Jan. 6, 2021

How to answer behavioral interview questions

How to answer behavioral interview questions

Employers ask behavioral interview questions to predict future performance based on past performance. In this episode, I show you how to pick the right example and use the STAR method, a simple, four step approach to formulating convincing answers to any behavioral questions.


Welcome to this year's first episode. I wish you all a happy new year. To help you kick-start 2021, I am giving away three free mock interview sessions. The winners will be drawn from all newsletter subscribers, so make sure to sign up on interviewPreparationSimplified.com or just click on the link in the episode description.

Today's topic is how to answer behavioral-based interview questions. These open-ended questions usually start with "tell me about a time when..." or "give me an example of..." They are asked because past performance is considered to be the best predictor of future performance. For instance, by asking you about a situation when you had to interact with a demanding customer, the interviewer tries to understand how you most likely would behave when facing a similar situation. And apart from having a good example, it's also crucial to use the right technique for answering these questions. Let me show you how you can use the STAR method, which stands for Situation Task Actions Results, to formulate a good answer.

Step 1:  Identify your example, preferably a recent one from the last 1-3 years. There are two aspects to consider: one is complexity and the other is business impact. Choosing a non-trivial situation is essential to demonstrating your problem-solving skills and your ability to handle stressful situations. And the higher the business impact, the better it shows how you can deliver value and produce results, which is the main reason for hiring someone. For example, if you are a project manager, then a customer complaining about the status report format that easily can be fixed is not a good example. But if the situation was about the customer requesting the project be delivered in six months instead of nine to meet new legal requirements and avoid severe fines, then the example is both complex and high impact.

Step 2: Describe the situation and your task. That's what the ST in the STAR acronym stands for. It should be a short and concise summary to give the interviewer the context of your story. In 1-2 sentences, cover when and where the situation occurred and why this was important. Then, add another 1-2 sentences to explain the objective of your task and what your responsibilities were.

Step 3:  Describe your actions. It must be clear what your individual contributions were, so use "I did this and that" instead of "we did this and that." Make sure you also cover why you decided to act in a certain way. What data did you analyze to make your decisions? What obstacles and constraints did you face, and how did you handle them?

Step 4: Describe the results. There are two types of outcomes you should cover: the first is the actual results, based on the objective you described in step 2 when you explained your task.  Make sure to quantify them with concrete numbers. The second type of outcome is your take-away from this situation to show that you are self-aware and willing to work on yourself. What were your lessons-leaned? What did you do well? What would you do differently?

These were the four steps for answering behavioral interview questions.  As for all answers, always make sure you don't disclose any confidential information.

Let me finish this episode with an example. Let's say the question is, "Tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult decision."

A good answer could be: "Last year, I worked as a sales specialist responsible for selling refrigerators to smaller companies. We were close to the end of the quarter and hadn't reached our targets yet. My task was to generate as much revenue as possible. During the quarter's last week, one of my customers, a startup that had just opened its third restaurant, wanted to buy three of our premium fridges for a total of 30K, which was the exact amount left to hit our targets.

I called them to understand their needs and realized that three of our basic models would be sufficient for them. It was a difficult judgment call, but I sold them the less expensive fridges, even though it meant 15K less in sales. I based my decision on two things: one was our company's core value, which was, "We always put our customers first." The second was a gut feeling that building a trustful relationship with this client would lead to more business in the long run. And this was supported by some data that I analyzed from our CRM system. It turned out that 75% of restaurant chains that were once similar in size to this customer scaled quickly, which on average led to a 50% year-over-year revenue growth for us. To not miss our targets, I worked additional hours for the remaining three days of the week and closed three more deals.

We did reach our sales targets, and three months later, the startup announced the launch of its franchise business and chose us for a three-year frame agreement. They told us that they picked us over our competitors despite a slightly higher price point, solely due to my honesty during this previous sales transaction. I cannot disclose the details, but the deal was worth significantly more than the 15K we initially lost in sales.

I learned two things from this situation - that long-term customer relationships can be worth much more than short-term profit. Also, that I should have talked to my manager earlier to get her buy-in for my decision from the beginning.

That's all for today. Thank you for listening, and I hope this was helpful to you.