helping someone get better at thinking on her feet, did I bomb my phone interview, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Should my former peers write a letter in support of my candidacy as their manager?

I applied for a management position within my department. This is in a group where I was a team lead previously, but left that role for a promotion to another group within the same department.

Several of my former colleagues in the group (the ones I would be managing) are very much behind me and want to write a letter to the director to support me as the hire for the open manager role. I am not sure if them writing a letter will help or hurt my chances. What is your opinion?

A letter will be weird (at least in most offices). It’s overly formal; they should just talk to the director and share their input. It’s important, though, that their input be focused on why you’d get great results in the role — if it focuses on how much they like you and you’re already part of the team and that kind of thing, it risks looking like they just want their friend as their manager, which is not a convincing argument and can actually raise concerns about how effective you’d be in the role. What you want them talking about are your skills.

(Keep in mind, too, that their own standing and reputations will matter here. If the director thinks they’re great at what they do and have good judgement, this could carry a lot of weight. On the other hand, if the director has concerns about those things and/or wants to bring someone in to change things, it could actually work against you.)

2. How can I help a staff member get better at thinking on her feet?

I work at a startup in a customer service-related role and am often on the phone with customers that need assistance getting their data into a format that works within our parameters. There is a significant amount of on-the-fly adaptation and problem-solving necessary when talking with these customers and addressing their individual needs, something that has always come naturally to me.

Our company is growing, and we’ve recently hired another employee to fill a similar role as I am. I am not this employee’s explicit manager, but I am primarily responsible for getting her up to speed and view myself as a de-facto manager/coach/spirit guide as she learns and acclimates herself.

She’s been here a month, is sharp as a tack and is a joy to have in the office. She accepts and adapts to constructive criticism and absorbs information at a fast rate. I have little doubt that she is going to be very successful in this role.

At the moment, the biggest thing we need to work on is that she can sometimes freeze up when on the phone with customers when they ask questions she doesn’t know how to answer. She has all the knowledge tools at her disposal to answer these questions, and typically when I help her with the answer, she already knew what it was, but it didn’t come naturally to her how to put the pieces together on the fly to get where she needed to go.

I’m pretty sure that this will improve as she encounters more and more unique situations and she gets more experience/confidence. That being said, I want to help her develop the ability to think on her feet. Are there any exercises you’re familiar with that we could do to help? I keep going back to how I learned how to do it, but all I can credit it with is that I played a lot of video games as a kid without reading the instruction manual.

Two things: Role-play and shadowing.

You can role-play customer calls with her, and give her feedback along the way. You can also let her shadow you or another experienced person who handles these calls well, so she gets some exposure to how other people field these questions.

In doing this, be explicit with her about the skill you want her to improve (“answering unanticipated questions from customers”) and the fact that you want to work with her to build that skill and help her get more comfortable doing it, so that she’s clear about the goal.

3. Did I ruin my chances in this phone interview?

So I had a phone interview and I’m thinking I might have flubbed it and I can’t stop thinking of it. I basically let my nerves get the better of me and when it came to my turn to ask the interviewer questions, one of my questions was “do you think I would be a good fit for the role and the company?” I can’t tell if I’ve ruined my chances with that question. The interviewer was gracious enough to answer and said that it is hard to tell in 30 minutes but from what he had heard so far, he would say that at least at face value, he would consider me a good fit.

I then asked what he thought the biggest challenges of this role would be. He gave a well thought out response about it and instead of engaging him and responding to what he said, my mind froze and I said “Thank you so much for sharing with me the details of this role, I really like what I’ve heard and I hope to hear from you guys soon?”

I feel like a complete idiot for ending the interview so abruptly and I’m really wondering if I’ve screwed my chances? He did respond that he liked what he heard as well but I’m thinking he was probably being polite. I felt like the first part of the interview went well until it came my turn to ask the questions. Would you consider these to be deal breakers?

No. And on that second one, it’s actually annoying when a candidate turns their question for me into an opportunity to pitch themselves — it usually makes it seem like they’re not genuinely asking questions so much as finding ways to sell themselves. It’s perfectly fine to ask a question and just be satisfied with the answer.

On the first question you asked (“am I a good fit?”), I wish you hadn’t asked it, because it put your interviewer on the spot; see further discussion of the problems with that question here.

4. Employer wants me to address 15 different things in my cover letter

I’m in the midst of applying for a role at a university. The application portal merely requests a CV and cover letter (no guidance on length), and the info pack clearly states that I must address each of the specifications they are looking for. There are 15 specifications! If I addressed each and every one in my letter, it would be over 2 pages.

Typically when orgs do this, they also tell you which specification they will look for on your CV (and which they will assess from your letter and from interview). No such luck here.

Do I risk being thorough but looking obtuse by addressing all 15 in my letter (I would have a little intro paragraph and closing, but otherwise I’d copy their table and address each component)?

Or do I divide the specifications between my letter and CV as best I can, but risk that the HR screener won’t catch the ones I embed in my CV (I imagine they will be scanning with a checklist for the exact language).

Nope, in academia they apparently really want you to address all 15. They are weird.

5. Asking for post-rejection feedback when you didn’t get an interview

I have a question about asking for feedback after a rejection. Most of the requests for feedback I’ve heard of have come after an interview or phone screen–is it ever appropriate to ask for feedback if you don’t reach the interview stage?

A friend of mine recently put my resume into her employer’s employee referral program for a few jobs. They were a bit of a stretch for me, and this employer is known as a great place to work, so I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t end up getting called for an interview. I was pleasantly surprised, however, that I got a really polite rejection letter explaining that they wouldn’t be moving forward with my application for the position, but noting that they’d keep my resume on file.

I know that “keep your resume on file” is often just politeness, especially at an employer that’s flooded with good candidates for every job, but I was wondering–I want to shoot the person who emailed me the personalized rejection letter a quick email to thank them for letting me know, and say that I’d love to be considered for similar positions going forward. Would it be appropriate to add a line about how, if there was anything I could do to make myself a stronger candidate, I would love to hear about it? A lot of me feels like this would be ridiculous, because I never even got to the interview stage, and I do not want to turn into that weird candidate who handled rejection badly. That said, working for this company has been a goal of mine for so long, and if there’s anything I can do to make myself into a better candidate, I would love to know about it.

