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Preparing and succeeding at competency-based interviews

Competency interviews are nothing to fear. If you’ve achieved good things in your previous roles, this is your chance to shine and impress the interviewer. In this guide, we’ll examine what competency interviews are, introduce you to the STAR method of answering them, then give you five example questions and answers.

What is a competency-based interview?

A competency-based interview is recruiter-speak for an interview for questions like: “Can you give me an example of when you have…”, rather than theoretical questions like: “What would you do if…‘.

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.

In a sales environment, you’ll likely come up against any of these top ten competency areas:

  1. Teamwork
  2. Leadership
  3. Communication
  4. Dedication
  5. Decisiveness
  6. Flexibility
  7. Organisation
  8. Commercial awareness
  9. Problem-solving
  10. Conflict resolution

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 were 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.

How to prepare for a competency-based interview?

Put aside two hours to sit down with your CV, and a paper and a pen and 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 the key performance indicators?

You need to have a good handle on all that information, ready to rattle it off with confidence.

Think about a major account that you won right the way through from start to finish.

Now go back and look at our top ten behaviours, so you are comfortable preparing for competency-based interviews. You need to develop answers for all in case they come up. Look closely, and you should have no problem building up a casebook of answers.

For example, 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. When did you take leadership on something? How did you solve an issue? The more you revise at this point, the more like you are to succeed.

Another tip is to prepare as much detail as you can. Once you’ve answered and the interviewer has acknowledged it, ask if you can give any more detail. Even if they decline, it shows you have more to offer and are keen to outline your success further.

The more you ask questions like that, the more information you give, the more evidence they gather, the higher you will score. You’ll be well on your way to doing well at competency-based interviews.

What are example competency-based questions?

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.

  1. Tell me about a time you were decisive?

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 the larger client, winning and fulfilling his order. The client remains with the business to this day.

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

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.

  1. Tell me about a time you showed dedication?

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.

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

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 we might have different ideas.

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

  1. Describe how you once displayed leadership?

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

Our task was to produce one or lose a 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!


Okay, those are five rather generic answers. But you can see how easy it is to take specific examples of things you have done that you can then shape into perfect answers for competency-based interview questions.

All five of these answers followed the STAR format, and you’ll notice the answers were deliberately succinct. You’ll have lots more detail to add, and you should always ask the interviewer if they’d like any more information.

In the end, it’s like any other sales interview. Remember to close. Good luck with the competency interview. Don’t be daunted by it!


Simon Young

Magic Word Media


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