Competency based interviewing Customer Services - Robert Tearle Consulting (2023)

Competency based interviewing Customer Services - Robert Tearle Consulting (1)




This white paper is designed to help knowledge workers, professionals & semi-professionals, managers and senior execs CXO level prepare better for interview – this particular article is written to help the candidate approach their interview better informed and more prepared.

Where appropriate, in each occupational discipline, we have included questions for both individual contributors and management questions for individual disciplines.

This white paper specifically addresses the issues of how-to best approach handling competency-based interviews.

Here’s what we’ve got for you:

  • What does competency-based interviewing mean?
  • How to second guess what questions may arise and how to answer them?
  • Question bank – Examples of generic competency based interview questions which you may expect.
  • Examples of specific questions, which you may expect if you’re applying for a creative job type.

What does competency-based interviewing mean?

Competency-based interviews are structured, with the interviewer working from a set of pre-determined questions.

They work on the basis that your past performance is a reliable predictor of the future, so you can expect to be asked a number of questions that will require you to draw on specific aspects of your past performance.

Competency-based interview questions will typically begin:

  • Tell me about a time when?
  • Tell us what approach you took?
  • Describe an occasion when?
  • How did you go about?
  • Give me an example when?

These are often based around core behavioural competencies such as:

Initiative and innovation.Developing others.Delivering results.
Team leading.Interpersonal skills.Learning & self-development.
CommunicationPlanning and organising.Analytical thinking.
Strategic thinking.Building relationships.Teamwork and collaboration.

However, competency-based interview questions are more likely to be put to you in a specific context, determined by the requirements of the job and what is to be accomplished / achieved.

Competency based interviewing Customer Services - Robert Tearle Consulting (2)

Why is it so important that you understand competency-based interviewing?

Two reasons;

Firstly, HR is increasingly becoming recognised for its contribution to the business – once a discipline which many people saw as taking a back-seat, HR as a function is becoming increasingly valued.

  • Importantly HR professionals becoming increasingly business savvy, better focused on business outcomes and more influential in driving up organizational capability through more robust recruitment and selection tactics and techniques for internal and external resourcing.
  • Best practice in HR, means leveraging a competency-based interview approach; taking a more scientific approach to determining a candidate’s ability to perform in the job and this means looking for previous experience of success (competency).
  • You can expect HR executive to be interested to identify experience which is directly relevant to the specific demands of the job, the goals to be achieved and situation in which it is to be done (business drivers, market conditions / dynamics….).

Second reason; most experienced senior managers or business leaders are either aware of the merits and rationale of competency-based interviewing or are subconsciously aware of it, and therefore will often use competency-based interview questions to assess a candidate’s real ability.

In relation to their questions, the interviewer(s) will analyse your answer around ‘what you did’, in terms of your experience, knowledge and skills applied to the situation that is in question. The question is most likely to be framed in terms of direct relevance to the organization and the job being recruited for, and you should look to answer it in the same terms.

You will demonstrate the extent of your affinity to the organization’s activities. The interviewer, and certainly if they are part of HR, will want to know ‘how you did what you did’. This relates to the behavioural competencies that are relative to the values of the organization. Are you a fit with the desired culture of the organization?

For more senior roles, and particularly jobs that involve people management, apart from the technical skills and general behavioural aspects, management of people is key. However, it is increasingly common for the term leadership to be used, therefore it may help to provide some delineation between the two terms.

Management is seen as the transactional processes by which an organization is steered, and its activities are planned, directed and executed procedurally.

Leadership is considered to be a more transformational activity in which influence is created and used to bring about people performance. So, we can see fundamental differences in approach – authoritarian v. charismatic, short-term objectives v. strategic vision, doing things right v. doing the right things.

Leadership is seen as much more behaviourally driven, an innate characteristic of nature rather than learned, hence it may drive competence interview questioning that has greater focus on emotional intelligence.

Competence questions have their foundation in the premise that how a person behaves in a given situation is characteristic, rather than what they say they would theoretically do in a given situation, which may or may not be the case in the event. At the most senior levels of an organization, the criticality of leadership will feature strongly in the manner of the competence interview questions that you will be asked, as much as your focus on past business performance.

