How to answer the interview question: “Tell me about yourself?”

“Tell me about yourself?”

Web pic what makes you unique

People hate this question because it is so open ended and there are too many answers, however, it is probably one of the most asked interview questions, especially in phone interviews.  Knowing how to handle this question can make the difference between advancing to the next stage or being told “we have other candidates that we feel are better fits for the position”—a nice way of being told “thanks, but no thanks”.

When you are asked “tell me about yourself”, ask the interviewer, “I’d be happy to, where would you like me to start?”  This allows the employer to tell you what aspects of your background they want you to address and most importantly, keeps you from having a long-winded answer that isn’t what the employer wants to hear.  They rarely want to know all about your youth and where you grew up.  They typically want to know about your professional experience but typically won’t ask the question directly.  Remember, this is sometimes used as a “trick” question.  Often times interviewers ask this open ended question because they want to see how you will answer it; personally or professionally, or a combination of both.  What they really want to know is how you can solve their problems?  Remember, you are hired because you either make money, save money, or makes things go more smoothly.

Here’s an example for a sales person: “After graduating from college, I took a job as a salesman at the XYZ insurance company.  I wasn’t experienced in insurance sales, but I worked really hard and became their Rookie of the Year.  After only three years, I was promoted to a Sales Manager and my team was recognized as the “most improved” sales team in the Western Region”.

Here’s an example for an administrative person: “I started out in the insurance industry as a receptionist and policy clerk.  I didn’t have my license so I studied on my own time and passed my insurance exam on the first try.  My boss, seeing that I had a knack for the business, moved me into an Account Assistant role.  I worked hard to learn the book and was rewarded with my own accounts in only 12 months; this was a record in my office.  I have since moved up again, and now I’m a Senior Account Manager working with our most prestigious clients.”

Your answer to this question shouldn’t be more than 2 or 3 minutes long and should be concise and well thought out.  Getting this one right will open the door to the next step; the face to face meeting.

How to answer the interview question: “What Are Your Strengths?”

What Are Your Greatest Strengths?

web pic soft and hard skills strenghts

Tips to Answer This Question:

Here’s what most people say:  I’m a hard worker, good team player, a people person, get along well with everyone, nice, friendly…etc.

The problem with these answers is that the hiring manager expects that of you already, or they wouldn’t be interviewing you!  These answers don’t get you anywhere.  They don’t have “food value” by themselves.  They must be illustrated with examples that demonstrate how you have used the skill.  Do not use cliché and tired words that every recruiter and hiring manager has heard a million times.

Before the interview, list out your strengths and try to come up with 1 to 2 examples that really demonstrate each skill.  This way you will be ready with your answers and won’t freeze up under pressure.

Here’s an example for “I am a hard worker”:

“We were recently working on a very tight deadline renewal proposal for a customer.  There were a number of quotes that we needed to review and one of the people on my team was out on vacation.  I stayed late and worked diligently with the remainder of the team to make sure that we got the proposal out on time.  As a result, we were able to retain the client and renew the business.”

Here’s an example for “I am a people person”:

“I have always been told I have really good people skills.  Recently one of our best customers called in with a big messy claim.  She was pretty irate and not happy with how the claims adjuster had treated her.  I calmly listened to her concerns, suggested a couple of ways we could work through the problem, then contacted the carrier’s adjuster team supervisor, explained the problem, and was able to get the claim back on track.  The adjustor called the client, apologized for their rudeness, and as a result, the customer called me back and thanked me for getting involved and even wrote a thank you letter to my boss.”

Make sure to back everything up with a little story that shows your strengths in action.  Watch for “buying” queues from the hiring manager such as head nodding or agreement sounds that give you valuable feedback that your answer is hitting home.

 

 

How to answer the interview question: “What are your weaknesses?”

 

“What are your weaknesses?”

web pic weakness as strength

This is one of the toughest and least liked of all of the interview questions.  The problem with this question is that you have to answer it, if you say, I don’t really have any”, and the employer won’t believe or will think you may be hiding something, but you say the wrong thing, without an explanation, you can be out at first base.

