In every job interview, you will inevitably be asked to provide at least one example from your experience that demonstrates a particular quality or skill. In competency-based interviews, this could be the format for almost every question.
One of the best ways of answering such questions is the STAR technique: STAR stands for situation, task, action and result. Once you understand the basics of the technique, you’ll be able to use it not only in interview situations but also when writing cover letters, answering application questions and even in describing your previous experience on your CV.
So, if you’re asked a question that begins “Tell me about a time when …”, you can use this formula for your answer.
Your answer should focus on a relevant problem that you solved. You should prepare several examples in advance and then try to find the most appropriate one to answer each question.
For instance, if the question is “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a complaint,” then you should choose an example that demonstrates that you understand how to handle clients properly and prevent problems recurring.
Start by providing some background and context for your story. You should be specific – including names and dates will make you more credible. Keep this part of your answer concise and don’t give unnecessary information. For instance, it can be as simple as: “Two years ago, I worked at a small firm that couldn’t afford to lose a single client.”
Once you’ve set the scene, now explain the problem you faced and what you had to do to solve it. Mention why it was you specifically who had to address this issue – did you volunteer to take it on, was it part of your normal duties, or were you chosen to solve the problem for a specific reason? Include any constraints you had to deal with as well, such as an impending deadline, a limited budget or lack of resources.
For example: “I had been working for the company for a couple of months when a client called complaining about a lack of communication on his project. Part of my role was to liaise with clients, so it was my responsibility to handle the call and the complaint.”
Make sure you demonstrate your understanding of the whole problem. Returning to our example, you wouldn’t say your task was getting the client off the phone so you could get on with your work. Instead, your answer should be more along the lines of: “I needed to address the client’s immediate concerns about our processes, as well as their original request. I also needed to investigate why communication had broken down.”
This will be the most important and longest part of your answer, as it is where you talk about the steps you took to resolve the problem. Be sure to explain your thought processes for each decision and action because these may not be clear to the interviewer.
If you went above and beyond the call of duty – and you should try to select examples when you did – make it clear that you weren’t just following protocol but going out of your way to achieve the goal. In our example, you would talk about how you made sure that the client felt that his concerns were understood and exactly how you addressed them, both during the initial phone call as well as following up with your colleagues afterwards.
While you want to focus on yourself, you should also make sure you acknowledge others’ contributions, especially if you want to show your teamwork skills. For instance, “My colleague and I came up with a regular communication schedule to prevent further breakdowns. I took responsibility for presenting and explaining the schedule to the client.” This keeps the focus on your contribution without taking undue credit.
Now that you’ve described everything you did, what was the outcome? It’s always best to use positive examples as everyone loves a happy ending – but don’t sugar-coat it if everything didn’t go according to plan.
Make sure the interviewer understands how successful you were, and why the outcome was important. Using numbers can often help to make this clearer. For instance, “By following the schedule, we increased the efficiency of our communications and retained the client. He was so satisfied with our service that he brought us two more projects that year, increasing our team’s total revenue by 30%.”
But, as Reed say, it is important that although you learn all these techniques to still try to let the interview flow, don't be too rigid.