. 3 min read

Calling candidates out of the blue can be daunting, especially for managers who don’t do it very often, or who rely on recruiters to do such dirty work. But the fact is, getting a quality hire means you will eventually have to make calls to people you don’t know and who may not be expecting your call. That first call is absolutely critical. It sets the tone for the courting relationship going forward, and if done right, it can become the bedrock of a successful negotiation, ultimately leading to a hire.

On the other side of complexity is simplicity. Below is a graphic that shows an ideal outline and script for the first phone call. It works if you're "first-time-caller", or a seasoned headhunter. This is syrupy goodness that has been refined over 18 years of recruiting and making that first phone call. Following are some comments and finer points to the diagram.

I’ll start with a question; what is the purpose of the first phone call? Is it to sell the opportunity? Is it to initially qualify the candidate? Is it to discover if there is a compensation “fit”? All of these can, and probably should, be accomplished in the first call. But if you don’t lose sight of just this ONE thing – that the purpose of the first call is to schedule a second call/ meeting – then you will likely do well. If you accomplish nothing more than scheduling the next meeting, you have succeeded. In fact, I will intentionally cut a first call short once I know I can secure the second meeting. Trying to do a full scale interview or vetting candidate qualifications at length on the initial call will get the entire tone of the relationship out of whack. Your goal: get the next meeting…that’s it!


One of the biggest mistakes that a manager or recruiter could make is falling into a trap of doing all of the talking. I call it “feature-and-benefiting” the candidate to death. We’ve all been there, and most of us know WHEN we’re actually doing it. It’s like you want to stop the whole conversation and say, “Help! I’m talking and I can’t shut up!” The solution is to ask excellent questions at well-timed moments. The first qualifying question is; “Have I caught you at a bad time…do you have a minute to talk?” If the answer is yes, then the hook is SET! If the answer is “no”, then either they aren’t interested or they really can’t talk. Simply express sensitivity to the fact that they are AT work and move to create a new time to talk…that will tell you if they have any interest at all.

But the most pivotal question in this diagram is; “Perhaps my first question should be; are you keeping an eye open these days?” A “yes”, or “Isn’t everyone”, or some-version-thereof response to this question does several important things. First it confirms their interest in exploring a new opportunity. Second, it affirms your position in the relationship as "Ms Opportunity" knocking on THEIR door – and not the other way around. It lays the foundation for the most important question you can ask a candidate, which is; “What’s causing you to keep an eye open these days?” (Which as we discussed in [THIS POST] post is REALLY asking them about their current pain, providing insight into the plausibility of their making a move AND giving you the ability to know if this is a fit or even sell-able opportunity to them.) And finally, it opens the door for you to ask the most important question of this first phone call, which is, “Is there a time in the next couple of days that we can talk in more detail?"

There are at least 5 other articles that could be written on the psychology of this diagram. There’s a pull-the-sale moment, there’s a question asked just to make a statement, and there’s an entire strategy here designed to be direct but keep the candidate unspooked AND interested. All of this is for discussion in perhaps other articles. Suffice to say though that I am not a fan of a more obtuse approach I have seen recruiters take to the first call, where they simply describe an opportunity to a prospect and ask for referrals and hope that the prospect raises their own hand for the job. I understand why they do it…but I find it lame, unnecessarily indirect, and if I’m being honest – unprofessional. In the mean time, I have trained dozens of first-time recruiters on this well-tested method outlined in this diagram. It works whether you’re a manager or a seasoned recruiter, whether doing a lower-level hire or trying to fill a CEO slot. I hope it’s helpful. Good luck.