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If you're contacted by an employer who wants to conduct a phone interview, know this: It's just as important as any other interview, and in reality, it's the most important interview for one simple reason.

"It determines whether a candidate moves to the second round of interviews," says Deborah LaMere, vice president of human resources for Minneapolis-based Merrill Corp.

Matt Elliott, owner of Pulse Financial Planning in Rochester, has hired and been hired through successful phone interviews. The certified financial planner advises job seekers to take phone interviews seriously and prepare in advance.

"Remember that to the person hiring, this is their business or career at stake," says Elliott. "Someone that may not be 'all in' on the opportunity is a big risk. I'd rather hire someone that was a little less qualified, but I knew was motivated to do a great job and really wanted the opportunity than someone that was perhaps overqualified, but leaves me questioning if their heart is really in it."

It can be difficult to evaluate applicants based on their résumé and cover letter alone, so phone interviews are often that first step before an in-person interview, says Elizabeth Hang, workplace expert at staffing firm Robert Half in Bloomington.

"Because the in-person interview is a significant investment of time and effort for the interviewer and the job seeker, phone interviews allow hiring leaders to pare down their list and quickly identify the most promising candidates to bring in," says Hang.

Phone questions

The questions asked during a phone interview are an opportunity to assess soft skills, such as timeliness, communication, preparedness and professionalism, says Hang. Here are a few examples of common phone interview questions:

• Can you describe your professional background?

• Why are you looking for a new job?

• What are you looking for in your next role?

• When could you start working?

• What attracted you to our organization?

• What do you know about our products or services?

• What is a typical day like at your current job?

• How do you see yourself contributing in this position?

• What would you hope to get out of this job?

• Where do you see yourself in five years?

• What questions do you have for me?

• What are your salary expectations?

"Employers are looking for transparent, direct, thoughtful responses," says Hang. "The best candidates give specific examples that provide as much information as possible while being succinct. Additionally, it's not just what you say but how you say it. Very few employers want to hire someone who comes across as pessimistic, for instance, so avoid speaking negatively about your current or past employers."

Too many job seekers do not give examples that highlight their own skills. "Many times, they start to talk about a very interesting project in which they participated and focus on the team's accomplishments rather that what they individually accomplished," says LaMere. "This is not a time to be humble. This is a time to talk about you and your success."

How to get ready for a phone interview

Prepare/document: Have your résumé , the job description and any important notes about the company or interviewer in front of you. Having a glass of water within arm's reach is another good idea in case your throat gets dry.

Find a quiet place: Taking the call at a coffee shop, in your office where you have to whisper, or while driving is not recommended. Seek a quiet place with no distractions (your interviewer may love dogs, but doesn't want to hear barking during the interview).

Get in the zone: Stand while you talk, look in a mirror, dress professionally and pretend you're in the same room as the interviewer. "Do whatever you need to do to make yourself feel confident," says Hang. "Don't forget to smile, too, as it will help you come across as more upbeat and engaged."

Display impeccable phone etiquette: While it's easy to get caught up in worrying about delivering the best answers possible, it's just as important to be a great listener. Try not to mumble or speak too quickly. Don't be afraid to pause after you've answered a question. Remember that your interviewer may be taking notes or formulating a follow-up question.

Close the phone interview with class: At the end of the call, ask about next steps. It's also smart to send your interviewer a thank-you note or e-mail after the call. "Use it as an opportunity to offer your appreciation for the opportunity and reiterate your interest in the job," says Hang.

The robo-interview

Some larger employers use automated software to conduct phone interviews. Don't let this faze you — the same rules apply.

"Job seekers need to understand that even though the phone interview may be automated, there is almost always a person at the end reviewing their answers," says Kelsie Beckfield, an HR manager with Great Northern Corp., a Midwest manufacturer.

"They should treat it is if they were talking to a live person," adds Beckfield.

Additionally, a lot of companies are using FaceTime and Skype for video interviews, so in those cases it's important to be considerate of what you're wearing, what your background looks like, your camera angle and any background noise.

Phone interviews should be treated as a formal part of the process and candidates need to bring their best selves into them. Even if the phone interview doesn't result in an in-person interview, this might not be the last opportunity the company will have for you, so you want to leave a positive lasting impression.

"More than anything, just be genuine and excited about the opportunity," says Elliott.

Matt Krumrie is a Twin Cities-based freelance career expert and résumé writer. He can be reached at