So what is the right answer?  It depends on how the question is asked.  Very few employers will ask this question directly anymore.  Often times it is couched inside of a more positive sounding question, such as “what are some of the areas that you have been coached on in the past?” or “what is an area that you have been working on for self-improvement?”  These are much nicer questions, but don’t be fooled; the hiring manager is asking you to reveal your weaknesses.

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

The key to answering this question is advance preparation!  Start by thinking about the constructive comments that former managers have given you.  Criticism is never easy to stomach so you need to think about the changes in behavior that you made, if any, as a result of your boss’s coaching. List the behaviors that were pointed out as “areas for growth and development” another nice way of saying weaknesses, and think about how you responded to the advice. Think about how you applied the advice and changed your behavior in the workplace.  What were the results with your peers, with customers, with your supervisors?

Here’s some examples:

Too chatty in the office/not focused enough on your work: Explain that you were coached that you needed to be more focused and less chatty in the office. Show what you did to correct the situation, explain how you were able to handle more work in less time, and then give an example of the positive feedback you received from your boss and peers once you corrected the behavior.

Turning in work late/problems with prioritization: Explain that you used to have challenges with personal organization and task completion. Then show how you solved the problem by getting up an hour early or get everything ready the night before so that you aren’t running around frantically in the morning looking for things.

Spelling/grammar problems: Talk about how you took some remedial classes to correct the problem and how your boss complimented you on your improved written communication as a result.

Don’t let the “weakness” question get you down.  Show that you are accountable for your behavior in the office, are coachable, and can solve problems.

 

 

How to answer the interview question: Tell me about your greatest success?

“What Is Your Greatest Success?

Web pic Success small

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

Think about your work accomplishments.  What have you done that really made you a “game changer” for the company?  For instance, did you win a key piece of business, save a huge account, develop a new program, or mentor someone that turned out to be a terrific asset for the company?

The key is to focus on the “impact” of what you have done. You need to quantify your answer and show how you made money, saved money, or made things run more smoothly or the organization.

Here’s a sales example:  I targeted a prospect that was currently doing business with one of our biggest competitors.  When I first approached them, I got the typical response;” no, we already have a broker we’ve been working with…thank you, good bye”.  I didn’t let this first “no” deter me; in fact, I started by identifying customers of their business that were also clients of ours.  I also sent the prospect articles that were about his industry and followed up with him on a regular basis.  I made friends with some of his support staff and other department decision makers.  In time, I was given the opportunity to bid on his business, and I’m proud to say, I was able to win the account and have now received two additional referrals from the customer’s vendors resulting in $100K of new revenue for my agency.

Here’s a non-sales example:  When I joined the ABC firm, they were still using paper files in addition to trying to use AMS.  Because I came from a paperless office, I was able to help teach my supervisor some tricks to automate the business and eliminate some of the redundancy.  She was so impressed that she arranged a meeting with the owner who ended up putting me in charge of automating the office and helping to train the support staff.  As a result, I was promoted to the office trainer and was able to help the firm reduce the amount of time it took to process a renewal by over 25%.

Once you have told your story, make sure that you link the results back to the job you are applying for.  This will cause the employer to see you as a results-oriented candidate and will help to increase your chances of landing the job.

 

How to answer the interview question: “What is your greatest failure?”

 

“What is your greatest failure?” 

web pic failure and success

 

The dreaded question; this one is even touchier than the weaknesses question because you have to admit a failure, not just a weakness.

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

This one requires you to prepare an example ahead of time. It should be work-related, but you can discuss a personal experience if it is closely related to a work-like event.

The key here is in the presentation of the failure example. You do not want to come off as a victim. Do not blame others for the fact that something didn’t work. You must take ownership of the situation. Employers use this question to see how you deal with adversity. Do you take responsibility for your decisions or blame the world for what went wrong? This is especially important since you most likely don’t know about the inner workings and politics of the firm at this point. Always take the high road, even if your former company made decisions that derailed your project.

An example of a personal failure: “I didn’t graduate from college, I didn’t have the money to go.  I haven’t let it hold me back though.  I am constantly learning new things and I’m a student of self-study.  It is very important to me to keep current with changes in the insurance industry and I’m currently working on my  insurance designations.”