There’s nothing wrong with trying, although you’re a lot less likely to get substantive, useful feedback at the pre-interview stage.

However, I’m questioning if it even makes sense to do it in this case: It sounds like you know that these were stretch positions for you. If your qualifications weren’t a super strong match, that’s probably your answer right there. In general, I’d save feedback requests for cases where you really don’t know what your weaknesses were; you’re basically asking someone for a favor, and I’d save that for when the response is likely to be more useful to you.

{ 130 comments… read them below }

  1. Lillie Lane

    #4: I’ve seen this before, and also a requirement for letters of recommendation to address the list of specifications (in academia). So weird, but if you don’t address all the points, someone on the hiring committee is bound to hold it against you. Better to just write the long cover letter. They’re used to long CVs and huge application packets — unlike the conciseness that would serve you better in a non-academic environment.

    1. OP4

      Thanks! That’s helpful – and I’ve basically done something similar by bolding their specifications at the beginning of each paragraph and addressed it – it would be hard to miss! :)

      1. Cafe Au Lait

        I work in a large (top 10 University) library. I’ve never addressed every single point as is; instead I’ve integrated it into the cover letter.

        I just (last night!) applied to a job that would involve a lot of work with student employees. The application wanted specific language about equipment check-in, placing holds, using a specific type of library management software, training, and searching for missing material among other criteria. Here is what I wrote to address those issues:

        “Library student employees were expected to work independently, without constant supervisor direction. In an effort to ensure that the job would be a good fit for the student, I helped rewrite the student employee interview questions to focus on virtues such as attitude, teamwork, customer service and the desire to succeed. Recognizing that student employees need multiple opportunities to grasp desk operations, I developed training tools such as a missing material checklist and a creative search strategies worksheet. I noticed that the same questions arose every semester, so I created a “website hunt” worksheet as a fun way for student employees to learn about the library, our services, equipment and software. I also trained student employees on Millennium, an Innovative Interfaces library management system, to check material in and out, place holds or answer basic account questions. To guide new students on closing procedures, I created closing checklist cards for the students to utilize during the closing rounds.”

        My cover letter, in total, was a page and a half. My personal rule of thumb is that each point required on the application should be one sentence in the CL. If possible, combine two points into one sentence. I hope this helps!

      2. Graciosa

        Another option which would allow you to preserve the flow of the cover letter would be to include and address the fifteen items in an attachment. Then you can allude to the request in the body of the letter, “As requested, I have reviewed each of the specifications (attached) and [insert whatever will help the letter flow].”

        The specification review should be very clean and easy to read (usually a simple table), possibly with room to identify whether you “Met” or “Exceeded” each requirement. For example (three column table, Specification, Candidate Qualification, Result) Bachelors’ Degree, Masters Degree, Exceeded.

        If someone asks for something this ridiculous (and yes, I know academia has its own traditions) I tend to assume that someone Not That Bright will be screening these, and you have to spell out for them that having a Masters or Doctorate does not disqualify you from a job that requires a Bachelors degree. The “Met” or “Exceeded” gives you an opportunity to protect yourself from that kind of ignorance, and to showcase your credentials a bit if you have a number of areas where your qualifications exceed the requirements.

        Good luck.

        1. SerfinUSA

          Sometimes it’s just lowly classified staff who get drafted for search committees, and rather than being ‘Not So Bright’, we actually screen for all points being addressed because we get so many irrelevant applications that we have to set weeding parameters somewhere. Also, while we’re bright enough to know that a masters or doctorate doesn’t disqualify someone for a job requiring a bachelors degree, we often find that candidates with higher degrees come with hierarchical baggage or expectations that make them unsuitable for certain roles.

          1. Cordelia Naismith

            Seriously. Just because we’re staff, not faculty, doesn’t mean we’re stupid. Some of us staff members have master’s degrees of our own, you know.

      3. Melissa

        I don’t know what kind of role you are applying for, but for faculty positions 2-3 page cover letters are pretty normal. So I think going into 2 pages won’t be looked at askance here. Academia – we’re not known for our efficiency! LOL.

      4. T-Shirt

        Depending on what your role would be, they may also be using it as a screen to see if you can closely follow instructions. I do research and prepare a lot of grant applications, and for many of our applications there are so many sections that seem obvious or excessive. However, if we don’t include that section and follow the instructions precisely, our grant application may likely be screened out before it even goes to committee. Given that that is the nature of the position, we always prefer applications who complete the application process as directed.

      5. Nanc

        Only 15 for an academic job? That’s nothing! Says me who sat on far too many hiring committees and advocated for no more than 5 points in the first screening. I figured the finalists wouldn’t mind answering 5 more later in the process!

    2. Artemesia

      Yes bite the bullet and answer these things specifically. The typical resume for an academic job is the curriculum vita and those can run 30 pages for a senior person without raising an eyebrow. It is just different.

      1. OP4

        Thanks all! It is not for an academic position – just professional/managerial. Hence the confusion, but I take it that this is pretty typical for higher ed and public sector jobs. So I bit the bullet and just addressed them!

        1. Jennifer

          Yeah, in academia you’d better have, at minimum, 95% of everything they ask for. And tick it off in great detail on the resume and cover letter.

          *sigh*

  2. TheLazyB

    #4 – I suspect you might be in the UK? In which case it’s fairl standard in many public sector jobs. I recently started a new job and my new line manager said that the way I set out my application to make clear how I met each separate criteria really helped. Apparently most people didn’t and shortlisting was really hard. So there you go.

    1. Merry and Bright

      Yes, I had to do this too for my current job. I had to put together a 750 word statement to address each competency listed in the job spec. (I’m also in the public sector. Definitely has its own ways of doing things!).

      1. Merry and Bright

        750 words per competency, that is 6 statements in all but at least I can keep my materials as a model for future posts.

    2. Cambridge Comma

      This is also what I’ve heard, that many UK organizations (not only public sector) score (often anonymised) applications against the advert when deciding who to interview to protect themselves against discrimination claims.

      1. TootsNYC

        Ditto! Love it.

