It's a well-known fact. That first voice you hear when you call a company sets the tone, makes the first impression, and welcomes the caller. Few will argue that point.

Sadly, one of the most important and overlooked techniques for hiring people who are going to be answering the phones for your company is not done as often as it should be.

And that is: Interview them by phone first. That's right. If you're interviewing someone to handle your calls, have them call you and talk with them before you bring them into the office to do the interview.

Who Is There?

A good way to start is simply, "Tell me about yourself." If the applicants have difficulty talking about the one topic they should know the most about, how will they be able to talk about your company and answer questions about it effectively?

Be on the lookout for those who only answer your questions with one-word answers. One-word answers are considered cold and unfriendly. And listen to hear the tone of their voice. You, as owners and managers, know you can hear a smile. Is it there? Because if it is not there at this point, chances are it never will be. The old adage about first impressions is so true, especially in the interview.

You'd be much better with an overenthusiastic individual and ask them to "tone down," than to have a mild, unenthusiastic person who needs to be "turned up." Tell them at the time of your phone interview to be the best they can be, because this will determine if they get a second, personal interview. Since the job is that of primarily being on the phones, it's an excellent way to test a candidate.

Don't be surprised or disappointed if you run through several before one comes up that will have the credentials you need. Just keep at it. Don't lower your standards just because you're too busy. Once you do, the competition has an edge over you.

After they have passed the initial screening, what the Telephone Doctor calls the "smile test," then you can ask them to come in for further interviewing. At that point, you can give them the other important skill testing you need to do. Remember, most of the calls they will be taking are from people who will never see them. And while I am not advocating hiring those who look like bag ladies, what I mean is you don't need a movie star in that position. However, you do need a clean, well-kept person who has a great smile and great attitude.

Some questions you might want to ask in an interview are:

  • How long can you stay at one area and still be comfortable? Ask them to tell you about the times they needed to stay in one area and how it made them feel.

    Reason: This position usually means staying in one area, answering phones, and not running all over the office. If the applicant likes to be all over the office, it may not be a good match.

    And while there might be times that a person answering the phones may be asked to do some "nonessential" jobs (e.g., folding letters, stuffing envelopes), please remember "you cannot do two things well at once." Be sure they know the phone is a priority and the folding and stuffing can hold. The callers shouldn't!

  • Another good question to ask the applicant is how they feel about the position. How important is answering the phone to them? When we feel something is important, we will do much better at that job. Let the applicant tell, and sell, you on how key that position is for your company. (In other words, don't tell them how important it is. Let them tell you.)

  • An additional question to ask the applicant is how much telephone training they've had in the past. Where and what? Get specific. Employees who value training will be good ones for you and they will want to continue being trained. They will expect to be trained.

    It's a known fact that employees feel more secure in their position when they have been trained. They realize and appreciate that your time and money is being spent on them. Training is good job insurance for both parties.

    Unfortunately, not everyone is a good candidate for answering phones. Please don't just hire someone, sit the person in an area with the phones, and say, "OK, now be nice." The new employee will need to know how you want it done. Answering phones is an art and a science.

    Nancy Friedman is president of Telephone Doctor, a customer service training company in St. Louis, Mo. She can be reached at 800-882-9911;

    Publication date: 09/12/2005