21 Questions for the Perfect Customer Service Interview

The average job interview is mightily ineffective. Hundreds of studies have taught us that much (Forbes). Instead of selecting the best person for the job, most interviews favor the applicants that are attractive, sociable, articulate, or tall.

Still, they’re standard procedure for hiring people – also for customer service jobs.

As important as technological customer experience innovations are, it's equally important to employ behavioral interview techniques in order to select job applicants who are predisposed to providing exceptional customer service.

Steve Curtin

Here's the template we created of customer service interview questions to take on a structured approach. We based it on Harvard Business Review’s best practices of conducting a job interview:

  1. Reduce stress
  2. Assess potential
  3. Ask for real solutions
  4. Consider “cultural fit”
  5. Sell the job

Hiring managers can use it to set up their interview; applicants can use it to practice and prepare. You can download the template at the bottom of the post.

1
Reduce stress

This is the first tip from HBR’s “How to Conduct an Effective Job Interview”. Stress reduces performance, and some people get more stressed out by a job interview than others. That doesn’t mean they’ll get as stressed out by customer inquiries.

cartoon of stressed guy awaiting the customer service interview questions
The goal of your first questions is to reduce stress.

So start out with some small talk questions: “Could you find the place easily?” “Nice weather today, isn’t it?”. Any of the standard questions will do, as long as it leads you into a friendly 3-minute conversation.

Once there’s a friendly atmosphere, you can move on to the “assess potential” part of the interview. A nice question that connects them:

Who have you been in contact with so far in the process and what did you discuss?

Zendesk uses this question when hiring new service reps. Besides being a nice bridge, it shows whether the applicant has the skills to memorize names and details – important for customer service.

2
Assess potential

The first goal of an interview is to assess the potential of the applicant to do the job well. Fernández-Aráoz suggests to assess the applicant’s “curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination.”

Tell us about your last job position – what were you doing?

The point here is to get a quick overview of the applicant’s experience. You can use your list of desired attributes as a checklist and as a source for follow up questions.

What did you like about it and what not?

With this question you assess the applicant’s motivators. Is it the people? The pressure? The challenge? It’s also a good way to assess the character – whether she talks bad about her previous employer or not.

What were some of the typical problems in your previous support job?

With the answer, you can assess whether the challenges from the previous job are similar to those in your organization. You assess how applicable his or her experience is.

How do you keep up to date with developments in the (service) industry?

Blogs, magazines, YouTube channels, etc. With this, you can assess how involved the applicant is in the topic of customer service. Also, you can check the quality of the resources mentioned.

How do you think customer service will develop in the coming 5 years?

No right or wrong answer here, but the response gives insight into the thought processes of the applicant and how involved she is in the topic.

Have you tried our product/service? What are your thoughts about it?

A well prepared applicant will have tried out your product or service as far as they could. Their thoughts will shine light on how motivated they are to join your company.

Name some of the most common mistakes you see made by service reps?

The answer to this one shows, again, how involved the applicant is with customer service. Noticing typical mistakes is a sign that the person is involved beyond her own call of duty.

What service tools have you used? What do you like/dislike about them?

Besides possible overlaps of experience with tools used at your company, this question shows how much the applicant has thought about how to use tools to improve customer service.

3
Ask for real solutions

If you’re hiring a chef, ask him to cook a meal. You can do the same when hiring customer service reps, by asking behavioral and situational questions.

cartoon of guy carrying a key
Ask for real solutions.

“This is the situation. Talk us through how you’d handle this.” Through these questions you get an idea of the applicant’s communication skills and way of working.

The customer asks you a deeply technical question that you don’t know the answer to. Walk us through how you’d respond.

You’ll be looking for a well communicated answer that includes the applicant admitting that she lacks the technical knowledge to answer this, but that she will forward to a knowledgeable colleague, or create a ticket through which they’ll get back to the customer as soon as possible.

The customer asks for a feature we don’t have and could never implement. Walk us through how you would respond?

You’ll be looking for a well communicated answer in which the applicant says she understands the need for that feature, but explains the reasons for it not being there.

The customer is angry because his product broke, and he claims it’s because one of your colleagues misinformed him. Walk us through how you would handle this situation?

