Alison Doyle is the job search expert for The Balance Careers, and one of the industry’s most highly-regarded job search and career experts.
Read The Balance’s editorial policies
Updated December 04, 2019
If you are applying for a role in customer service or retail, or for any other position where you have personal contact with consumers or businesses, your interviewer will be eager to know how you would interact with and provide assistance to customers. To that end, you can expect questions about customer service.
The short definition of customer service is making sure the customer is happy. The longer version is to ensure the customer or client is satisfied with the product or service provided, and with the sales, delivery, installation, use, and other components of the purchasing process.
When answering interview questions about customer service, it can be helpful to consider the core elements that make it up. They are:
Illustration by Catherine Song. © The Balance, 2018
Product Awareness: Whether you’re talking about books, ads on a website, or a widget, having a thorough knowledge of the company’s products is vital for providing strong customer service. Arrive at your interview with a solid base of understanding of both the company and its reputation amongst customers, as well as detailed knowledge of the company’s services/products.
Attitude: Attitude is everything, or almost everything. Greeting people with a smile or friendly hello can make a big difference in a retail store. For any customer service position, in-person or by phone, a friendly and patient attitude is important. Show everyone you meet during the interview process the positive and engaging attitude that you have. If you’re not feeling upbeat, review these tips for staying positive during job interviews.
Efficiency: Customers value a prompt, effective response. Be ready to share your achievements in customer service efficiency with the interviewer. Have you beaten productivity goals, cut down on response time, or reduced the need for follow-up calls? Anything you’ve done to be more efficient in your job is worth sharing with your interviewers.
Problem-Solving: From needing a new shirt for a wedding to requiring a replacement part, customers are looking for assistance, and part of good customer service is fixing problems and answering questions. Speak about some of the problems you’ve solved at work, the method you used to solve them, and how you resolved the situation.
What They Want to Know: Interviewers want to see how your definition matches up to the company’s definition of customer service. The goal is to determine whether you meet the standards for optimal customer service as defined by the employer.
I would define customer service as helping customers handle issues, helping them find the product they want, and doing your best to have them leave the store pleased.
What They Want to Know: Interviewers are eager to know what you consider to be quality customer service and how you would provide it to customers. Another variation of this question is, “What is good customer service?” In your answer, be prepared to give specific examples of good customer service, either from your work experience or from your personal experiences as a consumer.
Good customer service means having a thorough knowledge of your inventory, experience with your products, and being able to help customers make the best choices for them. When I worked at XYZ Company, I used to spend a few minutes each month looking at the newest products to make sure I was fully aware of their benefits, features, and performance, and could make knowledgeable recommendations to customers.
What They Want to Know: With this question, interviewers want to get a sense of how you’d mix with the company culture. But this is also a variant on the question, “Why should we hire you?” making this question an opportunity for you to make the case for your candidacy.
I’ve seen throughout our conversation, and also when browsing through social media accounts, that ABC Company puts a priority on warm, friendly, and personal service. That’s where I shine. Buying a wedding dress is an emotional moment, and I try to deliver a personal touch, relating to each customer’s needs. And it works: I consistently exceed monthly quotas and often benefit from referrals to friends. I’d bring those same qualities to ABC Company, selling formal wear.
What They Want to Know: Are you a people-person who enjoys interacting with others? Do you feel gratified when you can solve problems? Or, do you believe passionately in the product or service the company sells? These are the kinds of qualities that interviewers are looking for in your responses to this question.
I find great satisfaction in being able to find the perfect outfit for a customer, and have them leave the store knowing that they look their best. I’m a big fan of the clothing sold at Company XYZ, and in particular how it’s designed to fit people of all sizes.
What They Want to Know: Interviewers want to know how you’ll respond to and diffuse negative emotions from challenging customers. This is an example of a behavioral interview question. A strong answer will showcase your conflict resolution skills, and how you can stay calm, respectful, and helpful in response to unhappy customers.
