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The 3 Customer Service Job Interview Questions You’ll Definitely Hear

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Demand for customer service representatives is growing faster than average and by 2018, the American economy will have 2.65 million customer service jobs.

While the average salary for a customer service agent is $22,360, according to Glassdoor, that doesn’t really tell you what you can earn in the role.

Just changing the keyword from “customer service agent” to “customer support” bumps the average salary to $34,580. Help Scout surveyed customer support professionals and found the average salary in 2016 was $68,540.

So how do you get one of these roles, especially the higher-paid ones? I talked to several customer service hiring managers and one applicant with hundreds of interviews between them.

Here are three questions that kept coming up over and over again that you should be prepared to hear in a customer service interview, along with some tips for answering them well.

1. The upset and angry customer question

“Describe a time when you couldn’t give a customer what they wanted, how they reacted, and what you did to resolve their frustration.”

Cory Groshek, founder of Manifestation Machine, heard this exact question on multiple occasions during his decade working in customer service call centers.

As CEO of My Corporation, Deborah Sweeney is on the other side of the desk. Sweeney told me that one of her best questions for job seekers concerns how the candidate handles upset customers.

“It’s always interesting to see how they respond to customers who aren’t asking run-of-the-mill questions,” Sweeney says. “When they are pushed, how do they respond? These types of questions often elicit great discussions.”

According to Steve Pritchard, business consultant for giffgaff, there are 100 different ways to answer the question of how to deal with angry customers, but only a few correct ways.

“If they say that the situation should be handled calmly, apologizing for any mistakes the company may be responsible for, while also focusing on rectifying the problem, it is a sign they will make a good hire,” Pritchard says.

Pro tip

Robin Leon, senior community counselor and field representative for Au Pair in America, tells me that her favorite answer to this question was, “I love unhappy customers.”

“The applicant went on to talk about unhappy customers as an opportunity to problem solve, and ways you can turn that same dissatisfied customer into your biggest fan,” Leon says.

Long ago, my mother told me that whatever job I was doing, I’d be solving a problem. Therefore, her advice was, “So find a problem you like to solve.”

 Key Takeaway:  Unhappy customers are a problem all agents are going to have to solve. You’ll impress your interviewer if you make it clear that turning angry and upset customers into happy ones is a problem you want to, and can, solve.

2. The “What does success look like?” question

“How do you measure success in customer service?”

While “I love unhappy customers” was Leon’s favorite answer, the above question is Leon’s favorite one to ask during customer service interviews.

The answer to this question offers “insight into an applicant’s ability to goal set, their internal and external motivators, and hopefully gives them a chance to share a concrete example of a time they’ve gone above and beyond in a customer service setting,” Leon says.

Pro tip

Interviewers want to know whether you’re able to set goals for yourself and whether you’re the kind of representative who will go “above and beyond” to achieve your goals.

Both of these concerns are probably best addressed with an SBO answer. SBO stands for Situation, Behavior, Outcome. The theory behind SBO is that the best way to show that you’re going to do something in a role is to show you’ve already done it, through storytelling.

So in your answer, outline a time when you needed to set goals for yourself (situation), the goals you set (behavior), and what happened as a result (outcome). Do this for a time you went “above and beyond” as well.

As for your internal and external motivators, this is a “know thyself” kind of question.

 Key Takeaway: Take some time to consider what motivates you. Why do you want to do this work? Do raises, more responsibility, or verbal praise work better to keep you engaged and motivated? Have answers to these questions at the ready to show you’re introspective and self-aware.

3. The failure question

Is there anything more groan-worthy than the “weaknesses” question? Yes, there is. It’s the weaknesses answers.

Here are some of my favorite answers to “What is your greatest weakness?”

“I’m a workaholic.”

“I’m a perfectionist.”

“I’m a people-pleaser.”

Suuure. To get the information you want without allowing candidates to put a positive spin on their own flaws, Mercer Smith-Looper, head of support at Trello, recommends hiring managers ask:

“When was the last time you irrevocably failed?”

Pritchard asks, “What would you do if you are unable to answer a customer’s question?”