        (I have a bad reaction to “Oxford comma,” because use copyeditors were calling it the serial comma for decades–it already had a reasonable name. A more descriptive name!)

    3. OP4

      Yup – I am in the UK (though originally from USA so it seemed odd to me). Thanks for the reassurance!

    4. Carrie in Scotland

      One of the places I am regularly applying to requires you to say how you meet every single essential (& desirable!) critera.

      1. Elizabeth West

        Ugh! What if you don’t? Nobody has everything!

        We were talking on here about employers holding out for someone who meets all the criteria for a position and a commenter referred to that as “waiting for Jesus.” :)

        1. Carrie in Scotland

          That’s why I haven’t even been able to even get an interview – just an auto rejection each time.

    5. It'sOnlyMe

      I’m in Canada and a recent cover letter I submitted for a public service job was 9 pages long. If I remember correctly, there were ten competencies with each needing 250 words detailing how you met that competency. I also had to add reference contact details for each competency. Painful.

  3. katamia

    2: Default scripts can also help–can you or her manager give her a list of phrases to say? Having phrases like “Please hold while I check on that” or whatever would work best in your office right in front of her at first and then later just having them memorized will buy her a little bit of time to think and get in the right mindset.

    Also, if she has something unrelated on her computer screen when these calls come in (I’m not sure if these calls are expected/planned or just come when they come), then maybe telling her to minimize it so she doesn’t have something unrelated staring her in the face while she tries to get in the right mindset to answer the question would help.

    1. Mabel

      I was thinking the same thing (as your first suggestion). I’m not great at instantly being able to come up with answers, so I have started a list of phrases I can use (these are internal clients, so it might be a little different). These are things that everyone else seems to know to say, but I need to write them down (it’s how I’ve always been, and it works for me). So things like, “I’ll need to double check and get back to you,” “Let me research that and let you know,” “I need to take a look at my notes before I can give you a definitive answer,” etc. I also don’t have any problem saying, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” (that last one doesn’t seem to be an issue for the OP’s colleague). It’s just been helpful to know that I don’t have to perform under pressure in a way that I really can’t anyway, and the phrases gave me time to relax. Sometimes I can then give an answer, but most of the time I wait until I can confirm my educated guess before responding. I’ve been having menopause-related aphasia for the past year or two, so my list has been especially helpful lately. (My memory has recently started coming back, though, which is quite a relief!)

    2. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

      I was going to go for your first suggestion also.

      Our teapot business is a bit different from the OP’s so I don’t know how much applies here. It may be mission critical to the OP that the customer is helped to problem solve during a single call session.

      In our situation, the first thing to teach new people is correction information gathering, not solving on the fly. We’re teaching them to ask the right questions but not necessarily answer them all right then.

      If a customer has blah blah question about a potential complicated custom teapot order, we need the new person to gather: full customer information, quantity, what they would like customized, budget, when they need to receive the custom teapots. (That is harder than it looks when the customer is driving the conversation.) The new person has to be on the ball enough to know what to ask for next – example, customer asks technical custom art question, new person should say “I can get that evaluated by our art specialists, could you email me your art please?”

      So for us, teaching questions first. Teaching how to give more complicated answers, later.

      1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

        Yes. This is often the problem that we run into. The staff member doesn’t know the answer because they didn’t gather enough information; they didn’t know what questions to ask. When this happens, I have people coming into my office asking me questions that I don’t know the answer to either because not enough information has been gathered.

      2. LBK

        And you’d be surprised how often asking a question is the answer to their question – sometimes you don’t know the answer at first because they’re asking it in a weird way or they’re using a different term or maybe they’re just sometimes flat out wrong in their understanding. If someone asks you when their mocha coffee urn will be delivered, you probably won’t know the answer to that because you don’t make coffee urns, so you need to respond with a question to clarify what they actually want from you.

      3. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

        Let me just say again how smart and thoughtful you and your company seem to be.

    3. BadPlanning

      I find that writing down details as the customer explains the problem to be very helpful for me to process. I’m not writing sentences, of course, just bits that are the essential information. Also, sometimes repeating back to the customer a mini version of the scenario can be helpful and let your brain have a few moments to grind on the data.

      1. Stranger than fiction

        I too was wondering if the problems had to be solved during a single call, or if they could use these types of “let me consult with so and so and get right back to you” types of phrases. If so, perhaps the new coworker just isn’t used to that from her previous role and needs to grow into it. Also, I’m wondering, do they have an FAQ type data base for customer issues? If so, she could spend down time/time off calls studying that. It sounds like she’s bright and this won’t be an issue a couple months from now as she gets up to speed.

    4. Mints

      +1
      It happened to me all the time that a customer would ask an off the wall question, and I initially had a deer in headlights moment, but a nice little, “Okay, let me pull up that information for you; hang on…” and my brain kicked into gear. I could even throw in a fake “Oh, the system is so slow today” if I was super distracted

  4. AGirlCalledFriday

    #4 – Wow, I didn’t know the universities required 15 pieces of flair in their cover letters.

    1. OP4

      +1 – and actually it’s closer to 25 if I include the “desired” specifications. So. Much. Flair.

      1. misspiggy

        It’s been like that my entire career (UK nonprofit and public sector). It’s so depressing when you’re applying for multiple jobs. Even worse when you have to type it into an online application that won’t let you paste chunks of text from Word.

        1. Trillian

          I wonder if text expansion software might be a way round that, something like AutoHotKey (Windows). That would let you type something like qual1 into the browser and have the software expander replace it with the entire spiel. It would depend in whether the text expansion software itself relies on copy-paste.

        2. zora

          I just keep Text Edit open on my computer. You can paste from a plain text document, so I’m always typing into Text Edit (or Notes, there are other alternatives) and then copy and pasting into online forms.

    2. The Cosmic Avenger

      Fifteen is just the minimum flair. Don’t you want to have more than the minimum??