Once, a customer was deeply displeased with his meal. When I looked at the plate, I didn’t spot a problem. First, I asked him why he was unhappy. It turned out that he was allergic to dairy, and the plate had a sprinkling of cheese on it. I acknowledged the situation and apologized—empathy helps. Then, I offered to have the kitchen re-make his meal. I also mentioned it to my manager, who was able to offer him a complimentary beverage. In the end, he left a big tip and apologized for not having mentioned his allergy from the start of the meal when I’d inquired about dietary preferences and allergies.
What They Want to Know: Interviewers are eager to see your problem-solving skills on display, as well as how you would communicate with the customers and your fellow staff. Emphasize those skills in your response. Remember, sharing an example is always helpful!
In an ideal world, that wouldn’t ever happen! Of course, we all get stumped sometimes. In those situations, I double-check my work, then loop in colleagues or my manager for more help. I remember once when a customer called inquiring how to delete a program, which sounds simple, but following the standard instructions did not work. I let him know this was an unusual situation and apologized for the delay in coming up with a fix. I double-checked the manual, confirmed that I was following the instructions, then I reached out to a colleague who was more knowledgeable about these types of issues. Together, we were able to solve the problem, and then update the training manual to share our new insight.
What They Want to Know: Ideally, your response will mirror the values the company holds. Some organizations may put a premium on speedy responses, while others may prioritize high scores in customer satisfaction. Be honest in your response, but if it’s possible to highlight qualities mentioned in the job posting, that’s beneficial.
I believe it’s important to be friendly and warm with customers to leave a good impression. Doing so also can prevent rudeness, anger, and other negative emotions from taking over the experience. However, I also believe that it’s important to solve issues quickly. Efficiency is also a priority.
What They Want to Know: Interviewers want to see how you handle negative feedback and stressful situations.
Often, I try to avoid that feedback by giving customers an estimate up-front of how long a task will take, and why it might take some time. However, that’s not always possible. If I got this feedback, I’d start by acknowledging it without getting defensive. I’d probably say something like, “I apologize that this issue is taking longer than anticipated to resolve.” Then, I’d look for practical solutions. For instance, I could call the customer back, provide an update by email, or do something that will free up the person’s time. That’d help the customer end the interaction satisfied.
What They Want to Know: Interviewers want evidence that you’ve spent some time researching the company This helps show that you want to work at this job specifically, not just any customer service position.
XYZ Tech Company sells two levels of cloud storage: the first is geared toward consumers, and my sense from coverage in the media is that you’re looking to increase your marketing of this option. As well, XYZ sells an enterprise-level storage option. I would be intrigued to know if that actually drives more meaningful sales.
What They Want to Know: Potential employers want to know if you have experience in a similar role. You do not have to describe every role you’ve had, Instead, highlight the most relevant customer-oriented jobs you’ve had. And, if you do not have a lot of experience in customer service, discuss relevant skills that you have, such as communication skills, empathy, and problem-solving. It can be effective to use an example of a time when someone made an impact on you through their superb customer service skills.
I worked at ABC Retail for several years, selling clothing. After that, I wanted to explore something different. At ZYZ International, I was part of a collaborative global team, tackling issues over the phone. I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to work as part of a team.
Here are additional tips for responding to interview questions regarding customer service:
Do your homework, familiarizing yourself with the company and the products and services it sells. Check the company website, skim through social media accounts, and review any media coverage. Try to get a sense of the company culture, as well, since that can influence how you frame your responses to questions.
To make a good impression, it’s wise to ask your interviewer some questions. You can ask about logistics, company culture, or specifics about customer service. Here are some options:
1. What are some of the unique challenges that your customer service reps face at this company?
2. What’s the environment like here? Do people tend to work collaboratively or independently?
3. What are some of the new products or services that you’ll be offering in the next year?
4. What’s your favorite part of working at this company?
5. What are some of the qualities you think make a standout customer service rep here?