To fill job vacancies, Shane Jones, owner of Ace Personnel, in Overland Park, Kans., used to select 10 people to interview from the hundreds who responded to his ads. Then the bright, experienced people he hired would disappoint him because of their poor customer-service skills. As his company grew Jones could no longer spare the two hours he generally set aside for each interview. So he decided that during initial screenings over the phone, he would engage the applicants in role playing.

In those phone interviews, he and his managers cut to the chase. After presenting candidates with a short history of Ace and its successes, they ask candidates how they would contribute to the company's growth and what makes them best for the job. "We catch them off guard," Jones says. "We see who can perform under pressure." Ace gives points for poise and imagination, and subtracts points for timidity, canned answers, or "a sense of entitlement."

Then managers invite candidates to pretend to be restaurant managers. The Ace manager plays a disgruntled customer. When the candidate asks, "How was everything?" the "customer" complains that service was slow. If the candidates automatically refund money, Jones says, "that's bad. Do they offer to trade product -- a coupon for a free meal? That's a start. But then, do they ask questions to determine why the service was bad? Was the waiter slow, or was it the kitchen? The more questions they ask, the better." To make sure candidates get a fair shake, Ace has carefully scripted the managers' side of the exchange.

The phone screening is so efficient, Jones says, that he's hired about 75% of those who do well. He's saved himself some time and saved several marginal job candidates the nuisance of getting dressed up and going to the office for nothing.