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How to…Use the STAR interview technique


If you’re applying for a job within almost any sector, but particularly the retail industry, you will come across interviews where you are asked about how you would handle certain situations, or about how you have handled similar situations in the past. In this kind of interview more than ever, preparation is key and the best way to go about preparing is to use the STAR technique.

Chances are, like most people, you have encountered the dreaded phrase in an interview “Tell me about a time when…” This is a question that seems designed to make the heart sink. But with a little preparation, using the STAR method, you can make this part of the jobseeking process a lot less painful.

What is a ‘competency-based interview’?

An interview, or application form, where you are asked to give examples of your previous experience is called a “competency-based” interview. Your potential employer is looking for you to give real-life examples of times you’ve demonstrated the qualities, or ‘competencies’, that they are looking for in an employee.

How do I know if the interview is going to be ‘competency-based’?

You probably won’t know ahead of time unless you ask your recruiter, but chances are you will come across competency questions at some point it is best to have some pre-prepared answers ahead of time in your jobseeker toolkit.

As soon as you hear the phrase “tell me about a time…” or “describe a time when you…” you can then pull out your pre-prepared answers and give the best answer possible.

So how do I prepare?

In order to prepare great answers, you will have to anticipate the kind of questions you will be asked. Once you have made an educated guess as to the kind of competencies the interviewer will be looking for, you will have to think of some examples when you have shown these and prepare your answer using the STAR method.

How can I anticipate what kind of questions I will be asked?

Of course you can’t find out exactly what you will be asked in an interview, but you can do your best to anticipate the most likely questions and prepare answers that will cover those competencies. For example, your interviewer will probably want to hear examples of some of the following: communication or influencing skills, adaptability, conflict or crisis management, creativity and innovation, delegation or leadership, flexibility, teamwork and organizational awareness.

What is the STAR method?

The STAR method is the best and most structured way of answering competency-based interview questions. It stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result. It is a great way of breaking down your responses in this kind of interview.

In ‘Situation’ you would briefly describe the situation and set the context for your story, in ‘Task’ you then go on to describe what was required of you. In ‘Activity’ you talk about how you went about solving the task and in ‘Result’ you would talk about how the situation turned out.

The benefit of using this technique to form your answers is that you will automatically have a clear, well-articulated response, rather than a long, rambling story. The interviewer will be left with the impression that you are well prepared, calm and confident.

Example answer

For example, a popular competency question to come up in customer service roles is “tell us about a time when you had to deal with a complaint from a customer and what you did to resolve the issue.”

Using the STAR method, you’d give an answer structured on the following lines:

Situation: “A customer rang up complaining that they had yet to receive their order which was now well outside of our normal delivery timescales.”

Task: “I needed to address the customer’s concerns, find out what had gone wrong with the delivery and make sure that their delivery got to them as quickly as possible.”

Activity: “I immediately apologized to the customer and got their details. Through checking our system in conjunction with our contracted delivery firm I was able to establish that it was a combination of an email inbox not being checked as often as possible on our behalf and an address spelled wrongly on the customer’s part. I contacted the customer, got the right delivery details and made sure her goods were with her the next day. In addition, I offered her a discount on her next purchase as a goodwill gesture.”

Result: “I was able to recommend a system to my line managers that meant all of the company’s email inboxes were checked regularly going forward and having contacted the customer a week later discovered she had not only used her discount, but had posted a positive customer service review on Twitter!”

Competency-based interviews: some example questions

The key with the STAR technique is to think of specific examples you can give where you’ve demonstrated the competencies that are likely to be key to performing the role.

Don’t generalize, try to come up with some concrete examples – even if you haven’t actually experienced them yourself, you can frame the story in relation to what you would do in such a situation but of course a genuine example is always best!

Now that you know what the STAR method is and how to use it, practice on these example interview questions:

  • Tell me about a time you made a mistake
  • Describe a situation where you had to drive a team through change. How did you achieve this?
  • Tell us about a situation where your communication skills made a difference to a situation.
  • Tell us about a time when you had to deal with a conflict within your team.
  • What type of responsibilities do you delegate? Give examples of projects where you made best use of delegation.
  • Give us an example of a situation where your initial approach failed and you had to change tack.
  • Tell us about a time when you went against company policy. Why did you do it and how did you handle it?