The purpose of this question is to test a candidate’s resourcefulness and willingness to ask for help for the sake of the customer.

At EmmaMason, president and CEO Lenny Kharitonov asks, “If we called your boss or colleague for a reference what would they say is an area where you need to improve?”

Kharitonov finds that asking for someone else’s perspective produces better answers than simply asking the candidate for their opinion of themselves.

Pro tip

The hiring manager wants to know how you think about failure and how resilient you are. This is another perfect opportunity to use an SBO answer to demonstrate your attitude toward failure and your resilience.

Outline a time you failed, how you responded, and how it worked out in the end.

“The best response is to be honest,” Pritchard says.

The candidate should “explain to the customer that they do not know the answer, but that they will find out from another member of staff. This is far better than offering false information.”

However, be careful not to overshare. “The most common interview mistake job seekers make, especially those applying for customer service positions, is over-disclosing out of nervousness,” Eric Anthony, founder of Streaming Observer, tells me.

When a candidate talks too much, Anthony fears they won’t be a great learner or listener. “When a job seeker tries too hard to explain away past issues or history, it’s a big red flag.”

 Key Takeaway:  This won’t be fun, but you need to come up with three or more times you failed so you can choose the best instance to talk about. Telling a story about a time you followed up a failure with self-reflection and a change in behavior aimed at preventing future failure will showcase your resilience and tendency toward self-improvement.

Someone got these questions (but you probably won’t)

Here are a few more interview questions and answers that are more likely once-in-a-lifetime.

 Scott Alten of RxPhoto likes to ask candidates how they’d figure out what the volume of a car is because he likes to hear people’s thought process as they think back to grade school math. “Volume = LxWxH but most people get stuck on figuring out the volume of an irregular object especially since they have not focused on it in over 10 to 40 years,” he says.

His most notable answer was when an interviewee said that they would fill up the car with tennis balls and since they knew the volume of each ball, they could figure out the volume of a car based on how many balls it held.

 You might remember GreenPal from 7 Ridiculous Real-Life Customer Conversations. Gene Caballero told me that he was a hiring manager at a Fortune 50 company before co-founding GreenPal.

In an interview he asked a candidate how they would handle an irate customer. She said, “Give them CPR.”

Then she elaborated:

  • Comprehend: What happened that made the customer upset?
  • Purpose: Give the customer options on how to fix the situation
  • React: Once the actions have been agreed upon, react and fix the problem

“Everyone in the room didn’t know what to say,” Caballero says. “She was hired. Her acronym made its way to the training department and is still used today.”

 For Groshek, the interview moment that stands out most was when “one of my would-be managers at Time Warner Cable, during my initial, in-person interview with the company, required me to engage in a mock phone call.”

“With him posing as a customer with his back turned to me in one chair, while I sat behind with my back to him in a second chair and attempted to play the part of a Time Warner Cable customer service rep, complete with me holding an old-school phone receiver in my hand to help me ‘get into’ the ‘call.'”

Groshek was hired shortly afterwards, so it must have gone okay.

“If I could give HR professionals at call centers a piece of advice, I would recommend they not put their job applicants in the proverbial ‘hot seat’ so quickly, as they could very well scare off a vast majority of very talented, customer-service-oriented recruits that way,” Groshek adds.

Conclusion

As customer experience becomes an even more important brand differentiator, demand for customer service representatives is projected to just keep growing. It’s fun, fast, and can be high paying if you can work your way up. The key is getting started.

Hopefully these three questions you should be prepared to hear in a customer service interview and tips for answering them well will come in handy during your next interview.

If there are any that I missed, or if you have any crazy stories from your customer service interviews, let me know in the comments.

Looking for Customer Service software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Customer Service software solutions.

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About the Author

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz helps B2B software companies with their sales and marketing at Capterra. Her writing has appeared in The Week, Forbes, the Chicago Tribune, The Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications. She has been quoted by the New York Times Magazine and has been a columnist at Bitcoin Magazine. Her media appearances include Fox News and Al Jazeera America. If you're a B2B software company looking for more exposure, email Cathy at cathy@capterra.com . To read more of her thoughts, follow her on Twitter.

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