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How to Answer Competency Questions

We’ve all been there, the interviews going well and then the employer asks – ‘Tell about a time when …’ and our minds go blank! We all know that at some point in our work career we’ve demonstrated excellent customer service or contributed towards a team so can we overcome this?

There’s a really smart way of preparing to answer these questions and a great anagram to refer back to during the interview and that’s the STAR technique. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result and here’s how to use it:

Man in office, deep in thought.

1. Situation – What was happening?


This is where you’ll set the scene – explain to the interviewer where you were working and what your role was, explain what was happening that required you to start demonstrating whichever skill it is the interviewer has asked you about.

Related: How to Answer Tough and Easy Interview Questions

For demonstration purposes, let’s look at answering ‘Tell me about a time when you demonstrated excellent customer service’. So for this scenario you would think about when you have had to deal with a customer – ‘While working for ABC employer as a Retail Assistant, excellent customer service was part and parcel of what I did everyday. On one particular occasion an elderly customer, who I recognised as a regular of ours had come in to do their usual shop.’

2. Task – What was asked of you?


What happened during the situation that them made you need to deliver highly on the skill that’s being asked? The employer isn’t looking for a run of the mill answer, they want detail and reassurance that you know the difference between doing your job and going the extra mile.

Again, using the customer service example – ‘I noticed the elderly customer was walking down a couple of the aisles looking a little lost and clearly looking for something. I was restocking shelves, so I left this task and approached her to see if there was anything I could do to help. She advised she was looking for ABC product but couldn’t find it. I knew this product had been discontinued a couple of weeks ago.’

Related: How to Answer the Most Asked Interview Questions [INFOGRAPHIC]

3. Action – What did you do?


Here’s where you’ll really sell yourself and demonstrate your understanding of what you did that was stand out. Describe what you did to assist the customer/help the team/show excellent communication skills/challenge a situation. You want to be concise and confident in your answer. There can be a tendency with these questions to overload the employer with detail and information – structure is key with competency questions!

Referring back to our example – ‘Firstly, I apologised to the customer and explained that unfortunately the ABC product had been discontinued a couple of weeks ago. The customer was clearly irritated by this and questioned why this happened. I explained that unfortunately, certain lines can be seasonal or perhaps we were no longer working with the supplier. I empathised with her saying it was a favourite of mine too, but went on to advise of another product we had in store that I had personally used and found to be not only an equal, but better product. I located the product for her and advised of our store policy that if she wasn’t 100% satisfied she could bring the product back for a full refund.’

4. Result – What happened because of your actions?


Explain what the outcome was – and make sure it was positive! Was your manager happy with your introduction of a new process for the team? Did the customer come back into store to thank you for the service? Make sure you end on a positive note, again be concise and I’ve mentioned in previous interview articles, it’s ok to show a little personality and here’s where you can do that.

Back to our elderly lady – ‘The customer was happy with the solution, but she did say she was coming back to see me if she wasn’t happy! I joked that I would personally take care of her refund but I thought she would find product more than suitable. She came back a couple of days later to say the product was much better than what she was using before and really thanked me for my recommendation – which was a big relief!’

The STAR technique is a great way to structure your answers and help you break down what the employer is looking for. I highly recommend using it to practice for all interviews and to have examples for some of the common competency questions picked out well in advance of a potential interview. Remembering this technique will help you stay on track when you’re in-front of that all important interviewer :)

photo by: Gerard Fritz

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