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Preparing for competency based interviews

So, you've got an application form, and it's asking you to describe a time when you did this or that. Or, you've actually got an interview (congratulations), but you've been told you'll need to prepare examples demonstrating certain skills or abilities. Eek! What do you do? Read on...

Competency Based Questions

Competency based questions (sometimes known as behavioural questions) are used by many businesses, including some contact centres, and the public sector, to help them select staff.

Competency based questions ask you to give examples of situations you have been in, and to explain what you did.

These types of questions give interviewers help interviewers to assess both your knowledge, and how you apply it in every day practice.

Competency based questions are used both on application forms and in face to face interviews.

An example of a competency based question

If you were applying for a job which involved customer service, an interview question might be:

'Tell me about a time when you dealt with a difficult customer?'

Competency based answers tell a story.

Competency based interview

How to Prepare for a Competency Based Interview

First, read through all the information you have about the job. The job description and person specification should tell you what skills and abilities are essential for the job. For example, a role might ask for one or more of the following:

  • good customer service skills
  • good communication skills
  • the ability to work as part of a team
  • the ability to use your own initiative and be proactive
  • the ability to plan and organise
  • the ability to influence and persuade
  • the ability to successfully meet targets

Once you have identified key parts of the job, think about times when you have displayed these skills or behaviours in your life.

You need to identify a specific instance where you used a particular skill or ability.

So, if you once successfully prepared a surprise party for someone, you could use this as an example of your ability to plan and organise.

Your examples can be from your work or home life.

How to structure your answers

Competency based questions are commonly answered using a STAR format.

STAR stands for:

  • Situation
  • Task
  • Action
  • Result


The situation sets the scene for your answer. So, of you used the example of the surprise party, to demonstrate your planning and organising abilities, the situation would be:

'My friend's 21st birthday was approaching, and I decided it would be a great idea to arrange a surprise party for her'.


The task explains what you aimed to do to achieve your goal.

'I aimed, in the three weeks before her party, to organise a venue for the party, invite family and friends, and sort out food and entertainment'.


The action explains, in detail, what you did.

'First of all, I wrote down a plan of what needed to be done each week to achieve the goal, putting the most important things first. I set aside time to complete the tasks - plus extra time in case of unexpected eventualities - and also asked some friends to help me.

I gave myself - and each friend - tasks to complete. As they were done, I ticked them off. When we started to fall behind, I asked another friend to help us as well. This helped me to get everything done on time.


The result is the conclusion to your answer.

'As a result, the party was ready on time. The venue was booked, the guests all came, the food and entertainment were excellent, and my friend had a great birthday!'

Using a STAR format to structure your answers will help you to include all the important details you need.

Common mistakes in Competency based answers

  • The candidate doesn't use a specific story to demonstrate their skill or ability.

Sometimes it is difficult to think of specific examples. For example, if you commonly deal with difficult customers, you might be tempted to say to an interviewer 'whenever I get a difficult customer, this is what I do...' Don't fall in to this trap! You need to identify one particular time - 'on one occasion, I spoke to a customer who was angry and I...'

  • The candidate says 'we', not 'I'.

Sometimes, if you are using examples where lots of people have been involved in making something happen, you may be tempted to say 'we decided that... we did this...' No! The interviewer can only give you points for things that you personally did - 'I talked to my friends and I agreed that I would do this...' Always talk about 'I'.

  • The candidate does not give enough detail in their answer

Competency based questions want to explore what you understand about a skill or ability. For example, in the example above where a surprise party was planned, the story shows that the candidate understands the need to:

  • plan their time to achieve a goal
  • build in extra time for unexpected eventualities
  • prioritise tasks according to importance
  • plan their resources (in this case, friends who could be asked to help)

Try to demonstrate in your answers that you understand the principles underlying the skill or ability you are discussing.

  • The candidate says (s)he doesn't have any experience in this skill

Sometimes, people feel that examples have to be taken from their experiences in work. Not true! You can use examples from any area of your life. For example, you may not have any customer service experience at work. But if you can show that you identified that someone had a need (say they needed a babysitter), offered your help, and met their need to their satisfaction, then you can use this as an example of customer service.

Think about your experiences at school, or as a parent, or a friend. You may well have used your skills or abilities in these areas of your life.

And finally. . .

We at the North East Contact Centre Academy would like to wish you very good luck in landing your new job.

About Us

At the North East Contact Centre Academy, we run various short courses to help people into work in customer service or contact centre roles. If you would like more information, please call us.

If you are already working in a customer service, administration or contact centre job, and would like to progress further in your career, please contact us. We have lots of courses, including short courses and distance learning courses, to meet your needs.

We deliver a range of courses, and can design bespoke courses, for employers and other businesses. If you would like further information about our range of courses, please get in touch.

You can contact us Monday- Friday 9am-5pm on 0191 5116800, or click here for our enquiry form.

We look forward to hearing from you!

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