How to second guess what questions may arise.

The keys to unlocking what competency-based interview questions you may face, lie in the following clues and combinations…

Expect questions to be focused on very predictable business-critical goals for which you will be expected to be responsible, and against which your performance will most likely be measured, and by which success or failure will be determined. These are most likely to be industry-sector and job specific. Consider what matters most in the position into which the employer is hiring – the key challenges of the role, the key issues facing the business, its ambitions and objectives. Anticipate what areas you think they are most likely to probe you about. Where does your experience and achievements relate?

You should reflect on what insight you have into the opportunity from any job spec, briefing from a head-hunter, internal recruiter, job advert, inside line from someone in your network, news items or other media items including their website, then try to second guess what questions they are most likely to put to you. Consider sitting in the interviewers’ shoes and think about what questions you might ask if you were on their side of the table.

Factors most likely to influence the shape of the competency-based interview question /s!

Competency based interviewing Customer Services - Robert Tearle Consulting (3)

Take a broad view of the organization itself – its size and spread geographically, its range of products and services, its operational activities, its recent market performance, emerging issues; something of a SWOT analysis.

Competency based interviewing Customer Services - Robert Tearle Consulting (4)

What will be the impacts required of the role-holder – critical short-term deliverables, long term ambitions, key areas of influence, in the context of the organization.

Now, look to define the role in terms of the important attributes (experience, knowledge, skills) that will underpin delivery of job performance. You have got to the interview stage so what is it on your CV that will likely have interested them in you.

Okay, now try to prepare and plan for the interview itself. Think about the concepts raised in the above visual and consequently which competency-based questions are they most likely to put to you.

How to answer competency-based interview questions?

Competency based interviewing Customer Services - Robert Tearle Consulting (5)

Answer competency-based interview questions using the STAR formula!

  • SITUATION – say where you were (employer name), what your role was and when it happened.
  • TASK – outline the challenge or nature of the project for which you were responsible and why it was important in the context of impact on the organization.
  • ACTION – explain how you approached the task and the actions you took. If your efforts were part of a team effort, focus most on what you did, and what you contributed. Avoid saying what you thought you might do – you need to focus on what you have achieved and how you achieved it.
  • RESULT – what were the outcomes? These should be substantiated with facts and figures and should show you in a positive light.

What if you can’t think of a good or recent example?

In this case you may wish to tell the interviewer that you cannot think of a directly comparable situation, but you can think of something similar, and then elaborate on how you might have approached this task if faced with it. The interviewer will normally accept this approach. The length of your answer. Expect sub questions.

Your response to any competency-based question needs to be focused but in dealing with all four points of the STAR technique in sufficient detail, it is not untypical for a response to take around five minutes to explain. If you have not covered aspects that the interviewer is looking for you to cover, they may interject or at the end of your answer give you one or more ‘prompt’ questions but it is also common for an interviewer to give you a series of sub-questions having asked the main question, to give you a steer as to what they are looking for you to cover in your response. In answering competence-based interview questions, the process you apply is important to make sure that you give the best answers you can.

Having been asked the question, give yourself some thinking time so that you identify a particularly relevant scenario for your response and to prepare and frame your response so that it is comprehensive yet focused.

  • The interviewer will expect you to take time to prepare your answer.
  • Feel free to ask for the question to be repeated – you need to be certain that you understand the question.
  • Have a pen and paper to note the salient points of the question as a reminder of what needs to be addressed if you personally feel comfortable and confident in this approach.
  • If you think you may be going off track with your answer, ask for the question to be repeated – better safe than sorry.
  • Expect the interviewer to be writing notes as you talk.

Examples of generic competency-based interview questions

Communication and presentation skills

  • Think of a time when you tried to persuade someone else to adopt your point of view. What was the situation? How did you present your views / arguments? What was the result?
  • Tell us about a major change you have experienced in your work environment.
  • Tell us about a time when you failed. Why did you fail? What did you learn from the situation?

