Personality type, two people


Background and example questions for people interviewing for Sales roles.

This white paper is designed to help knowledge workers, professionals & semi-professionals, managers and senior execs CXO level prepare better for interview – this particular article is written to help the candidate approach their interview better informed and more prepared.

Where appropriate, in each occupational discipline, we have included questions for both individual contributors and management questions for individual disciplines.

This white paper specifically addresses the issues of how-to best approach handling competency-based interviews.

Here’s what we’ve got for you:

  • What does competency-based interviewing mean?
  • How to second guess what questions may arise and how to answer them?
  • Question bank – Examples of generic competency based interview questions which you may expect.
  • Examples of specific questions, appertaining to people interviewing for jobs in Sales roles.


What does competency-based interviewing mean?

Competency-based interviews are structured, with the interviewer working from a set of pre-determined questions.

They work on the basis that your past performance is a reliable predictor of the future, so you can expect to be asked a number of questions that will require you to draw on specific aspects of your past performance.

Competency-based interview questions will typically begin:

  • Tell me about a time when?
  • Tell us what approach you took?
  • Describe an occasion when?
  • How did you go about?
  • Give me an example when?

These are often based around core behavioural competencies such as:

Initiative and innovation. Developing others. Delivering results.
Team leading. Interpersonal skills. Learning & self-development.
Communication Planning and organising. Analytical thinking.
Strategic thinking. Building relationships. Teamwork and collaboration.


However, competency-based interview questions are more likely to be put to you in a specific context, determined by the requirements of the job and what is to be accomplished / achieved.


Selecting your next leader

Why is it so important that you understand competency-based interviewing?

Two reasons;

Firstly, HR is increasingly becoming recognised for its contribution to the business – once a discipline which many people saw as taking a back-seat, HR as a function is becoming increasingly valued.

  • Importantly HR professionals becoming increasingly business savvy, better focused on business outcomes and more influential in driving up organizational capability through more robust recruitment and selection tactics and techniques for internal and external resourcing.
  • Best practice in HR, means leveraging a competency-based interview approach; taking a more scientific approach to determining a candidate’s ability to perform in the job and this means looking for previous experience of success (competency).
  • You can expect HR executive to be interested to identify experience which is directly relevant to the specific demands of the job, the goals to be achieved and situation in which it is to be done (business drivers, market conditions / dynamics….).

Second reason; most experienced senior managers or business leaders are either aware of the merits and rationale of competency-based interviewing or are subconsciously aware of it, and therefore will often use competency-based interview questions to assess a candidate’s real ability.

In relation to their questions, the interviewer(s) will analyse your answer around ‘what you did’, in terms of your experience, knowledge and skills applied to the situation that is in question. The question is most likely to be framed in terms of direct relevance to the organization and the job being recruited for, and you should look to answer it in the same terms.

You will demonstrate the extent of your affinity to the organization’s activities. The interviewer, and certainly if they are part of HR, will want to know ‘how you did what you did’. This relates to the behavioural competencies that are relative to the values of the organization. Are you a fit with the desired culture of the organization?


For more senior roles, and particularly jobs that involve people management, apart from the technical skills and general behavioural aspects, management of people is key. However, it is increasingly common for the term leadership to be used, therefore it may help to provide some delineation between the two terms.

Management is seen as the transactional processes by which an organization is steered, and its activities are planned, directed and executed procedurally.

Leadership is considered to be a more transformational activity in which influence is created and used to bring about people performance. So, we can see fundamental differences in approach – authoritarian v. charismatic, short-term objectives v. strategic vision, doing things right v. doing the right things.

Leadership is seen as much more behaviourally driven, an innate characteristic of nature rather than learned, hence it may drive competence interview questioning that has greater focus on emotional intelligence.


Competence questions have their foundation in the premise that how a person behaves in a given situation is characteristic, rather than what they say they would theoretically do in a given situation, which may or may not be the case in the event. At the most senior levels of an organization, the criticality of leadership will feature strongly in the manner of the competence interview questions that you will be asked, as much as your focus on past business performance.

How to second guess what questions may arise.