  5. AGirlCalledFriday

    #2 –

    When I worked a job like this, I kept post-its and a notebook by my desk. In the notebook, I organized and color-coded frequent questions/issues for quick reference. The post-its were handy for taking notes in case I ran into something new/needed to add something that was already in the notebook. When someone called to ask a question, it was really helpful to realize that I DON’T need to answer on the fly. I sometimes get brain freeze when asked something – especially when I’m nervous, so I take the following steps:

    1. Listen to the question
    2. Re-iterate the question to make sure I’m hearing it right, while I’m also writing it down
    3. If I don’t know immediately but it’s in my notebook, I’ll say something like “Could you wait for a moment while I check on this?” (customers seemed to prefer staying on the line and waiting a few moments to being on hold)
    4. If I’m panicking/don’t know, I’ll ask if they will hold for a moment.

    It’s not a race and there’s no reason to rush or have it all memorized right now. As she gets better it will come with time as long as she believes that she’s not failing by not knowing everything immediately or quickly enough.

    1. TootsNYC

      “It’s not a race and there’s no reason to rush or have it all memorized right now. As she gets better it will come with time as long as she believes that she’s not failing by not knowing everything immediately or quickly enough.

      Agree. Taking a little pressure off might free her brain up to make rapid connections.

      1. Ty

        This helps in all sorts of situations — I worked the check-in desk of a youth hostel when I was young and the sometimes long lines of tourists who had all just arrived on one bus would sort of panic me and I’d rush. Someone who had worked the front desk for a while told me to just breathe and take the time (it was really only a few extra seconds) to be deliberative and make sure everything was right. With passports and people who didn’t speak English a whole bunch of things could unravel quickly, when it really did only require a few additional calm beats to make the entire shift go smoothly.

      2. Mimmy

        That’s always been something I struggled to recognize. Granted, my job was in a different field than others in this thread, but I always felt bad if a caller was in a frustrating or precarious situation and I didn’t have the answer right then and there.

    2. straws

      This is great advice. I also kept a notebook and eventually it turned into an official handbook for our CS department. Even a couple of years into that position, I could have an “off” day and forget something and it saved me a number of times. Most customers will also appreciate the effort to get a correct answer for them. Being on hold for a minute or 2 is much better than having to call back multiple times due to quick, but incorrect, information.

      1. Kelly L.

        Yup! To add to my comment below, I’ve actually instigated several changes to our FAQ, based on what people really do frequently ask.

    3. LBK

      I find that depending on the audience and the formality of the conversation, being candid about not knowing something can also really help – I’ve used a lot of “You know what? I’m actually not sure/I actually have no idea, let me look into that”. People generally appreciate the honesty rather than you trying to give a half-answer you pulled out of your ass.

      1. AGirlCalledFriday

        That’s so true. It’s just people, people! Most of them aren’t writing your name on the KILL list if you take 2 min longer than usual.

        …most of them.

        1. LBK

          If I had to pick one phrase that guides my customer service principles, it would be “Customers are just people”. That means that yes, some are total asshats, but most are just trying to get something done and would rather have you talk to them like a normal human rather than treating them like a weird alien dictator before whom you must bow.

    4. Ama

      Yeah, I get easily flustered on the phone (after having the same problem in some awkward Skype group conferences I think it might be that I rely heavily on feedback from people’s facial expressions to reassure me that I’m making sense). I administer a tricky application process, so I need to make sure I give people who call with questions accurate and consistent information. The thing I’ve found most helpful if faced with a really complex question (or, as sometimes happens, a caller on a cell phone whose audio quality is so bad I’m not sure I’m hearing their full question) is to just say “I’m going to need to research this answer with some colleagues. Would you mind sending me your question via email? That way I’ll be able to make sure I’ve passed on all the pertinent details so you get the best answer.” This pretty much always works — and quite frequently elicits extra details they forgot to mention that change the answer from what I would have given over the phone.

  6. TootsNYC

    For OP #3, with the phone interview:

    Your “am I a good fit” was an awkward question, but I know for me, if someone otherwise had a good interview, it wouldn’t ruin everything.

    And as for not responding to his answer about challenges–this is thank-you-note/follow-up-letter fodder! Think about which one of those challenges is one you can authentically speak abotu how you’d react to it, and make that part of your follow-up letter.

  7. De (Germany)

    “And on that second one, it’s actually annoying when a candidate turns their question for me into an opportunity to pitch themselves ”

    While I also think that’s true, the OP also effectively ended the phone interview by herself – “I really like what I’ve heard and I hope to hear from you guys soon” is as good as saying “okay, we’re done here then, right?” when the interviewer might still have points they want to cover. That might not have left a good impression.

    1. fposte

      I wouldn’t–it was the end of their part of the interview. If I wanted to ask them something more, that wouldn’t stop me in the slightest, but that also tends to be the time after interviewers have asked all their questions anyway, so It would seem perfectly logical to me that an interviewee would be aware of that.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Yeah, that’s my take. Especially in a phone interview (or at least in the phone interviews I conduct), it’s usually pretty clear that once the candidate asks her questions, the call will be wrapping up.

  8. @ #4

    In my experience in academia (in the US), a 2 page cover letter isn’t a problem (at least for a professional or faculty position). And it *is* important to address all the qualifications.

    1. Chocolate lover

      That hasn’t been my experience, at least for professional positions. None of my offices have required a candidate for a professional position to address each listed competency. I wouldn’t be surprised if the faculty do that though. We would, however, frown upon a 2 page cover letter (since we didn’t require them to address every competency). As we just did this week, while we’re reviewing applications for a position. Would we automatically discount the person? Probably not if they were otherwise qualified. But I’ve noticed those longer letters often come from the lesser-qualified candidates that we wouldn’t likely consider to begin with, like they’re trying to compensate.

      1. fposte

        And I’m yet another variant–I’m in a pretty doctrinaire school, hiring-wise, but we don’t require people to address all the competencies and we’re fine with two-page cover letters.

    2. Job-Hunt Newbie

      Usually they’re pretty specific in the postings what they want in the cover letter (at least what I noticed in my job hunt). But seconding this; if it falls under “required qualifications”, your best bet is to fit them into your cover letter somehow.

  9. Dutch Thunder

    OP #5 – that’s how I got my job! Your mileage may vary, of course. I applied to a stretch position, received a rejection, asked for feedback, and was pointed to a different position that had just been posted, which the HR contact thought would be much more up my alley. I got that job.