An example of a work-related failure: “I wanted to reorganize the work flow in my department to give us greater compliance and more detailed analytics. In short, my solution did not work.  Work flow bogged down, my team didn’t like the increased data entry, we started to lose employees, and moral was at an all time low.  I ended up asking my team for ideas to put us back on track, and together we figured out how to improve work flow and our over all quality improved as a result.  Now I make sure that I get department consensus before making sweeping changes to any type of work flow.”
Remember, some of the best successes in the work place start out as huge failures.  Make sure you show the employer how your failures guide your decision-making today.

How to answer the interview question: “Why did you leave your past job?”

 

“Why did you leave your past job?”

web pic of why

As a recruiter, I get asked this question about my candidate every time I submit a resume.  As an applicant, you can bet that 99% of the employers will ask you why you left your last position.  It’s is a difficult question; your integrity is on the line with this one.  Most candidates don’t answer the question directly, hoping an indirect answer will deflect the real reason why they left.  This is a fatal interview mistake that you don’t want to make!  You must be honest and forthright about why you left prior jobs!

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

“It was mutual” or “I was laid off ” or “lack of work” doesn’t cut it, especially if the hiring manager knows someone else who is now doing your former job, knows your former boss, or has friends working at your former company. If you were laid off due to no fault of your own, whenever possible, obtain a letter from your prior company outlining the reasons for your layoff.

Here’s some examples of why people leave jobs or are out of work:

Personal reasons/medical/taking care of a family member: If you had to leave your past job due to personal reasons such as medical issues or caring for a family member, say so if you are comfortable with the details. If you are uncomfortable sharing the specifics, tell the interviewer you had to take care of some personal affairs and didn’t want your work to suffer, so you chose to resign until you could fully commit to a full-time role again. Explain that the situation has resolved itself and you are ready and excited to resume your career. Add that you kept your skills sharp by staying abreast of industry news and trends while you were not working.

Fired for cause/laid off without notice or reason: Most employers will only give dates of employment and maybe verify your title, but that’s just as bad as saying you were let go. In this case, no news is not good news! Be honest; again, it only takes a couple of phone calls in the industry to uncover the truth. Use the firing or termination experience to show how you learned from it and how your work is much better today as a result.

Short-term jobs/job hopper: Everyone is afraid to hire the job-hopper. You will always have an uphill battle with this one, but you can lessen the climb by talking about how and why you moved from job to job. If the company went out of business, relocated or closed your division, that’s legitimate and not your fault.  Remember, the employer is looking at how long between your jobs and is asking themselves why it took so long for you to be hired by the next employer?  You have to satisfy their curiosity fully, or you will not be hired.  If you were recruited away, say so, just make sure you reinforce that you left for more opportunity and career growth and not just for more money. Explain that you were “referred” into the next job. Employers think the best people are always referred to them so use this to your advantage.

Long gaps between jobs/part time work: Don’t gloss over or make up bogus answers for significant time gaps in your résumé. If you were temping, say so. There’s no harm in that, at least you were working. If you have been unemployed for more than six months, and have been diligently looking for work, say so — but add that you have been taking classes to keep your skills current.  If you took a sabbatical to go back to school, start a family, or change careers, or were just burned out and needed a break, be honest and explain that the time off allowed you to refocus your energy and that you are now ready to resume your career full time

Spouse relocation/military transfers: If you have moved a lot due to a spouse’s job or military transfers, say so, and tell the employer how moving around has enabled you to quickly learn new computer systems and procedures. Have solid examples of where you have come up to speed quickly and preferably letters of recommendation from past managers.  Stress that you are looking to stay in the area long-term.

We all leave jobs for various reasons. Remember that employers are simply “employed applicants” and they have also made good and bad choices with respect to the jobs they have held.  The key is to take responsibility for your job movements, good or bad, show how you career has progressed as a result, and move the conversation forward.  You can’t change the past, you can only shape the future and pick your next job wisely.

