Interviewing Candidates for Customer Service Jobs

How to Hire the Best Candidates for Customer Service

Companies like Google and Microsoft have made difficult interview questions famous. Why is a manhole cover round? How would you design an evacuation plan for San Francisco? These questions can be good for tech companies and other places that want to hire employees who can come up with creative solutions to complicated problems; however, such skills aren’t at the top of the list of things I look for in frontline candidates in the customer service industry.

In grocery and retail, there is one skill prized above all else: the ability to provide exemplary customer service. While interview questions for customer service candidates don’t have to be as challenging as those asked by companies like Google, we can take a lesson or two from them.

Rather than asking difficult, abstract questions, focus instead on opened-ended questions in a format that will show you a candidate’s customer service skills through their response. Here are three tips to make sure you hire the best candidates.

Use the interview process to test customer service skills

The interview starts the moment you pick up the phone and call the candidate to schedule an interview. If they can’t give you good customer service on the phone, they probably don’t belong at your company. This is why I like to start with a brief phone interview before deciding whether the candidate would be good for an in-person interview. The phone interview is a chance to ask questions about salary requirements, availability and previous experience. More importantly, it is a chance to get to know a candidate by having a brief conversation with them. A typical interaction with a customer only lasts several minutes, so you want to ensure the people you hire have the ability to make a good impression quickly.

During the phone interview, keep these questions in mind:
  • Is the candidate speaking in a friendly tone?
  • Does the candidate sound professional and avoid the use of excessive slang and informal language?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then you may want to set up an in-person interview.

The moment the applicant enters the building, the in-person interview begins. My employer recently hired nearly 100 individuals in less than two months to staff a new grocery store. Over 150 interviews were performed as part of the process. Some applicants entered the room without making eye contact, grinning, or taking the initiative to introduce themselves. Even before the formal interview started, it was obvious that these prospects weren’t a good fit. The candidates who arrived on time, greeted staff, smiled, and made eye contact were the ones we ultimately hired.

Don’t give away the answer

Here is a typical example of an interview question that gives the candidate the answer in the question:

Q: At our company, we pride ourselves on hiring people who excel at working on teams. Are you good at working as part of a team?

A: Yes, I love being a team player because YOU just told me you want to hire a team player!

Most interviewees will know how to answer this question because you have already told them what you want to hear. With this in mind, it’s important to design questions that are open ended and ask the candidate to tell you about specific examples of their experience.

So, how might we reframe the teamwork question? In the retail and grocery industry, teamwork is more about working well with coworkers rather than completing a group project. Therefore, ask the candidate to give you an example of a time they disagreed or had a problem with a coworker. How did they resolve the situation or come to some kind of compromise? This is not a question with a simple yes or no answer. Much like the manhole question from above, it’s something that requires the candidate to show their problem-solving skills in a way that is relevant to a retail job, and it’s not a question with a single right answer.

The same approach can be applied to a question about customer service skills. Ask a candidate to give an example of a time they had a challenging customer. How did they help the customer leave happy? If things didn’t go well, what could have been done to improve the outcome?

You can also give the candidate a scenario and ask how they would respond. Ask what they would do with a customer who is trying to use an expired coupon. The customer is angry and insists she has been able to use an expired coupon before. Company policy is that you don’t accept expired coupons. What do you do? Questions like this can be particularly good if you are hiring people without previous work experience to draw from.


Listening is the most important thing you can do as an interviewer. Let the candidate speak, and don’t be afraid of silences. Sometimes you may ask a question, and the candidate is silent for a while before answering. Give the candidate a chance to respond, and don’t give in to the temptation to guide them to an answer.

The candidate should do most of the talking in an interview. If you’re doing all the talking, how can you assess a candidate’s skills? Let them show their experience through the examples they share. Ask follow-up questions as necessary, but really just be a good listener.

In the end…

It would be nice if we could travel forward in time to see if a candidate would work out before we hire them, but unfortunately no one has invented an HR time machine yet. Instead we need to rely on setting up the kind of interview that will screen out most of the potential bad hires and leave you with the good ones.

What are some challenges you have faced interviewing candidates in your industry? What suggestions do you have for other HR professionals?

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Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, is the founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find and maintain employment. She also blogs on a variety of HR topics as the HR Hammer. When not volunteering for her nonprofit, Stephanie has a day job in HR at a tech startup in Irvine, CA.

Reader Interactions


  1. AFA Julie says

    We hire regularly for our customer service areas and have the candidates take a test that helps show how they would respond to various situations. We also created a video featuring some of our best employees talking about the job – the good and the bad – to give candidates a better picture of the job. Seeing their response helps us gauge how they would likely do in the position.

  2. Kyle Jones says

    I’ve had the fortune of conducting many customer service interviews as a former Customer Service Supervisor and a current HR Manager. As a side note, I find it amazing how many candidates totally fail during the interview when the sit in the room, ask no questions, and provide single word or simple sentence responses. This destroys their chances – especially if the job is in a call center.



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