The keys to unlocking what competency-based interview questions you may face, lie in the following clues and combinations…

Expect questions to be focused on very predictable business-critical goals for which you will be expected to be responsible, and against which your performance will most likely be measured, and by which success or failure will be determined. These are most likely to be industry-sector and job specific. Consider what matters most in the position into which the employer is hiring – the key challenges of the role, the key issues facing the business, its ambitions and objectives. Anticipate what areas you think they are most likely to probe you about. Where does your experience and achievements relate?

You should reflect on what insight you have into the opportunity from any job spec, briefing from a head-hunter, internal recruiter, job advert, inside line from someone in your network, news items or other media items including their website, then try to second guess what questions they are most likely to put to you. Consider sitting in the interviewers’ shoes and think about what questions you might ask if you were on their side of the table.

Factors most likely to influence the shape of the competency-based interview question /s!

Take a broad view of the organization itself – its size and spread geographically, its range of products and services, its operational activities, its recent market performance, emerging issues; something of a SWOT analysis.

What will be the impacts required of the role-holder – critical short-term deliverables, long term ambitions, key areas of influence, in the context of the organization.

Now, look to define the role in terms of the important attributes (experience, knowledge, skills) that will underpin delivery of job performance. You have got to the interview stage so what is it on your CV that will likely have interested them in you.

Okay, now try to prepare and plan for the interview itself. Think about the concepts raised in the above visual and consequently which competency-based questions are they most likely to put to you.

How to answer competency-based interview questions?

Answer competency-based interview questions using the STAR formula!

  • SITUATION – say where you were (employer name), what your role was and when it happened.
  • TASK – outline the challenge or nature of the project for which you were responsible and why it was important in the context of impact on the organization.
  • ACTION – explain how you approached the task and the actions you took. If your efforts were part of a team effort, focus most on what you did, and what you contributed. Avoid saying what you thought you might do – you need to focus on what you have achieved and how you achieved it.
  • RESULT – what were the outcomes? These should be substantiated with facts and figures and should show you in a positive light.

What if you can’t think of a good or recent example?


In this case you may wish to tell the interviewer that you cannot think of a directly comparable situation, but you can think of something similar, and then elaborate on how you might have approached this task if faced with it. The interviewer will normally accept this approach. The length of your answer. Expect sub questions.


Your response to any competency-based question needs to be focused but in dealing with all four points of the STAR technique in sufficient detail, it is not untypical for a response to take around five minutes to explain. If you have not covered aspects that the interviewer is looking for you to cover, they may interject or at the end of your answer give you one or more ‘prompt’ questions but it is also common for an interviewer to give you a series of sub-questions having asked the main question, to give you a steer as to what they are looking for you to cover in your response. In answering competence-based interview questions, the process you apply is important to make sure that you give the best answers you can.


Having been asked the question, give yourself some thinking time so that you identify a particularly relevant scenario for your response and to prepare and frame your response so that it is comprehensive yet focused.

  • The interviewer will expect you to take time to prepare your answer.
  • Feel free to ask for the question to be repeated – you need to be certain that you understand the question.
  • Have a pen and paper to note the salient points of the question as a reminder of what needs to be addressed if you personally feel comfortable and confident in this approach.
  • If you think you may be going off track with your answer, ask for the question to be repeated – better safe than sorry.
  • Expect the interviewer to be writing notes as you talk.


Examples of generic competency-based interview questions

Communication and presentation skills

  • Think of a time when you tried to persuade someone else to adopt your point of view. What was the situation? How did you present your views / arguments? What was the result?
  • Tell us about a major change you have experienced in your work environment.
  • Tell us about a time when you failed. Why did you fail? What did you learn from the situation?


Delivering results / results orientation

  • Tell us about a project where you have persisted in spite of obstacles.
  • Tell us about a major achievement and how you went about it.
  • Describe a time when you experienced setbacks in your work.


Interpersonal skills

  • Tell me about a time when you needed to persuade others to commit to a course of action.
  • Describe a situation where you got people to work together.
  • Can you tell me the last time you upset someone? What happened?


