The Amazingly Simple Way to Develop Better Interview Questions

Coming up with interview questions can be tricky.

I'm going to focus on hiring customer service employees, but my experience as a recruiter has taught me that it's a tricky process for nearly any role. 

There's no shortage of ideas on the topic. Books, articles, and webinars galore are dedicated to coming up with interview questions. The problem is it's just too much to make sense of it all.

You might ask the typical questions, such as "Why do you want to work here?"

Some people ask challenging questions, such as "What would your last boss say was your biggest weakness?" (Correct answer: "Sometimes I work too hard because I care too damn much.")

Others enjoy weird questions that focus on how the candidate answers: "If you were a fruit, what kind of fruit would you be and why?"

There's often a fatal flaw in all of these approaches. A flaw so bad that research shows you'd make better hiring decisions if you skip the interview questions entirely.

Three simple steps can fix that.

Step 1: Create an Ideal Candidate Profile

Just as a teacher wouldn't give a test without making an answer key, asking interview questions without knowing what a successful candidate should say is a recipe for disaster.

You can solve this problem by creating an Ideal Candidate Profile. It's a list of the specific skills and attributes that would make a job applicant the ideal candidate. The profile ultimately serves as the answer key for your interviews. 

For example, let's say you manage a tasting room at a winery and want to hire a wine room host to conduct tastings and sell wine. Some wineries promote a party-like atmosphere, but your winery really focuses on educating guests about great wine so they'll appreciate it more.

So one item on your Ideal Candidate Profile for a wine room host might be "a passion for learning about wine." Someone who loves learning about wine is more likely to share that passion with your guests, which is exactly what your winery wants.

You can use this handy tool to create your own Ideal Candidate Profile. I've even included a couple of how-to videos.


Step 2: Develop Your Questions

The next step is to develop at least one interview question for every item on Your Ideal Candidate Profile.

The idea is to use the interview to help you uncover whether or not a candidate has the specific qualities you're looking for. So if you want someone who is a team player, you should have a question that helps you learn if this person is truly good at teamwork. 

Let's go back to the winery example. Here's a question that might help you discover if a person has a passion for learning about wine:

"Can you tell me about the last time you went wine tasting?"

Someone who has a passion for learning about wine will spend their own time exploring wineries and learning all they can. They'll be able to describe a specific experience and what they learned from it.

The advantage of developing your own interview questions (versus copying from a generic list) is you can use the questions to target specific characteristics. I found Janis Whitaker's excellent Interviewing by Example workbook to be a huge help with this task.


Step 3: Evaluate Your Candidates

By now, you should have an Ideal Candidate Profile and an interview question for each characteristic. The final step is to apply these in a job interview. 

Let's say you interview three candidates for the wine room host position. All have prior customer service experience and have warm, outgoing personalities. Take a look at their answers to the question, "Can you tell me about the last time you went wine tasting?"

Candidate A: It was a long time ago, so I really don't remember. I like wine tasting a lot, but I've been so busy with work and school lately that I haven't had a chance to go. If I get this job, I definitely plan to go a lot more often!

Candidate B: I love wine tasting! I went out with some friends two weeks ago and it was a lot of fun. At one winery, we got to do a cave tour where we walked through these elaborate wine caves and they had this amazing room in the cave where they hosted special events for wine club members. Another winery offered cheese pairings with their tasting, so my friends and I lounged on the patio enjoying the sun, sipping some great wine, and eating the cheese. It was fantastic!

Candidate C: I read about a winery that does barrel tasting, where you can taste the same wine out of two different oak barrels. I often hear winemakers talking about American oak or French oak, so I thought this would be a great way to learn about the differences. It was a fun experience, because you really can tell the difference when you're tasting the same wine from the two barrels side by side. I learned the American oak is a little bolder and brings out more vanilla flavors, while the French oak is a little more subtle with spicier tastes.

Which candidate would you pick?

All three seem to enjoy wine tasting. Without an Ideal Candidate Profile, three different hiring managers might make three different decisions. Perhaps you can eliminate Candidate A who hasn't been wine tasting in awhile, but candidates B and C both described a recent experience they really enjoyed. 

The Ideal Candidate Profile for this particular winery makes the answer crystal clear.