    1. OP #5

      It’s really great to know that this isn’t a weird or inappropriate thing to do! My primary goal is obviously just to represent myself well to HR/the company, so that if I’m ever a better fit for a position, they’ll remember me as a person who was gracious and adultish in her correspondence! I’m glad it worked out for you to do it like that!

      1. Dutch Thunder

        I really wanted to work for this company, and I figured I had nothing to lose. I made sure to make it very clear that I wasn’t in any way arguing with their decision, but wanted to learn what I could so I could be a stronger candidate in future. I didn’t count on anything, didn’t really expect to hear anything back, but they were lovely, and here we are. Good luck, OP #5!

  10. Matt

    #2 this person could be me. That’s why I hate the phone so much and love email. If contacted by email, an answer 5 minutes later is considered quick. If on the phone, even a thinking pause of 5 seconds is considered awkward. A phone support job is my vision of hell ;-)

    1. hildi

      I so totally know what you’re talking about, Matt!! I think I hate the phone so much because I can’t see the person. I’d rather see nothing of them or all of them, you know? I am very, very reliant on body language feedback when communicating with someone and I get all flustered if I can’t see it. As a customer, I will go out of my way to physically go to a business if I have a question. It would have been a million times easier to call, but I prefer to see the person face to face – I always feel like I have WAY more success that way.

      1. LBK

        I’m totally with you – if I can’t email, I would rather speak face to face. I almost think it’s not so much about their body language, but rather that I convey a lot with my face and body language that I don’t feel translates when I talk on the phone, so I end up getting distracting worrying that they can’t tell that I’m thinking/paying attention/concerned about their problem/etc.

        1. Mints

          They can’t see me nodding! I realized I keep nodding on the phone the other day, which is so stupid because all they hear is silence. I have to stick to well timed “Yeah” “Sure” and it’s so hard.

          I am definitely pro-email or in person. Phone is the worst.

    2. Mimmy

      YES!!! I always relished the email inquiries because it allowed me to take my time and compose a coherent, helpful answer. I’d still try to get back to them quickly (within 1 or 2 business days), but it definitely took some of the pressure off.

    3. Jennifer

      Yeah, for me the instant interruption and instant “you have to respond right NOW” is even worse than no visuals. I also just don’t remember things when they’re told to me over a phone rather than if I saw them in text.

  11. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

    #3

    We (and any interviewers who aren’t stupid) are always aware that it is nerve wracking for a candidate to be interviewed. We don’t hold silly nerve induced questions or replies against a candidate.

    What we’re looking for is the truth. We’re looking to suss out if you are the right technical and personality/cultural match.

    I think you blow an interview if:

    1) you can’t answer technical questions (if you brain freeze technical answer that you should known, yes, you blew an interview)
    2) you don’t come across as yourself (if you’re normally an engaging person and you freeze up into a no personality shell, yes, you blew an interview)

    How many truly dumb things have I said because of nerves? We’re all human on the other side of the table. I see people sweat things at AAM that I don’t think they should sweat. In my experience, that’s not how an interviewer evaluating a candidate’s thought process works.

    1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

      * Awkward sentence, sort of shoots and leaves. Try:

      In my experience, that’s not how an interviewer’s thought process, when evaluating a candidate, works.

      Still awkward, but not meaning muddled.

    2. Tau

      I actually apologised for being nervous in my first phone interview! I remember the interviewer said something like “don’t worry, I’m used to it – and I’d be worried if you *weren’t* at least a little nervous,” which really helped and made a lot of sense.

      1. Stranger than fiction

        Now that’s a good point. I’ve done that too, now that you mention it. Nothing wrong with using that as an ice-breaker “Forgive me, I’m a bit nervous. It’s been a while since I’ve interviewed” or something like that.

      2. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

        Yeah, I tend to interpret mild nervousness as a sign that the person really wants the job. Not always true, of course, but “assume positive intent”.

    3. Not Today Satan

      Once I interviewed for a temp position, and towards the end of the interview the manager asked if I was okay taking a temp job. I said yes and then said, “I’m getting married soon.” In my mind I meant that I had some financial security–I’d be on his insurance, etc. But instead I sounded like some sort of lady of leisure who’d retire from the workforce as soon as I got married. I still cringe thinking about it.

      1. Lily in NYC

        If someone said that to me, I would take it exactly as you meant it – that you will have more financial security since you were getting married. I still cringe about saying I was “anally prompt’ in an interview, so I get it (they laughed in my face but I got the job!).

    4. Cruciatus

      Even though I know this rationally because I’ve been reading this blog for years, it’s still good to read this the day after my phone interview. They gave me a couple multi-part questions where, even though I was taking notes, I forgot the first part they mentioned… I said something about not being a Debbie Downer at some point. WTF!? This was NOT on my practiced list of things to say, but at least they politely chuckled. But I honestly have no idea how I did and I can’t stop thinking about the few weird things I did say. I don’t think nerves got the better of me totally, but I definitely wasn’t as polished as I was hoping to be. We shall see…

  12. MsChanandlerBong

    Alison, do you have a separate email address for tech issues? I don’t want to send it to the address for asking work-related questions, nor do I want to clog up the comments with tech questions.

    1. TNTT

      Alison has been pretty responsive in the past to us pointing out tech issues here in the comments.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Actually, email is better because it makes it easier if any back and forth is required!

        Just my regular email: alison @ askamanager.org. Thanks!

    2. Meg

      #5: Remember that you’re in the digital age where on file usually means in a digital database. In my industry, many recruiters and contractors have my resume on file even if I don’t interview with a client or don’t accept terms with a client. A few big tech companies with internal recruiters have my resume on file and I get “conversation invites” all the time to see if I was looking for work because they knew what I did and I came up when the position came up BECAUSE I was already in the system (on file).

      So its not necessarily a generic rejection and you can still totally find with work with should something else pop up.

  13. Kelly L.

    Ugh, I’m #2. It’s actually scary how close that letter is to something I was going to write about under “things I want to improve” in my upcoming annual review. In my case, I think it’s impostor syndrome mixed with being the “new girl” mixed with fear of accidentally saying something that could get us in trouble. It’s not so much that I can’t put 2 and 2 together and get 4, it’s that at our institution, sometimes 2 and 2 actually equal Orange, and I don’t feel comfortable yet that I know all of those quirks. And the last thing I want is to give the wrong info and then have it haunt us later as “But that lady said I could…” So I end up taking messages and confirming my intuitions before I commit to anything.