Delivering results / results orientation

  • Tell us about a project where you have persisted in spite of obstacles.
  • Tell us about a major achievement and how you went about it.
  • Describe a time when you experienced setbacks in your work.

Interpersonal skills

  • Tell me about a time when you needed to persuade others to commit to a course of action.
  • Describe a situation where you got people to work together.
  • Can you tell me the last time you upset someone? What happened?

Use of initiative

  • Tell me about a time when you undertook a project in an area in which you had little or no experience.
  • Tell me about a time when you initiated a change on your own. How did you present this to your boss?
  • Can you give me an example of a time when you wanted to initiate a project on your own? How did you go about it?

Planning and organising

  • Tell me about a complex project you’ve been responsible for that required significant planning.
  • Tell me about a time when you didn’t meet an objective / deadline.
  • Give me an example of a time when you have had to change your plans.

Analytical thinking

Tell me about a time when you identified a new approach to a problem.

Describe a time when your analytical skills were put to the test.

Tell me about the most complex or difficult information you have had to analyse.

Strategic thinking

  • Tell me of a time when you have influenced strategy.
  • Can you tell me about a time when you implemented a plan that had long-range implications?
  • Can you give me an example of a time when you developed a mission statement?

Building relationships

  • Tell me about a time when you quickly developed a relationship with a new colleague or client.
  • Give me an example of a time when you went about building good working relationships within a team.
  • Describe a situation in which you had to develop and maintain a working relationship with someone with whom you didn’t like
  • to work. How did you do that?


  • Describe a time when you have had to change a process or methodology. How did you go about it?
  • Can you describe a time when you had to influence business decisions in a business unit not directly accountable to you?
  • Describe your recent experience of partnering with senior managers to influence commercial outcomes.

Commercial and business awareness

  • Describe a situation where you championed strategic thinking corporately.
  • Describe financial / commercial decisions that you have made / advised on.
  • Tell us about an occasion when you borrowed ideas from other industries.

Decision making – problem solving and analysis

  • Tell us about a particularly difficult decision you have had to make.
  • Describe a complex problem that you have had to deal with. What approach did you take?
  • Tell us about some of the analytical methods you have used in the past, e.g. cost / benefit analysis. How have these helped you add value?


  • Can you tell me about a time when you have had to resolve conflict between individuals?
  • Describe a time where you have had to use different approaches to deal with different personalities.
  • Can you describe a time when you worked in a team drawn from other departments / areas of your business?
  • Who is the most difficult person you have ever had to manage?

Team leading

  • Describe your approach to leadership style in your last position / s.
  • What is the best team you’ve led and why?
  • Tell me about a time when you led a dysfunctional team.
  • What techniques have you used to encourage others to contribute to the team?

Customer services – example questions

Competency based interviewing Customer Services - Robert Tearle Consulting (6)

In a highly competitive and consumer focused world, customer services is not only provides roles and career path as a specialist area, it is part of the role of so many positions, from a fee-earning lawyer to the internal customer focus of a HR Business Partner.

The objective is customer retention and whilst price, specification and quality are important, nothing loses you their future business quicker than poor customer service.

Expect questions to focus on engagement with the customer or client, ensuring service delivery and continually winning the customer over.


Describe how you handled a difficult customer situation to achieve a satisfactory outcome for the customer and the business.

Sub Questions

  • What was the situation and how was the customer behaving?
  • What latitude did you have to act?
  • What options did you identify?
  • What did you do to resolve matters and why?
  • How did you evaluate the outcome for both parties?


Tell me how you have performed against your personal targets over the past 3 years and how you believe those targets influenced your approach to customer service.

Sub Questions

  • What were your targets?
  • What did you see as your priorities?
  • What did you see a key to driving your personal performance?
  • How did your performance compare to your colleagues?


Tell me about a time when you had to disappoint a customer.

Sub Questions

  • What was the situation?
  • What were the customers’ requirement and expectations?
  • Why were you unable to meet those requirements and expectations?
  • How did you handle the customer and what did you do?


Describe an occasion when you went the extra mile to delight a customer.

Sub Questions

  • What was the situation?
  • What did you do that was different or unexpected?
  • Why did you see the need to act as you did?
  • What was the response of the customer?