You’re looking for an answer that shows that the applicant knows how to deal with angry customers. It should include maintaining a calm mind, calming down the customer through questioning, apologizing, explaining what likely has gone wrong, and then looking for a solution.

The customer suggests an improvement to your product/service. How do you respond?

The answer should include appreciation for the suggestion, explaining the process for new ideas, and collecting contact information to be notified when the idea is implemented.

4
Consider “cultural fit”

Much has been said about “cultural fit”. Although it’s important to consider how comfortable the applicant will feel at the job, Sullivan warns against obsessing over cultural fit. What matters, he argues, is whether the person can adapt.

How would you define 'good customer service'?

This question is suggested by Shep Hyken, one of the leading experts on customer service. Through the applicant’s answer, you can find whether you think the same about what constitutes “good customer service”. Is it about meeting customer expectations or exceeding them? Is the customer always right, or should they be assisted within boundaries?

Name 3 important attributes of a service rep?

This one is similar to the previous question, but connected to the service rep. See whether you think the same about it, whether the answer correlates with the attributes you noted down.

Should customer service aim at 'exceeding customer expectations'?

This is an interesting question, because it revolves around a discussion in the customer service industry. A discussion between those who advocate an approach of aiming above customer expectations, and those who claim this is too expensive and doesn’t lead to significant benefits (read Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers). The answer will give you insight into whether the applicant fits your service philosophy.

Do you think customer problems are better solved as a team or by individual efforts?

There is no right or wrong answer here, both have their pro’s and con’s. But the applicant’s preferences will shine through her answer.

A customer has misread the contract, and politely asks for the renewal to be reversed, as well as a refund. What do you think is the best way to resolve this?

With this behavioral question there’s also no bad answer; it’s about assessing the applicant’s thought processes and seeing whether it fits your company. The answer also shows whether the applicant think short term (no refund) or long term (refund).

Do you prefer fixed or flexible hours?

A simple question without a wrong answer, but one that again offers insight into the cultural fit.

5
Sell the job

This part is often forgotten. Remember that a hiring process looks more like a partnership than a transaction. The applicant needs to be sold on the benefits, as well. So, argues Fernández-Aráoz, once you’re convinced of a good fit, dedicate the last part of the interview to selling the job.

What is important for you in a workplace?

This question first and foremost shows that you care about the applicant’s wishes. Then you can respond on the answer by connecting the benefits that your workplace has to offer to the applicant’s desires.

Is there anyone on the team you’d like to meet?

The best and most credible people for an applicant to talk to are those that live the job, says Sullivan. Think about the people in your company that would make the best impression on the applicant.

Some Best Practices

Some general best practices for conducting interviews.

  • Prepare your questions and desired answers. Because your interviewers will be assigning scores to the respondents’ answers, it’s good practice to define the type of answer you’re looking for.
  • Aim for a dialogue, not a sales pitch. Many interview tips are filled with overly straightforward questions that have only one obvious right answer. “Are you a team player?” Well, of course I am. “Why are you perfect for this job?” Here comes an obvious sales pitch. Instead, aim for questions that don’t have a right answer, but that show the applicant’s thought process.
  • Compile a list of desired attributes. HBR suggests noting down a list of desired attributes for the job. You could use this as an extra score sheet, and base the attributes on those of your current top performers. What makes them so great? For customer service jobs, you could rank applicants on attributes like patience and communication skills.
  • Tell people in advance what topics you’d like to discuss. HR expert John Sullivan explains in HBR that it’s important to reduce the unknowns of an interview. Because unknowns cause stress – and too much stress reduces performance. So let the applicants know what type of questions you’ll discuss, who will be present, and what the dress code is.
  • Ask for examples. Nothing beats experience. That’s what a hiring manager should look for, and what the applicant should back everything up with.
  • Involve a few others. Fernández-Aráoz, senior adviser at global executive search firm Egon Zehnder, explains in HBR that it’s crucial to have multiple people involved for multiple checks. But don’t go overboard, either, because it will lead to overly long processes. He suggests an ideal length of three people: the boss, the boss’ boss, and an HR person.

The Template

You can download the template here: Word, Pages, or PDF.

Of course you can tailor the questions to your organization. Just make sure you ask the exact same questions to all of your applicants. And, please, avoid the “What’s your weakness” question at all cost.