The Perfect Interview Question For Hiring Customer Service Reps

Hiring a customer service rep – or any employee, for that matter – is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make as a business owner.

Hire poorly and your company could tank. Hire well and you’ll create a world-class business.

The secret of my success is that we have gone to exceptional lengths to hire the best people in the world.” – Steve Jobs

The secret to success is to hire the best people in the world. - Steve Jobs Click To Tweet

So, what’s the perfect interview question to help you find the best talent?  A situational interview question.

Well, it’s not a question, really – it’s a task. More specifically, it’s a task for the interviewee to actually respond to a (made-up) customer complaint scenario.

The beauty of putting them in a real-life scenario is that you can touch on a little bit of everything. In fact, in this post, I’ll explain how to look for the skills needed for excellent customer service, based on the candidate’s answers.

Let’s dive in.

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The Interview Question Scenario

Scenarios and role-playing are the best way to find out about a person because they put the interviewee on the spot and cut through memorized answers. It also shows how creative they are and their ability to think on their feet.

Use this scenario — and the twists and turns that follow — along with other situational and behavioral questions to really test the candidate’s true abilities.  You can even use our customer service scenarios examples as well.

When the interviewee comes in, tell them they are going to solve a customer complaint.

The Scenario

You’re a customer support representative for a well-known eCommerce company.  You arrive to work Monday morning, excited to start the week after a relaxing weekend.  Your first customer support ticket is an email from John, a customer seeking to determine the status of his order after waiting nine days and he still has not received it. You don’t have John’s order number. How do you respond?

John’s email:

Customer Service Scenario

Some notable things about this email (don’t give these to the candidate – they’re for your understanding!):

  • This is John’s third attempt to contact the company, signifying that he is probably pretty aggravated and needs to be handled with care and understanding.
  • John shares that the purchase is a gift for his son for Christmas, which means it should be treated with urgency. But, it is also an opportunity to WOW him by offering a discount or sending an extra gift and saying, “Merry Christmas!”
  • The customer gave his number, which means he is open to (and likely prefers) a phone conversation.

You can give them the scenario face-to-face, over the phone, or online – whatever makes the most sense.

The candidate will likely want to respond to the customer in one of two ways: By phone or by email. If they say they would call John due to the urgent nature of the situation, respond with, “OK, what if he doesn’t answer?”

Note: Bonus points if the candidate says they would call – calling is the ideal way to handle an urgent situation. However, you want them to physically write an email response in order to see their writing capabilities, which is why you prod them with “what if he doesn’t answer?”

When they write their response, you’re looking for an answer similar to this:

Interview Scenario Question Answered

Let’s break that answer down a bit.

What to Look For in Their Answer

Here is the same email, but this time I’ll underline parts to pay extra attention to:

Customer Service Scenario Response

  • Shows empathy and emotional intelligence
  • Shows urgency
  • Being thorough and anticipating potential issues before they happen
  • Willing to follow-up via phone
  • Shows creative problem-solving by ensuring the customer is able to connect quickly

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The answer above is great because they use empathy and understanding (saying John’s son can’t go without a Christmas gift) and treat the situation with urgency (saying they’ll find out what happened right away).

Additionally, the rep anticipated a future problem (John not knowing his order number), told him they would call again if they didn’t hear back soon (another example of urgency), and gave John a direct number to reach him/her to avoid any further wait times and frustrating calls.

If they’re really creative, they would even look up orders from nine days ago to find John’s order number without asking for it and have a solution in their very first email. Bonus points for this kind of creative thinking, but ask them, “what if you can’t find the order number?”

The purpose of these prodding questions is to see how they would think on-the-fly and deal with additional issues.

You should now start to have a good idea of the candidate’s capabilities. However, let’s go through some more scenarios to cover more ground.

Moving Forward

At this point, let’s assume the customer responded to your email, providing you with his order number, and the situation continues as follows:

John’s order was received, however the warehouse initially misplaced the package. It has now been located, and the order was just fulfilled and sent for delivery.

Now you can ask the interviewee to write another email to the customer to explain the situation, and look for a response similar to this:

Customer scenario

Again, this answer hits on empathy and high emotional intelligence (saying it’s unacceptable), as well as providing an immediate answer (we located your package and shipped immediately). It was also thorough – they added the tracking information so it doesn’t happen again.

The best part? They capitalized on the problem to delight the customer by giving them a full refund on their shipping and adding free overnight shipping.

At this point, you should ask the candidate if there is anything else they would do once the problem was resolved.

In this question, you’re looking to see how savvy they are – would they follow up with a phone call the next day to ensure the package was delivered? Would they send a thank-you/apology/Christmas card? Would they just close the ticket?

You want to make sure they truly WOW the customer. Complaints and problems like this should really be viewed as opportunities to create a customer for life, not as annoyances. It’s high-emotion situations like these (both negative and positive) that provide you with the chance to do something the customer will remember forever and tell others about.

Digging Deeper: Alternate & Additional Scenarios

Of course, the interview process won’t always be this cut and dry and you may not get ideal replies. How can you be fair and dig deeper to learn more about the candidate?

Here are some additional scenarios you can ask them to see how they would respond to other situations. No need to have them write more responses – just get some verbal answers.

What would you do if John never responded to the phone call or email?

You’re looking to see how well they can follow-up on tasks. Ideally, they would set a reminder to call John in another hour or so until he answered and the situation was resolved.

What if John is very angry and has lost trust in the company?

You want to see that the candidate would be sympathetic and apologize further, and possibly escalate the matter to a manager. You also want to ensure they will listen thoroughly, be patient, and not get upset at the situation.

What if you couldn’t deliver the product by Christmas – how would you handle the situation?

You want the candidate to do whatever it takes to win the customer over, and ensure they end up happy in the end.  If the candidate responds passively and without much care, obviously that would be a red flag!

At what point would you escalate the matter to your supervisor?

This question is valuable to see if the candidate is very decisive, or if they need the input of a supervisor to handle complaints instead of working more independently.

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Once you’ve gone through all these scenarios, you should have a pretty good idea of what the candidate is like in terms of skills and attitude, as well as how they handle difficult situations.

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What did you think of this scenario? Is there anything you would add or change? Let us know in the comments below.

With contributions from Zack and Tony Gilyana, Co-Founders at