Find and Hire Your Ideal Sales Talent with Competency Interviews

Written by
Lucas Price
July 24, 2023
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Interviews are a prime opportunity to assess a candidate’s ability to succeed in a given role. However, too often, interviews end up evaluating a candidate’s aptitude for crafting and delivering rehearsed answers. Well designed competency interviews can help break through this barrier and determine whether a candidate possesses the most important skills for a given position. Let’s take a closer look at the purpose of these interviews, the best types of questions to ask, and how to evaluate candidate responses. 

What is a Competency Interview?

Competency interviews are used to assess a candidate’s suitability for a given role. As the name suggests, the interviews focus on a competency or trait that is required to succeed in the role. The purpose of these interviews is to determine if a candidate possesses the required competency and to evaluate the depth of the given competency. For sales roles, some of the commonly assessed competencies include coachability, adaptability, resourcefulness, achievement, ownership, and emotional intelligence. Interviewers ask target questions based on a candidate’s past experiences and performance to assess the competencies required for a role. 

Are Situational or Behavioral Questions Better for Competency Interviews?

In a competency interview, two types of questions are typically asked: situational and behavioral. Situational questions ask candidates what they would do in a hypothetical scenario. For example, a hiring manager may ask, “What would you do if you were collaborating on a project with a colleague who was difficult to work with?” A behavioral question, on the other hand, asks candidates what they have done in a specific situation in the past. An example of a behavioral question would be, “Tell me about a time when you’ve collaborated on a project with a colleague who could be difficult to work with.”

Behavioral questions provide candidates with an opportunity to share their past experiences through specific examples. Situational questions can be effective for assessing basic skills, but behavioral questions have been shown to be more effective for complex roles. Some statistics even say behavioral interviewing is 55% predictive of future on-the-job behavior, compared to around 10% for traditional interviewing. Other studies reveal that structured past-event interviews may achieve up to 87% reliability in predicting job performance

The advantage of behavioral questions in competency interviews is that they ask candidates to recount a specific past performance rather than a hypothetical performance (as with situational questions). This setup provides interviewers with a better understanding of a candidate’s abilities and decision-making process. 

How to Write a Behavioral Interview Question

Behavioral questions should follow a structured format such as, “Tell me about a specific time…” or “Give me an example of a time…” The situation referenced should tie back to a given competency. For example, for the competency, “coachability,” an interviewer may say, “Tell me about a time you received negative feedback about your performance.” The answer to this question could provide insight into ownership and accountability. Or for the competency of emotional intelligence, a candidate may be asked, “Give me an example of a time when you met a potential customer who didn’t trust you when they met you.” The answer will share better information about the candidate’s ability to perceive emotions in others and respond accordingly

One of the most important things to keep in mind when crafting a structured interview is to focus on the challenge itself. Don’t assume the answer in the question (i.e., successfully overcoming the challenge in the question). An example of this mistake would be asking, “Tell me about a time you received negative feedback on your performance and changed your output” or “Give me an example of a time that a potential customer didn’t trust you initially and how you changed their mind.”

Why Fewer Behavioral Questions is Better Than More

As you prepare behavioral questions for your competency interview, you may be tempted to include eight, ten, or even more questions on your list. Bombarding candidates with numerous questions can lead to rehearsed responses and superficial insights. For deeper, more authentic insights, we recommend preparing three to five behavioral questions for a 45-minute interview. By asking fewer questions, you will have more time for an in-depth exploration of each competency. (On a similar note, there’s a sweet spot for the number of interviews as well: read more on that here.) 

For each question, be prepared with follow-up questions and know what types of evidence you are looking for. This approach helps to peel back the layers, so to speak, and discover more about the context of the situation. 

Some places to start with follow-up questions include: 

  • making sure you understand the situation the candidate referenced 
  • the actions the candidate took
  • how they identified the need for those actions
  • what happened after the actions
  • how they tracked the impact of their decisions
  • what resources or support they utilized
  • what lessons the candidate learned
  • an example of how they've applied that lesson in another situation.

Follow-up questions provide an opportunity to distinguish between candidates who are simply well-prepared and those who have genuinely faced the challenges shared in each behavioral question. They also allow interviewers to evaluate the depth of the competency being examined in each question.

Evaluating Competency Interview Answers

We’ve covered competency interviews and how behavioral questions can be used to measure a candidate’s capacity for key competencies. But how do you evaluate these answers? Should you score each answer on a scale of one to 10? Compare notes with another interviewer after the interviews? 

We recommend using a scoring rubric for evaluation. This rubric will assist interviewers in evaluating critical factors related to success in the role, including competencies. However, the key here is to use the rubric to evaluate goals and competencies, not individual answers. There are a few reasons for this. Evaluating individual answers may cause interviewers to become distracted. When you’re busy determining how well each question is answered, you’re less aware of the interview at hand, which may negatively affect the candidate experience. Furthermore, when you’re scoring individual answers, you may wind up favoring candidates who possess great interview skills but not necessarily the competencies required for the role. Constantly assessing answers may also cause candidates to feel judged and uncomfortable, which will only make the interview less authentic and open. 

Competency interviews are a key part of recruitment and retention. Optimizing your interviewing and onboarding processes can help you hire the right candidate the first time. By establishing an equitable interviewing process, you can reduce the time it takes to find and hire the ideal talent. 

Spot A-players early by building a systematic interview process today.

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