Tell us about a time when you believed that the business approach to customer service could be improved?

Sub Questions

  • What was the issue as you saw it?
  • What was the reason that things were done the way they were?
  • What did you see as an improvement and why?
  • How did you look to get internal buy-in to your idea?
  • Was it implemented and what difference did the new approach make?
  • If it wasn’t implemented, what was the reason why?


Tell me about a time when you escalated a customer issue.

Sub Questions

  • What was the issue?
  • Why were you or why did you feel unable to resolve matters?
  • How did you escalate the issue?
  • What further involvement did you have?
  • What was the resolution and what did you learn from the event?


Describe an occasion when you had to deal with an undesirable customer?

Sub Questions

  • Why was the customer seen as undesirable?
  • What was the issue on this occasion?
  • What would have been a good outcome for the business?
  • How did you respond to the customer?

Competency based interviewing Customer Services - Robert Tearle Consulting (7)


Tell us how you managed performance across the team to deliver customer service?

Sub Questions

  • What was the sector in which you operated?
  • How did you set up your team?
  • How did you develop a customer focus ethos within the team?
  • How did you establish performance targets and the means of measurement?


Tell me about a review that you conducted into your operating processes and what customer service improvements you identified and implemented.

Sub Questions

  • What opportunities did you see for improvements?
  • How did you structure your review?
  • What changes did you make and how did you evaluate their impact?


Tell us about a time when you have set up a customer services operation as a green-field operation.

Sub Questions

  • What was the nature and scope of the operation?
  • What was your objective?
  • What did you see as the key matters to address?
  • What was your plan and how did you enact that plan?
  • What was the outcome?


Can you describe a time when you put in place a framework to enable your customer services operation to engage better with customers harnessing social media and on-line capabilities?

Sub Questions

  • What was the nature of the operation?
  • What were your traditional methods of customer engagement?
  • What opportunity did you see to capitalise on new technologies and capabilities?
  • How did you harness those opportunities and what were the benefits?
  • What impact did they have on customer retention?


Talk me through a circumstance in which you went about determining process for handling all forms of customer contact i.e. telephone, email, web-based, on-line chat.

Sub Questions

  • What was the scope and nature of your review?
  • What did you analysis tell you?
  • What was your process?
  • What impact did your process have on efficiency and customer service?


Can you tell me about a time when you were responsible for increasing customer service levels whilst reducing the overall costs of your department?

Sub Questions

  • What was the business operation?
  • What targets were you set?
  • What were the conclusions of your review?
  • What actions did you take?
  • How did you perform against your targets?


Describe to me how you dealt with a customer issue that was escalated to you?

Sub Questions

  • What was the issue?
  • Why had it been escalated to you?
  • What was your resolution and how did you manage the situation?
  • How did the customer service team benefit from the learning opportunity?


Tell us about your input to the development of CRM systems within a business and how you ensured the quality of data capture and reporting.

Sub Questions

  • What was the scope for the CRM system development?
  • What was your remit?
  • What were the essential elements for inclusion that you identified?
  • What improvement was gained from the CRM systems?


Tell me about an initiative you developed and drove to increase customer engagement

Sub Questions

  • What was your idea?
  • How did you see it increasing customer engagement and enhancing the customer relationship?
  • How did it fit with your existing operating model?
  • To what extent did your initiative improve customer satisfaction?


Tell me how you established the means of measuring customer satisfaction for an organization?

Sub Questions

  • What was the key information you needed?
  • How did you survey customers and gather data?
  • How was that data analysed?
  • What did you do with the analysis?


Tell me of an analysis you undertook on customer churn and what you did with your findings.

Sub Questions

  • What was the level of customer churn?
  • How was that performance viewed by the business?
  • What were your views and findings?
  • What actions were taken going forward?
  • What improvement was there in customer churn?


Tell us about a change you made based on customer feedback

Sub Questions

  • How was that feedback gathered?
  • What analysis was carried out in this area?
  • Why was the feedback seen as so relevant?
  • What was changed?
  • What follow up took place?
  • What information was fed back to customers?
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