Use of initiative

  • Tell me about a time when you undertook a project in an area in which you had little or no experience.
  • Tell me about a time when you initiated a change on your own. How did you present this to your boss?
  • Can you give me an example of a time when you wanted to initiate a project on your own? How did you go about it?


Planning and organising

  • Tell me about a complex project you’ve been responsible for that required significant planning.
  • Tell me about a time when you didn’t meet an objective / deadline.
  • Give me an example of a time when you have had to change your plans.


Analytical thinking

Tell me about a time when you identified a new approach to a problem.

Describe a time when your analytical skills were put to the test.

Tell me about the most complex or difficult information you have had to analyse.


Strategic thinking

  • Tell me of a time when you have influenced strategy.
  • Can you tell me about a time when you implemented a plan that had long-range implications?
  • Can you give me an example of a time when you developed a mission statement?


Building relationships

  • Tell me about a time when you quickly developed a relationship with a new colleague or client.
  • Give me an example of a time when you went about building good working relationships within a team.
  • Describe a situation in which you had to develop and maintain a working relationship with someone with whom you didn’t like
  • to work. How did you do that?



  • Describe a time when you have had to change a process or methodology. How did you go about it?
  • Can you describe a time when you had to influence business decisions in a business unit not directly accountable to you?
  • Describe your recent experience of partnering with senior managers to influence commercial outcomes.


Commercial and business awareness

  • Describe a situation where you championed strategic thinking corporately.
  • Describe financial / commercial decisions that you have made / advised on.
  • Tell us about an occasion when you borrowed ideas from other industries.


Decision making – problem solving and analysis

  • Tell us about a particularly difficult decision you have had to make.
  • Describe a complex problem that you have had to deal with. What approach did you take?
  • Tell us about some of the analytical methods you have used in the past, e.g. cost / benefit analysis. How have these helped you add value?



  • Can you tell me about a time when you have had to resolve conflict between individuals?
  • Describe a time where you have had to use different approaches to deal with different personalities.
  • Can you describe a time when you worked in a team drawn from other departments / areas of your business?
  • Who is the most difficult person you have ever had to manage?


Team leading

  • Describe your approach to leadership style in your last position / s.
  • What is the best team you’ve led and why?
  • Tell me about a time when you led a dysfunctional team.
  • What techniques have you used to encourage others to contribute to the team?


You are at the sharp end of the organization, the prime interface with those all-important customers. By nature you are results driven, but interviewers will also want to see how you apply all of those key attributes that make a person not just personally great at selling but leading in a sales environment and driving it – commercial acumen, depth of product knowledge, market understanding, customer insight and customer relationship management. All key to sustainable, successful business performance.

Here you will find examples of individual contributor roles first, and then sales management questions.



Tell me how you have performed against your sales targets over the past 3 years.

Sub Questions

  • What was the detail within your targets?
  • To what extent did you bring in new customers and what value were those accounts?
  • How did the balance change between continuing business, new prospects and new products; and what did your analysis explain this?
  • How has your performance been rated and how has it compared with others within the team?



Talk us through the detail of a major sale that you have made in the last 3 years.

Sub Questions

  • What was the opportunity and how did you identify it?
  • Who were the key stakeholders, how did you identify them and what actions did you take to put yourself into a strong position with them?
  • What was your proposition and how did it compare with the competition in terms of strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats?
  • What was the detail of the outcome and what was it in the proposition that had given you the edge?



Tell me about a time when the strength of your proposition persuaded a customer to change their procurement plans.

Sub Questions

  • How did you identify the opportunity with the customer?
  • What was the proposition that you developed, what did you see as the key attraction for the customer and why?
  • How did you help the customer with their business case to win internal support?



Tell us about a sale that you were unable to complete?

Sub Questions

  • What was the opportunity and what had you done to put yourself into position?
  • What other suppliers were there and what was your assessment of the competition?
  • What was the actual deal done with the customer and what was your analysis of the reasons?
  • What did your review indicate that you should have done differently?



Tell me about a time when you had to generate sales of a new product into the construction equipment / healthcare /automotive / electronics / etc. sector?

