How do you answer competency style interview questions?

When many companies conduct their interviews, they’re looking to see if a candidate’s experience on a CV matches with the skills required for the job. You’ll be asked about your skills, and to give examples of situations when you’ve used them.

However, applicants who tick all the boxes on their CV can come unstuck if they aren’t prepared for these questions and fail to back up their experience with good real-world examples. These types of interview can also give a leg-up to less experienced applicants who have the opportunity to prove themselves – you might not be right on paper, but if you’ve got transferable skills that you can bring together, now is your chance to shine.

What competency questions will you be asked in an interview?

The exact questions will depend on what job it is you’re going for. For a Project Manger job, an obvious question to expect is “Tell me about the last project you managed.” If you’re applying for a payroll job in a fast-paced bureau, it might be “Give me an example of a time when you’ve had to work to a tight deadline.”

A skim through a typical job description will often have the clues to what you’ll be asked in the person specification or requirements. Hard-skills like your ability to use Excel or a qualification in Mechanical Engineering can be screened out from your CV – competency questions test your soft-skills, things that aren’t so tangible, like project management, leadership or being able to cope under pressure.

So how do you answer competency interview questions?

When questions are so open-ended, it can be easy to just ramble on around a subject and forget or fail to actually answer the question. Preparation of a few specific examples is key to stay on message.

Look over the job specification before your interview and come up with possible competency questions you might be asked. Then think back on your experience of examples you can use for each one.  Ideally, examples from your work history are best, but if you can’t think of one, then look at your education too. Then, you can prepare some answers.

We advise using the CAR approach to structure your responses. It’s got nothing to do with motoring, but used right and you’ll be driving away with a new job!  CAR stands for Context, Action, Result – so with your answer give the Context behind a problem, the Action you took to tackle it, and finally the (hopefully positive!) outcome that came from it.

 Context

The context is the background to your story. Explain clearly and concisely what the problem was that you faced. Try to stick to examples that won’t require too much scene setting or jargon that might need explaining. Really, you want to stick to a fairly straightforward situation, but that is complex enough for you to give a detailed response that will impress the interviewer. 

 Action

Summarise what you did to move things forward and solve the problem you faced. It should go without saying that this needs to show you and your skills in a positive light – saying you deferred things to a manager and otherwise not having anything else to do with things isn’t going to impress.

Result

The result is what happened as a consequence of the actions you took. You want this to be positive. If there’s something that was learned from the issue as well, such as improving a process to make it more efficient or better the customer, be sure to mention this as well. Even better is being able to put that result into quantifiable terms – did the company save money as a result of your work? How much business did the satisfied customer go on to generate?

 Let’s put it all together into a simple example for a customer service or account management job:

Q: Tell me about a time you dealt with a complaint from a customer.

Context: A customer complained that their order hadn’t arrived on time.

Action: I followed up the customer’s order with the warehouse and they told me they were waiting on stock from the factory. I then went back to the customer to explain and apologise for the delay, and was able to recommend to her a similar suitable product from our range at no extra cost. I got the order expedited and with her by the end of the week.

Result: The customer was grateful for the action I took and we have retained her business. As a result of this complaint, I pushed for better communications between the warehouse and sales team, so customers aren’t sold products which are unavailable. That particular customer has since generated a further £200,000 of sales in the last 12 months.

Your answer will probably only be 3-4 sentences long but using this approach means it’s clear what went on, what happened as a result and how you were able to deliver a solution to the problem.  

While they can seem daunting, competency questions are straightforward to ask as long as you prepare ahead of time. And because you’re just retelling your own experiences, there’s not too much to remember either.

You can even apply this technique earlier in the application process to tailor your application forms and covering letters as well.

Competency questions aren’t the only kind of question you can be asked – it’s just one of the 4 different kinds of question you’ll likely have to answer to get the job.