.
  • Repetition - well as you can see from the above, I'm not afraid to repeat some things that are important and that's exactly what you should be doing in the interview.  Practice active listening and demonstrate you are engaged and interested in referencing points made earlier in the conversation. Ask questions related to topics that have been discussed.
  • Closing - make sure that you let the interviewer know that you are interested - it's potentially the last thing they will remember about you and you need to ensure that you thank them and press upon them your excitement for the role and position.


English: A business ideally is continually see...
English: A business ideally is continually seeking feedback from customers: are the products helpful? are their needs being met? Constructive criticism helps marketers adjust offerings to meet customer needs. Source of diagram: here (see public domain declaration at top). Questions: write me at my Wikipedia talk page (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Once again like in most things, ITIL helps to explain the common sense.  In this case it is the definition of "value" - basically while their definition is somewhat wordy, it gets the point across that Value is defined by the consumer.  What you might consider to be valuable, actually might not be ... the person purchasing it from you will actually make that decision and will base it on whether or not the service meets their demands at the price they are willing to pay for it.

ITIL however does go on to define value a bit further instead of just leaving it up to the customers decision.  They have indicated that value consists of two basic elements:

  • Utility - what does the product or service do?  Does it meet the needs of the customer?
  • Warranty - does the product or service meet the agreed upon requirements, specifically in regards to availability, capacity, continuity and security.  Warranty reduces fluctuations in the service and can to some extent be considered in the light of SLA conversations.
Both elements – Utility and Warranty – are imperative and have to be taken into account and ensured to equal extent when designing and providing a service.  Remember:

Utility = what the service does

Warranty = how is that service delivered

By working with other parts of the organization to improve the utility of a service, businesses are able to improve the functionality of service and what it is able to do for a customer.  However it bears pointing out that improving the Utility of a service does not have an automatic improvement on its Warranty - in fact, care must be taken to ensure that slippages do not occur in this area to the detriment of the service overall!

Improving the warranty of a service however has a very powerful effect allowing you to do the same things (the Utility) but more reliably, faster, cheaper and with a decreased risk to the customer that they will suffer losses due to variations in service performance.

By increasing both Utility and Warranty, organizations are able to do more and do it better.


I think you all know that I'm a big fan of ITIL but sometimes I think it does get overly complicated (despite what I've said in previous posts).  Take the definition of services for example:

Internal vs. External

OK now, I know its not rocket science by any means, but Internal services are those delivered within a business (for example IT services to a specific business unit) whereas External services are those delivered to external organizations (hence the name) ... I'm assuming you're with me so far, as this is not the overly complicated part (although it is important to recognize that internal services have to be linked to external services before their contribution to business outcomes can be understood and measured).

Where I think it goes into too much detail is in its definition of Core, Enabling and Enhancing services.

ITIL's definition of each is as follows:

  • Core Services - deliver basic outcomes that represent something a customer is willing to pay for (basically the bread and butter of the service).
  • Enabling Services - these are the nuts and bolts that let you deliver the core service (support, administration, operations etc...)
  • Enhancing Services -  not needed to deliver the core service ... this is something that can give the core service a "wow" factor but is not necessary.  The problem with enhancing services however is that over time they become core and/or enabling services as they become the expected norm.
Now I don't necessarily have a problem with how they've defined each of these ... in itself they each make sense ... my question however is more couldn't you combine enabling and core?  Enabling by itself simply doesn't do anything as there is no service for it to enable and core by itself similarly cannot be successful as it needs the other groups/services for it to actually work.  Personally I think Enabling Services ARE Core Services and should be included in the same list.  If they were - IT services might be looked at differently from a budgeting perspective that's for sure!

Service Definition Process

Continuing this discussion, the next step is determining how you define a service.  There are five key questions that you can use to help you with this:

  1. What is the service, and how do I get it? (Service Description) 
  2. How do I get help? How do I use the service? (Help and Self-Service) 
  3. What Does It Cost? (Service Cost and Pricing) 
  4. How is the service supported? (Service Support) 
  5. How is the service delivered? (Service Delivery)

The role of the Service Owner

One thing that I do 100% agree with however is the definition of a Service Owner.  I have seen too often businesses role out fabulous new ideas and plans, and not have any idea who is actually responsible for ensuring that it is done correctly and responsibly.