Sub Questions

  • What was the new product and what differentiated it from the competition?
  • How did you segment and target your customer base?
  • What different approaches did you develop?
  • Where were you successful and where were less than successful, and why?



Tell us about a difficult sales negotiation and how you managed ambitious customer expectations regarding product pricing.

Sub Questions

  • What was the situation and what were the customers’ expectations?
  • What constraints were you operating within?
  • How did you set your negotiating tactics?
  • How did the negotiations go and what was the deal concluded?
  • Where did the outcome sit within the overall sales strategy?
  • What did you do to manage the client relationship beyond the sale?



Describe an occasion when you recognised a strong sales opportunity but were seriously concerned about the customer demands around delivery dates.

Sub Questions

  • What information were you acting upon?
  • What was your assessment of the situation?
  • Who had you identified as the key stakeholders and how did you handle those discussions?
  • What risks did you identify and what measures did you take in response?
  • How did you complete the sale?
  • How did you manage the situation to meet your commitments?



Please tell me about a time when meeting your personal sales targets was potentially in conflict with a longer-term business opportunity?

Sub Questions

  • What was your sales target?
  • What further opportunity had you identified and where was the potential for conflict?
  • How did you approach the situation?
  • What solution did you propose?
  • What was the outcome?



Please tell me about an occasion when you questioned the competitive capability of your business in a particular market.

Sub Questions

  • What had flagged up the issue?
  • What was your assessment of the issue?
  • Who did you need to involve and why?
  • What solutions did you propose?
  • What was the outcome?



Tell us about a time when you had to deal with the negative views of a customer?

Sub Questions

  • How did you research the situation?
  • Why did the customer hold a negative view?
  • How did you plan your approach?
  • What was your approach and how did you progress the customer relationship?



Tell me about a time when you struggled or failed to make sales targets?

Sub Questions

  • What was the product?
  • How did you see the issues?
  • How were colleagues faring in comparison?
  • How did you seek to deal with the situation?
  • What was the outcome?





Tell us about the performance of your sales team over the past 3 years.

Sub Questions

  • How has team performance compared to target revenues and margins for each year?
  • What were the key contributory factors to performance in each year?
  • What were your significant contributions to the results in terms of strategies, tactics and people?



Tell us about an innovative deal that you led, to break through with a new major customer?

Sub Questions

  • What was the market opportunity?
  • Why was it significant for the organization?
  • What was innovative about the deal?
  • What impact did it have on your personal targets and the business financial performance?
  • What issues and risks did you need to manage and how did you manage them?


Describe to me how you developed and implemented a new sales strategy and approach to meet the KPI’s for business performance.

Sub Questions

  • What were the key business KPI’s that you sought to address?
  • What were the main components of your sales strategy?
  • How did you translate that strategy into deliverables amongst your team?
  • How did you monitor on-going performance?
  • How successful were you in meeting the business KPI’s?



Tell us about a time when you had to push up sales to meet the high-growth objectives of the business.

Sub Questions

  • What was the business plan and what was driving it?
  • What were the main elements of your response for the sales function?
  • Why did you see them as most likely to achieve the requisite level of success?
  • What issues did you need to address?
  • How did actual performance compare to the desired level?



Tell us about a time when your team’s sales revenues were below target and the remedial actions you took to recover performance.

Sub Questions

  • How was sales performance compared to target?
  • How did you conduct your evaluation into causation and what were your findings?
  • What were the main elements of the plan you developed to recover performance?
  • Who were the key stakeholders and what communications di you make to them?
  • How did you measure the success of your plan?



Tell us how about your most successful sales team that you have established and what made the team so successful?

Sub Questions

  • What was the nature of the organization and its products?
  • How did you establish the team and its capability?
  • How did you motivate the team to perform?
  • What do you think were the critical success factors in your team’s performance?



Tell me about an incentive and reward scheme that you developed for your sales team?

Sub Questions

What were your key objectives and how did these relate to the structure of the scheme?

How did the elements of the scheme fit within the wider performance management programme in place across the business?

How did you introduce the scheme?

What issues did you experience and how did you address them?

How would you evaluate the long-term success of the scheme?