    But of course that’s a flawed approach too, because nobody wants to be bothered by questions all day long, and it would of course look more professional if we had all the answers the moment someone called. So I’m working on it. And gradually learning the 2+2=Orange situations. And it’s getting better, but gradually. I suspect it will be this way for your co-worker as well. She may not be innately lacking in the ability to put things together on the fly; she may just not have confidence in her conclusions yet because she’s new. IMO, give her time.

    1. voluptuousfire

      +1.

      Especially this: And the last thing I want is to give the wrong info and then have it haunt us later as “But that lady said I could…” So I end up taking messages and confirming my intuitions before I commit to anything.

      I had a very similar job to the OP’s colleague at my last job and had the same issue. For some reason I had very little access to information (the guide they did have was taken away to be updated the week I started and wasn’t returned until 2 months later). I asked a lot of questions (to the annoyance of my manager) and kept detailed notes and by the time the guide came back, I knew roughly half of it and the guide filled in the rest.

      1. Kelly L.

        Oh! And that reminds me, maybe I’m still “traumatized” by one job where we did have a FAQ…and it was wrong. Like, all the info on it was out of date and made us regularly look like idiots.

        1. voluptuousfire

          ^ Oh, my former job’s website was pretty disorganized; information was vague or incorrect and I spent a good portion of my day saying “the information on the website is a little misleading. It’s really A instead of B, *insert reasons why where*.” Spending 1/2 to 1/3 your day explaining why the website is wrong really takes it out of you.

    2. OP #2

      As someone in a similar situation as my charge, is there anything that you manager does or you wished your manager could do to make you feel more comfortable as you go through these growing pains?

      1. Kelly L.

        Honestly, it was mostly just time, and realizing that there were some “orange” questions that happened fairly often and I just remembered the answer after a few times (like remembering how to spell an irregular word). A side effect was that I’ve been getting better at realizing when a question really is weird, really doesn’t have a lot of policy or precedent to apply to it, and it really is the better part of valor to go get help from somebody else (I don’t have much authority, in addition to being newish).

        1. LBK

          I will totally vouch for this working. I had an employee that was getting totally flustered trying to do sales pitches – would lose her train of thought mid sentence, was afraid to start the conversation with customer, trailed off in the middle of trying to list benefits, etc. I took her off the floor and had her write out the info for each product so she had to really think through the details of each one and how she would describe it in her own words, then we went through role plays for each one. It couldn’t have taken more than an hour and it was like a magical panacea – she shot up to the top of the department’s sales rankings within a week.

          I was actually pretty shocked that something so simple had made such a difference, but I think she really just needed to be able to get through the words of each conversation without the pressure of a customer staring her down. Once she’d heard herself do it successfully, that cut the nervousness dramatically.

        2. Cordelia Naismith

          Seconded. We did a lot of role playing when I was being trained for my current job, and it helped a lot.

      2. voluptuousfire

        * Make sure your charge has easy access to information. Asking questions is great, but having to hunt and peck or answers when you have people on the phone is frustrating and just creates more work for them.
        * Letting them know that they’re learning and there’s wiggle room for wrong answers.
        * If they get higher level, complicated questions (i.e. the software one mentioned earlier), for the next few weeks, let them know they can pass on the call to a more seasoned colleague and allow them to listen in. Let them know that they can tell the caller they’re new. Usually people are a lot nicer about any hesitation if they know the person they’re speaking to is new in the role.

        I was like you, OP#2 in that I learned my former job mostly on the fly (with the added tasks of handling the workload of 3 people with absolutely no departmental organization) and while it was challenging, I felt lost a good portion of the time. My manager and the colleagues hired after me were given the opportunity to sit and observe for a few weeks but I was thrown into the deep end and expected to perform at 100%. Let your charge know that you expect a good performance but to be running at optimum capacity, it will take time and as she gains more confidence, she’ll blossom.

  14. Anonymousterical

    #2 – When I first started as a manager of a huge big-box store (i.e., handling the most random customer complaints and issues you can dream of), I could have been described the same way you describe your new co-worker. It really helped me to see how other managers handled questions, so I shadowed them on customer calls whenever I could for a good 2-3 weeks. It just helped to see what tone they used, what latitude they had, what information they considered, how they handled not knowing the answers — things like that. It’s not that I couldn’t think on my feet or problem solve, it’s just that I felt so new to the role that I didn’t feel comfortable doing that right out of the gate. About a month in, I was rolling quite well on my own and improving as I encountered unique situations and gathered more experience, to use your words, so, yes, time and experience will also help her gain her feet.

  15. Mel in HR

    OP #5, I would say you could ask, but I wouldn’t expect an answer. I think the best option would be to thank them and inform them that you will be striving to continue to improve your skill set. Or something like that.

  16. Ad Astra

    In addition to Allison’s advice for OP #2, may I suggest cheat sheets? Direct the new employee to create a document with all the information (and perhaps specific language) she uses for common calls, and have her add to it whenever something novel comes up. For a lot of people, it helps to have it all right there in front of you.

  17. Graciosa

    Regarding #1, my instinct is that such a letter is a bad idea.

    It conveys the impression that someone (whether the candidate or the co-workers) thinks management is a popularity contest. It isn’t.

    It also involves the co-workers inserting themselves unasked into the selection process. They don’t have the benefit of having seen all the candidates, so their endorsement of the one candidate for whom they decided to advocate does not have much weight.

    I suppose that theoretically if the co-workers can speak authoritatively about the candidate’s management skills, it might be possible to do this but I honestly can’t see it ever happening. Co-workers normally are not disciplined by each other (or even by a team lead) – what can they say that doesn’t sound like “We really LIKE her!”? Which brings this back to a popularity contest – which is a bad idea for a management position.

    I think such a letter has a much greater potential to hurt than to help.

    1. Charlie P

      I’m #1. Thank you Graciosa and Allison for your advice! My gut was telling me that the letter was a bad idea, but I was also very flattered that my co-workers wanted to do it so I did not want to dismiss it out of hand. I like the idea of face to face with the director much better than a letter. I want to get the position on merit and not popularity.

