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How to prepare for a competency based interview

If you're a candidate that's been invited to a competency interview, you may be feeling a bit anxious as to what exactly this is going to entail. So in this short video, we'll give you not only an explanation of what a competency interview is but also some advice on how to prepare for it.

What is a competency based interview?

Firstly, a competency interview is just a posh term for an interview where you'll be asked questions like, 'Can you give me an example of when you have...', rather than theoretical questions like, 'what would you do if...'. All you need to do is to really know what you've done and to understand your career.

Also known as a structured, situational or behavioural interview, the recruiter will likely be marking you on each question with a score of 1-5 or 1-10. The more detail and structure you can inject into your answers, the more chance you’ll have of succeeding at competency-based interviews.

The reason so many employers use competency questions is that the best way to judge potential future performance is to assess the past.

So what's the best way to prepare for it?

I would recommend taking two hours out with your CV and a pad and a pen of paper and really go through the roles that you've had. What were you selling? Who were you selling to? What were your targets? How did you perform against targets? What were your key performance indicators that you were working on? 

Really understand all of that information.

At the same time, think of a big account that you won or a complex account that you won right the way through from start to finish. So...

  • Where did you get the lead from the first place?
  • Who did you meet with initially?
  • How did you follow it up?
  • How did you meet the quota?

And so on and so on - to the point of closing that sale.

Also, think of a problem client that you've had, or perhaps an account that you've turned around, or an account that you've significantly developed, something a bit tricky

The questions that you'll be asked, and the way a competency interview works, is that the interviewer will have a pre-prepared interview format. And they'll be looking at specific skills, attributes, qualities, and will be scoring you against those.

Using the STAR method to answer interview questions

While preparing for competency-based interviews, you might consider using the STAR method, which is a simple, structured way to answer any behavioural question. STAR stands for:

- Situation: Set the scene for your answer, where were you, what had happened, who were you working with on a solution?

- Task: Describe what the point of your task was. Here you’ll outline your intended outcome. So, if a client was threatening to walk away, your task would have been to get them back on side and remain your customer.

- Action: Explain what you did. Make it clear what your role was and how it related to the people around you.

- Result: What happened? Be clear about the good result and highlight the benefits that came from it.

Your interviewer will get a clear understanding of your competency if you use this STAR method to describe, in detail, an experience/project you were involved in successfully at a previous job.

The STAR method will help you come across as analytical, organised and confident, and will put an extra gloss on what might already have been a positive experience.

Scoring highly at competency based interview

To give an example, let's just say that customer service is the attribute. You'll be asked a question such as, 'Can you give me an example in the last 12 months when you've gone beyond the call of duty to provide exceptional customer service?'. 

What the interviewer will then be doing is gathering evidence from your reply and scoring against that, normally on a scale of one to five, sometimes out of a scale of one to 10. It's important that you really do articulate that well and ask for acknowledgement of that. 'Would you like some more information on that?' or 'Is there anything more I can go into on that example that's going to help you?'. 

The more you ask questions like that, the more information you give, the more evidence they gather, the higher you will score.

Typically, an interviewer will be looking at somewhere between five and eight competencies during a competency-based interview, maybe a couple more for managerial roles. 

At the end of the interview, it's like any other sales interview. Remember to close. And there's lots of information on our YouTube channel and how to close a sales interview.

So good luck with the competency interview. Don't be daunted by it!

Example competency based interview questions & answers

1. Tell me about a time you were decisive?

Example answer:
A colleague went on sick leave for three weeks, leaving a key account vulnerable. I suggested to my manager that I’d take over the client while my colleague was away. He agreed.

I asked team-mates to help with some of my low-service clients while I spent time with this larger client, winning and fulfilling his order. The client remains with the business to this day.

2. Tell me about a mistake you made and how you dealt with it?

Example answer:
I once won two orders but gave dispatch the wrong addresses; I mixed them up. I had to correct the problem without angering the clients. I called both clients and sent them new shipping labels to forward the items on to each other and offered both a discount on their next order.

They were both understanding and appreciated my goodwill gesture. And both came back and used the discount offer on another order.

3. Tell me about a time you showed dedication?

Example answer:
There was one month when our sales team looked like it was going to miss its targets. We were asked by our boss for ideas to rectify the situation. I decided to stay late after work, off my own back, to draw up a list of clients who had not purchased from us in a while but who had left us good reviews. The idea was to get in touch with a 15% discount offer.

We won enough business over the next 48 hours to reach our target comfortably.

4. Tell me about a time you resolved a conflict?

Example answer:
There was this unfortunate time a colleague and I argued over how to market a product. We didn’t speak for a week unless it was imperative for business. I knew this could not continue and that I had to resolve it.

I invited him to lunch, paid for his meal, and apologised for my part in the disagreement. I outlined how we both wanted what is best for the business, and it was reasonable that we might have different ideas.

It worked a treat. My colleague apologised in return and, if anything, we worked much closer together after that.

5. Describe how you once displayed leadership?

Example answer:
Our sales manager was away at a conference and uncontactable. Our department was approached by a prospective big client requiring a fast-turnaround sales proposal.

Our task was to produce the proposal or we’d lose a potentially big sale. So, I called my colleagues together, outlined the situation and organised a  brainstorm for ideas and figures. We then agreed on a four-slide presentation to send back to the prospect that night.

Everyone pulled together, and we sent the email out. The client came back the next day and accepted.

My boss returned two days later and thanked me for taking the initiative with the team. He made me his official deputy after that!

Find more competency based interview questions here.


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