The Service Owner is responsible for the service REGARDLESS of where the underpinning technology components, processes or professional capabilities reside.  Basically the Service Owner is the SPOC (Single Point of Contact) for that Service and owns it.  The Service Owner is responsible to the customer for the initiation, transition and ongoing maintenance and support of a particular service and accountable to the IT director or service management director for the delivery of the service.


Perhaps somewhat self-explanatory, but Service Strategy is the strategy used by a business to execute its business objectives and meet the customer's requirements.  Utilizing Service Strategy within a business ensures that the business is able to create value for its customers and shareholders by contributing to the value and not just the costs of the organization.  Service Strategy ensures that organizations are able to organize themselves in an appropriate manner to deliver and support services that will enable a customers' success and will help to achieve a positive ROI in services.  Through a variety of different tools (service catalog and Service Portfolio Management for example), Service Strategy is able to ensure a consistent understanding of what is required by a business and ensures that these services are provided in an efficient and effective manner. Get a free ITIL Service Strategy Financial Management Assessment here.

This is a document that we use to assess process maturity, tools usage, and organizational structure in managing IT Financials. This questionnaire will allow for an assessment to be performed using a hybrid of the Capability Maturity Model for Service Management and the ITIL Best Practices for Service Support and Service Delivery. The overall structure of the effort will come from the ITIL best practices of the IT Service Management definition. Rankings within each area will conform to a modified version of the CMM scoring. This modified version will provide a greater degree of granularity in evaluating the various factors involved in each service area, and has its basis in the ITIL standard. The objectives of Service Strategy include providing:
  • A clear identification of corporate objectives and the products and services available as well as the requirements of the customers that use them.
  • The ability to define how value is created and delivered as well as the ability to prioritize projects and opportunities based on their value to the business.
  • A means to identify opportunities to provide services and how to exploit them as well as the ability to develop market spaces and drive the implementation of strategy through the service lifecycle.
  • A clear service provision model, that articulates how services will be delivered and funded, and to whom they will be delivered and for what purpose 
  • The means to understand the organizational capability required to deliver the strategy 
  • Documentation and coordination of how service assets are used to deliver services, and how to optimize their performance
  • Processes that define the strategy of the organization, which services will achieve the strategy, what level of investment will be required, at what levels of demand, and the means to ensure a working relationship exists between the customer and service provider.
Other components of the Service Lifecycle are also involved and at a high level here are there responsibilities:

  • Service Design
    • Turns a Service Strategy into a plan for delivering the business objectives
    • Covers design principles and methods for converting strategic objectives into portfolios of services and service assets
  • Service Transition
    • Ensures that the value(s) identified in the Service Strategy, and encoded in Service Design, are effectively transitioned so that they can be realized in Service Operation 
  • Service Operation
    • Strategic objectives are ultimately realized through Service Operation, therefore making it a critical capability
  • Continual Service Improvement
    • Provides guidance on creating and maintaining value for customers through better strategy, design, transition and operation of services 
    • Describes best practice for ensuring that the service portfolio continues to be aligned to business needs
    • Provides guidance for linking improvement efforts and outcomes with Service Strategy, design, transition and operation 

Service Strategy is responsible for meeting customer business objectives while ensuring that their own organizational goals and plans are not negatively impacted.  They are responsible for ensuring that these objectives are met in an increasingly competitive world and they must understand the trade-offs involved in making those strategic decisions.

The goal of a Service Strategy can be summed up very simply:
superior performance versus competing alternatives.
When people talk about Project Management, their first thought is often Microsoft Project.  In a similar manner when considering Service Strategy people often think of Strategic plans.  However just like Project is not the whole answer, so to, a strategic plan doesn't really get you where you need to go.  Service Strategy is forward-looking but with the increasing pace of change in the world today (especially in IT services), a Strategic Plan is often obsolete before it's been published!

A Service Strategy resolves big issues so that staff can get on with the small details – how best to provide services, for example, rather than debating what services to offer. But focusing on a strategic plan impedes the organization’s ability to respond to changing conditions.