      The challenging part is that the director is new to the position (she was the director for our West Coast and Canada office and recently took over my East Coast office). I feel there is a need for me to push my ability and internal process knowledge over an external candidate because this would be my first ever manager position. I am assuming I will at least get an interview as an internal candidate and plan to stress my knowledge there. Just not sure if it will also be good to get input from other sources.

  18. OP #2

    Thank you for the suggestions, all. It’s reassuring to know that I’ve already am deploying/have deployed a couple of these strategies; I look forward to suggesting a couple more as we move forward.

    That being said, I might not have done a great job of describing what I’m hoping to improve. It’s less of answering static questions (e.g. “How much does this cost?”) that can be put off by “getting back to them” or something along those lines, rather, more understanding how to tackle dynamic, creative questions (e.g. “Here is what I have in my system; how can I get the most of your software?”).

    I am acutely aware of the stress and self-introduced pressure that comes with this position; I went through it as well about a year ago without anyone directly managing me. Time will definitely help, and we are giving her plenty of it; I just want to make that transition towards confidence as smooth and stressless as possible.

    1. Dynamic Beige

      A while back, I got Quiet by Susan Cain at the library, which is about the way introverts work. One of the stories that really stuck out was the one about the lawyer who couldn’t think on her feet. Some people simply can’t because they’re too busy internally thinking about the information and trying to figure out what the best response is. I know I have a similar issue where I just work better if I get the problem and think it over/let it simmer for a while, I can’t always just blurt out a good solution in five seconds, sometimes working on it provides the answer. I’m not saying your employee is the same way, time will tell if she gets better at answering the questions but if she doesn’t, she just may not be quick on her feet and there’s nothing “wrong” with it.

      If the main problem she’s having revolves around what benefits the software offers to certain configurations, is there a manual on that or some sort of literature that she could read? I’m not a developer, but maybe your programmers have some stuff on the benchmarking they’ve done during testing. The way hardware changes constantly, it’s pretty much an impossible task to know for all platforms but there might be some sort of “comparables” paper that could help?

    2. fposte

      You say “creative and “dynamic,” but it sounds like you might be talking about checklist territory; those can be used as building blocks for different questions, after all. So maybe she could do some research to pull some checklist stuff together. What are the three most popular uses for the software? What are its three biggest differences from competitors? What are the three main situations in which people shouldn’t buy it?

      Aside from just the general utility of such checklists, especially in a situation where she’s not the only person facing these questions, they would give her someplace to start, and I think there’s a good chance that that’s what’s freezing her up.

      1. Emily, admin extraordinaire

        Or a flow chart– Does the client use Windows or Mac? if Windows, this result. If Mac, this result. Etc.

    3. AGirlCalledFriday

      But she’s only been there a month! I think it’s just way too soon to expect dynamic answers. She’s still just settling in. Starting a new job is always stressful – it takes awhile for everything to get ironed out. If she hasn’t improved on these creative questions by the end of the second month, then that might be a time to step up your game.

    4. katamia

      How familiar is she with the software, though? A lot of the ways to maximize the usefulness of software aren’t things you know about right when you first start learning. I don’t know if it’s reasonable to expect that from someone who might not have known much about your software before being hired, since she’s only been there a month. It does sound like you got through it fine, but this can sometimes be a bit of a trap–“I did it, so other people can too.” So it might help to examine your expectations a little more closely. I’ve never worked in anything tech-related so I don’t know if this sort of job/job expectation is common in tech, but it really does sound like a little much while she’s still finding her feet.

      Emily’s suggestion of a flow chart does sound like a great tool, though–something like “If they want to do X, ask about Y/suggest Z.”

    5. cv

      I think “dynamic, creative” questions usually have plenty of room to delay having to respond, either through putting the customer on hold for a minute or offering to call them back. “I think one of my colleagues worked with a customer with a very similar set up to yours, and she might have some good ideas for you. Can I give you a call back after I talk with her?” would work. Or “I’ve mostly worked with our software in context X, so can I do a little research about your Y context problem and get back to you?” In this case, “do a little research” might mean “think about it for a few minutes without the pressure of having someone on the phone.” Most customers will be happier with a relatively prompt call back with a good answer than a half-baked answer thought up on the fly. And I bet your new employee will get better at responding in the moment over time, and need to use delaying tactics less, but having the flexibility to take the pressure off would ease the whole thing.

    6. LQ

      Encourage her to ask more questions. (And as suggested Roleplay this out!! You don’t have to call it roleplay if you don’t want, scenarios, examples, LARPing, whatever works for you.) Asking questions is a great way to give enough time and get enough information that you’re confident in getting a good answer.
      ex…
      Here is what I have, how can I get the most from your tools?
      Well what kinds of things have you done in the past? Tell me about a process you currently have that’s overly complex and cumbersome. What is the most frustrating part of the job? What is your end goal? Can you describe a typical interaction that tangentially involves this software to me?
      Oh…client talks for 5 minutes – feels warm and fuzzy, your person has 5 minutes, way more information, and can formulate a great idea.

      Also some good stall for time things. “Wow! That’s a great question, give me just a moment to consider.” “You know I love a good challenge, I’m not quite sure what you mean by Y can you tell me more?” Etc…

    7. Nerdling

      Let her know she has support, and actually provide her with that support. She’s only been there a month, and you now have the ability to provide her with what you didn’t have. Don’t expect her to just grasp it all at once when she might still be working at fully understanding the basics. Make sure that she has had the chance to experience this software for herself so she has a better idea of how it works and what it can do. Have her sit in with more experienced employees to see what they recommend. She can’t offer suggestions on how to get the most out of the product if she’s still figuring out what the product is and does!

  19. Mimmy

    #2 – I love these suggestions and wish I’d been brave enough to ask for role playing or shadowing at a previous employer to help improve my confidence. The job was at a nonprofit, and my role was providing information to callers and that was pretty much ALL thinking on your feet, which I am just not very good at. We did have occasional meetings with the other information specialists, but it was just looking at mock call logs and brainstorming what info we’d provide.

