One of the most memorable lines from the 1996 classic movie “Jerry McGuire” comes at the very end.

“I love you. You . . . you complete me. And I just . . . ,” Jerry stammers to Dorothy.

“Shut up. Just shut up,” Dorothy, Jerry’s love interest, responds, “You had me at ‘hello.’”

In other words, Dorothy was telling Jerry that he had “won her heart” after hearing just the very first word out of his mouth, “Hello.”

Could there really be that much inherent power in a SINGLE word? You bet there can be and is! OK, you’re probably saying at this point, but what in the world does any of this have to do with BRANDING oneself in today’s job market, anyway? Actually, quite a bit. Let me explain.

Typically, when you call up another person, what is the first word out of that person’s mouth when they answer the phone? “Hello,” of course! Right? Right!

So what? You may say. Well, here is the “so what.”

I have found that the vast majority of job seekers I call (as the result of having my interest piqued by their résumé or by some other response to a career opportunity I have posted, etc.) pronounce “hello” in this manner:

They say, “heh low,” with the emphasis being placed on the “heh.” You know what? That immediately brands the person as probably someone who has a low energy level, little enthusiasm, is not very optimistic or positive-thinking.

Let me assure you, then, that the person certainly doesn’t have ME at “Hello.” Quite the contrary, actually. Usually, they have LOST me at “Hello”!

Is my perception “unfair” or unnecessarily biased? Not really. Bear in mind that, when I am communicating with you on the telephone, the only “clues” I am getting about you and your personality are AUDIO clues. I can’t see your facial expressions, hand gestures or the many other physical “clues” one experiences in face-to-face conversations. So, yes, it matters a great deal how you pronounce words, the inflection you use, your tone of voice, the volume of your voice, etc., etc., etc. And, yes, it really does begin with the FIRST word out of your mouth, “Hello.”

But, you might be protesting at this point, a telephone call such as I’m describing really isn’t an “interview,” so what’s the big deal? Fair question, but you couldn’t be more off the mark if you honestly think this initial phone call from me (or any other “headhunter,” hiring manager or Human Resources professional) is NOT a “real” interview. (The proof of this statement is this: If you don’t “pass” this initial call you won’t have to worry about any future “real” interviews.)

By taking such an apparently uncompromising stance regarding this initial phone call am I perhaps missing out on some good candidates? Maybe, but to be honest about it, I don’t have the time (or the inclination) to wade through too many “maybe” candidates. I am looking to present only people in the top 20% of their bracket to my clients. In turn, my clients want to hire only the top 20%. So when your “Hello” is a real downer to begin with, you have just lost me. I am already thinking about my next phone call. And this is especially true if you have sent me your résumé for a sales position.

Let me digress for just a moment here to put this issue into greater focus.

If you have been following this blog, you know we are in the most hypercompetitive job market EVER! Manpower, Inc. (the largest staffing firm in the world) states in its most recent survey that 84% of currently employed people want a new career opportunity. LinkedIn’s survey puts that number at 79%. For all practical purposes, those numbers are basically the same. Translated, that means there are 108 MILLION currently employed people wanting a new opportunity. Combine that with the 14 million unemployed and we have 122 million people who want a new job!

What that means to you is this: Companies can afford to be picky. Very picky. And they are!
Now the reality is this: Not every person in this group of 122 million is an ACTIVE job seeker. More realistically, the job seeker “pool” will closely mimic a traditional “bell curve” distribution, i.e., about 25% will indeed be ACTIVE job seekers (posting their résumés, responding frequently to online postings, etc.); another 25% will be SEMI-ACTIVE (have their résumé ready to go, probably have some search robots set up to send them postings in a particular area and will respond very selectively to online postings); another 25% will be SEMI-PASSIVE (open to a call from a recruiter or referral from a colleague); and the remaining 25% will remain PASSIVE (though they would like a new opportunity, they will never really have the inner-fortitude and stomach to actually do anything about it).

So, the magnitude of just the ACTIVE and SEMI-ACTIVE job seekers—fully one-half of the entire “pool,” or 61 MILLION people—goes a long way toward explaining why our executive recruiting firm, on average, gets 200+ resumes and 30 to 40 phone calls each and every business day, as well as why some large companies get literally THOUSANDS of résumés and phone calls each business day. What this means, then, is that, of necessity, the hiring game for both our firm and the hiring companies today is one of EXCLUSION. In other words, we are looking for ways to ELIMINATE as many candidates as possible, as quickly as possible, until we get to a “short list” of candidates.

Now, back to the initial phone contact with a potential candidate.

Sometimes, though not always, I may give a potential candidate a “second chance,” even if they have already blown the “Hello” portion of the initial phone contact. I’ll usually say something like this:
“This is Skip Freeman with The HTW Group and you sent us your résumé in response to such-and-such posting.”

Now the candidate has an opportunity to redeem himself/herself, but alas, all too many continue to brand themselves as someone in the bottom 80% of candidates when the SECOND word out of their mouth is simply, “Yeah?” or “OK?”

I really would like to think that, if most candidates actually stopped and thought about what kinds of things precipitate a call from a “headhunter,” hiring manager or Human Resources professional in the first place, they might take an entirely different, far less careless approach when they answer the phone. (Hey, I’m an eternal optimist!)

As we tell you in “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets, “headhunters,” it’s crucial to keep in mind that hiring managers and Human Resources are interested in learning the answers to basically FOUR questions when considering you (or anyone else) for a any given position:

• Can you DO the job? (Do you have the skills and technical qualifications?)
• Do you WANT to do the job? (Are you enthusiastic, motivated, hardworking, energetic?)
• WILL you do the job? (Will you go above and beyond? Do you get along with people and work well in teams? Will you be excited about being with the company?)
• Are you a CULTURAL FIT? (Dress, mannerisms, pace of work, attitude)

So, when I (or anyone else) pick up the phone and give you a call, it is because I (or we) have already determined from the information you sent to us (résumé, cover letter, email, voice mail, etc.) that there is a higher degree of probability than most that you “can DO the job”, i.e. the information you provided suggests you have the right educational background, experiences and skill sets.

And, when we call you, we are already focused on the next three questions in the process of elimination noted above. And, literally, it is often the very first word out of your mouth—“HELLO”—that can make or break the entire phone call, as well as your potential candidacy. Cruel? Arbitrary? Perhaps, but that’s still the way it is!

Whether you want a new career opportunity, someone in customer service to help you, or just doing your current job on a daily routine basis, don’t “lose them at ‘Hello.’” While I’ve shown you how you can brand yourself as someone who is NOT a prime candidate simply by the way you say, “Hello,” it’s important to point out that you can just as well brand yourself as someone in the Top 20% with just that one word. You can be perceived as someone with a high level of energy, optimism and enthusiasm with just that one word too! Say “Hello” with ENERGY and ENTHUSIASM! Or better yet, don’t say “Hello” at all! Rather, try answering the phone by saying something like this: “Hi, Jill speaking” or “Smith residence.” But if you do choose to answer the phone with just the word “Hello,” after I hear it don’t make me be thinking, “Yeah, hell is a little low.” Try “hi”…it is a little closer to heaven.”


Skip Freeman is the author of “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets: The Rules of the Hiring Game Have Changed . . . Forever! and is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The HTW Group (Hire to Win), an Atlanta, GA, Metropolitan Area Executive Search Firm. Specializing in the placement of sales, engineering, manufacturing and R&D professionals, he has developed powerful techniques that help companies hire the best and help the best get hired.