Management of teams in a call center environment is never easy. Depending on your industry and your hours of operation not only do you often have to provide services and support during holiday periods, you often have to do it with a skeleton staff.  If those employees are on the bottom end of your performance bell curve - well let's just say, you might not have a good holiday season!

With any business, not only do you need to ensure that you have the appropriate number of agents to deal with the incoming issues, but you also need to ensure that these agents have the right skills and abilities to handle the volume that they get. You are forced to juggle resources based on the type of issues you might get - based on your historical trends - but you also need to always keep in mind the SLA you are offering to your customers and partners.

Phone calls & online chat need a significantly higher response rate than emails and the volume of issues while it can be planned for, can never account for emergencies and issues outside of your control (this is why they are called emergencies!)

One tool that you can use to help you ensure that you have the right number and type of resources is the Bell Curve.  Utilizing this tool along with other KPIs that you have in place will help you in your planning and assist you in ensuring that you have the right people available to answer the customer's query at the right time.

How to Create Performance Bell Curves

Bell curve graphs are called histograms. By reviewing individual performance (let's take output as an example) and grouping it together across your team you will have a simple scale that graphed out shows a distribution. A normal distribution will have equal numbers on either side with the bulk of your team grouped in the middle.

Importantly, the bell curve (like any statistical distribution) describes a large number (or population) of individual things. The horizontal dimension (X-Axis) of the curve describes a range of values. The vertical dimension (Y-Axis) describes the incidences of "N" occurring. If we stick to our example of output, we would have a count of the number of emails responded to (for example) on the Y-Axis with a corresponding group of employees on the X-Axis. By determining where your employees fall in the distribution you will see where they stand in the distribution.

Now this can be done for quite a few of your KPIs (calls handled, average talk time, speed to answer etc...) and the more data of this nature that you add to your employee scorecard the better as graphical representations are extremely powerful and can tell you at a glance how an employee is "doing" in comparison to his peers.  

What gets measured?

You will need a reasonable sample size to create an accurate assessment - do not judge your teams performance on one months data, but gather several months and ensure that your measurements are accurate by taking account of time away from the job (supervisors and other special projects that would impact their output and performance) and averaging your output over the course of the period in question.

In addition, you really need a sample size of at least 20+ agents to get a proper distribution - it's even better when you get into multiples of that! As a rule, the more data you have the better your analysis will be.

You would take that data on a weekly/monthly basis and average it out over a specific period for all of your CSRs comparing their performance against your target goal. For example, if the output is to be 40 emails/day your distribution would have staff spread around that number in a fairly equal proportion (based on the size of your sample of course). Statistically speaking, the bell curve is defined entirely by its mean (average) and its standard deviation. But for our purposes, we need to know only that its shape can tell us a lot about agent group performance.

Understanding Bell Curves

As you can see in the graphic above, the peak is where the majority of your employees are in relation to output. You have some staff on the high side and some on the low side. You will see that the majority of employees are at the average with others above and below that average. By reviewing what the above average performers are doing in relation to the below average performers you will be able to compare and contrast behaviors and determine what actions you can best make to improve your lower performers. (NOTE: if you have a "double hump" curve that's something I will look at in future posts so don't think that you've done something wrong - double and triple humps happen ... a key case in point is called volumes by time of day where you will have several different peaks).

Remember if your skew is towards the lower end of the scale you have a problem that you need to address immediately! Depending on your customer base and type of business this might be fine for you - those on the low side could be your slower performers with regards to output, but conversely, your higher performers in relation to customer retention just because they spend more time with each customer. However assuming that this is NOT the case and that all you are interested in is output, your goal is to "skew" your employee's output towards the higher end of the scale.  This can be accomplished through training - both technical, and product - as well as feedback from other more senior staff.

How does the Bell Curve impact staffing?

At its simplest, it doesn't ... however what you need to take into account when scheduling that coverage on a holiday or even earlies and lates, is the quality of the team doing the work.  The Bell curve analysis helps you put that into a very clear picture and by combining multiple different curves on a single graph it is sometimes very obvious who your lower performers are.