    #4 – So glad to know that it’s okay to ask a question and not follow up with a comment on the answer!

    1. Mimmy

      Although to be fair to my employer, I think I was hired based on my then-recent educational background & internship, so they probably thought I knew the resources inside and out and had the training to assist people in difficult situations. Turned out not to be as easy for me as I’d hoped.

  20. The Expendable Redshirt

    #2
    I hate role playing with the burning passion of a thousand suns. People have tried to use this strategy with me at work and I don’t it to be very effective. They tend to spring the experience on me (Surprise! Think quick!) which just causes my brain to freeze. Or I am so annoyed by the fake acting that my irritation shuts down any learning experience.

    For me, shadowing someone is much more effective. I can watch someone competent and have a basic map of what to do in my head. Writing out common conversations or frequently used phrases also help. Just read the script!

    1. fposte

      I confess I’m not a fan myself, but I’m in a situation where people wouldn’t have anybody to shadow unless I did their job for them for a while, which isn’t going to work. And rehearsal with immediate feedback does seem to help people get into the habit of going to the scripts and getting their freezing impulses out in the fake situation rather than the real ones.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      On a personal level, I hate role-playing too. I find it mildly embarrassing and just awkward. But I’ve seen it work incredibly well, even among people who — like me — hate it. I like fposte’s framing of it as rehearsal rather than role-playing, which would immediately make me feel less weird about it.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

        It also should be preceded by some learning. Don’t just throw someone into the deep end!

        I once had a terrible role-playing training for a trainer/facilitator job. We were asked to identify our biggest fears about leading a training, then without any support in dealing with them our trainers role-played our fears (a disruptive student, a racist or otherwise problematic comment that needs to be addressed, power going out on your slide deck and having to wing it, etc.). Everyone was so stressed out – I’m not sure how much we learned!

      2. Meg Murry

        I agree, calling it “rehearsal” or even just “practice” would be less stressful than calling it “role playing”. Can you have another employee in on it, so that other person can act as the customer and you can sit next to the employee and coach her?

        Also, what is your current procedure for her handling something she doesn’t know? Is she allowed to tell the person she’ll look into it and get back to them? Transfer the call to you? Tell them you will call back? Is she taking calls on her own at this point, or is she still shadowing you or doing calls with you there next to her? Give her guidelines as to how to handle this, and that will take off a lot of the pressure.

    3. LBK

      I think it depends how you do it. I find some people do them in a really hokey way – they put on a fake voice or fake name or something when they’re playing the customer and that makes the whole thing feel awkward. I’ve never done it that way; I just tell them to go through it like they’re talking to me, and then I ask them the questions a customer would ask. Stripping away a lot of the “pretend I’m a customer” framework helps make it less embarrassing to sit through.

  21. Student

    #4 – Is this job in Australia? This is apparently a normal thing in Australia for job applications.

    If it is, the letter addressing the specifications can be separate from a cover letter. You’re supposed to address every specification very clearly and explicitly. “I fulfill the specification that I must know how to make teapot spots through my 5 years of prior experience making teapots at Awesome Teapots Incorporated…” It’s not supposed to be in a nice, flowing set of paragraphs that cover multiple specifications, it’s more like answering a questionnaire or a set of homework problems. Look it up on the internet for better info, as I’ve only done one job application for Australia.

  22. anon university employee

    Non-faculty university staff (professional) here — address all the damn questions. If it takes two pages, it takes two pages.

    What happens at [large university with recognizable name] is that the HR person makes sure that applicants meet the minimum qualifications (education, years of experience, languages, software, whatever it is) and then forwards the materials on to the hiring department. They’re the ones who are going to be looking for the 15 bullet points or whatever. Depending on how specialized the job is, HR might not really know very much about these fifteen apparently VERY IMPORTANT things. Good luck!

  23. GrandBargain

    #2 – Toastmasters. Your co-worker can practice all the excellent strategies suggested here and feel comfortable thinking on her feet (Table Topics) in a non-work environment and with subjects she knows well. If your company is serious about helping her develop, they might let her attend during work hours (usually either side of the noon hour) or even pay her dues.

    It’s not for everyone (what is?), but it has worked wonders for me.

  24. Chameleon

    OP #5, I am in a similar position-I just applied to a (temporary) stretch position but I really want a different position with them that won’t open up for another year. I was planning, when my rejection comes, to ask for feedback about strengthening my applicant for the other position, but I don’t know if that’s weird. (The same people are hiring for both.)

    1. OP #5

      That was sort of my thinking as well! I don’t have another position in mind, but I would love to know what, in addition to another year of experience somewhere else, would make me a more marketable candidate? If they really valued candidates who were, I don’t know, bilingual, or who knew more about accounting or something, I would love to spent more time trying to build those skills.

      Alison, thank you so much for answering my question! It was great to get your perspective and I really appreciate your help.

  25. AnnieNonymous

    #2

    Is there a process in place for training customer service staff on common questions? Are they even getting primers in the products/services being sold before being put on the phones?

    I recently left a job due, in large part, to stuff like this. The problem isn’t that I can’t think on my feet. It’s that I wasn’t given any formal training for the job, I was criticized for NOT being able to spew out answers, and when I finally started answering quickly, I was reprimanded for not giving the 100% correct answers. I asked if we could set aside some time so I could get some real, proper training, but I was called a “f!cking r3tard” for expecting training at a small start-up.

    I hope that thins isn’t going on at your company (and since you’re asking for input, it seems like it’s not), but one thing I’ve noticed is that start-ups think it’s cool and groovy to cultivate this sink-or-swim, “throw you to the wolves” atmosphere. Tell your manager that you need to instate an actual training process, especially if the company expects to grow and hire more employees. It’s impossible to “think on your feet” when you were hired to do customer service but aren’t all that knowledgeable about the industry in question. If your manager balks at creating any kind of training manual or doing training work before fully putting someone on the phones, this is a business that isn’t functioning as well as it might seem.

    1. I'm a Little Teapot

      Wow, that’s horrible.

      Jobs that refuse to train you are among my most loathed types of jobs. They’re just setting their employees up for failure. (Then they’re shocked that no one at the company knows how to do anything, and people keep quitting or getting fired.)

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