 

How to answer the interview question: “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

“Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?”

web pic crystal ball

With this question, the employer is asking you to gaze inside your crystal ball and predict the future. It would be nice if that were possible, but with the quickly changing economy, it is not.  This is also a veiled way for the employer to gauge your real interest in being in the position they are hiring for right now.

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

This question seems to trip people up because they start to talk about the future job they really want and they stop focusing on the position they are applying for now.  Employers often use this question to weed out people who they feel are the wrong “fit” or are “overqualified” for the role.

Don’t follow the employer’s lead when they ask you if you want to pursue positions other than the one you are interviewing for.  They can lead you down the “thanks, but no thanks” path if you’re not careful.  Once the employer starts asking you questions about why you want to be involved in the other position, the conversation can go sideways in a hurry.  The next thing you know, the interview is over, you think you “nailed it”, then you are surprised when you get a “no” letter in the mail saying they have found a more suitable fit for the position.  You are left asking yourself why you didn’t get hired because you had all the qualifications and experience the employer was looking for.  Don’t fall into this hiring trap!

Your answer needs to make sense inside the department you’re interviewing with.  If you are interviewing with a brokerage for an account management position, don’t start talking about wanting to be an underwriter.  That’s a company role, and while it’s an admirable goal, the hiring manager is going to think you’re using their firm as a stepping stone to get to what you really want to do.

Instead of stating an actual position that you might like to be in in the future, tell the employer that you very open to future advancement, and strive to have a long term career with their firm.  Tell the employer you learn quickly, excel at your job, and have been handpicked for promotions by past managers based on your work performance and peer recommendations.

Here’s an example: “In five years, my goal is for you to tell me I have mastered this position, clients really like me and appreciate my hard work, and that my co-workers see me as a good resource for information and the ‘go-to’ person in the department. I think that would be a win/win for both of us and would show that I am very serious about my career with your firm.

The key to answering the five-year question is to stay logical, poised and reasonable. You don’t want to be a threat to the hiring manager; you don’t know his/her internal promotion track record, and you don’t want to come off as uninterested in the job at hand.

After you answer the 5 year question, a good follow-up question for hiring manager is to ask how they rose to the position they are in now. That answer will give you clues as to your real promotion opportunities with the new firm.

How to answer the interview question: “Why should I hire you over my other applicants?”

“Why should I hire you over my other applicants?”

web pic of other applicants and the one picked

This is one of those questions that you truly can’t answer because you typically don’t know who else they are interviewing. What the employer really wants to know is: WHY YOU?

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

This question usually comes up towards the end of the interview, but sometimes it is one of the first questions asked. The key to answering this question is to sell yourself based on your understanding of the problems/pain that the employer is encountering by not having the position filled.

If you are interviewing for a job that is open because a long-term employee has moved away, you know that the pain the employer is trying to avoid is losing loyal customers to their competitors.  You also know that just because the position is vacant doesn’t mean that the work has moved away too. The work load has been dispersed among the remaining team members and they are probably not too happy about it.

If you are interviewing for a new “growth” position, you need to show that you are efficient, flexible, a fast learner, and can adapt quickly to change.

Example of an open position for an Account Manager: “You want to hire me because I understand what it’s like to work in a short-staffed office due to a key employee leaving. The Producer is scrambling to keep the customer and the work load has been dumped on the rest of the staff who may not know the accounts very well.  You could also be at risk of losing the account to your competitors once word gets out that your key account manager has left. I was hired into this very same situation in my last position.  I was able to quickly work with the remaining account managers to understand the the computer system and office procedures. I was able to review the files with the Underwriters and make contact with the clients who were up for renewal. I’m proud to say that we didn’t lose any business with the transition.”

The key to answering a comparison question like this one is to make sure the employer understands that regardless of who else they are interviewing, you “get it”; you understand the problems they are facing, the upset in the office due to the vacancy, the competition internally for the role, and most importantly, you show that you have the confidence to tackle the job head on.

If you are in the wrap up phase of the interview, ask the employer this question: do you see any reason why I wouldn’t be a great fit for the position? Remain silent, and if the employer is truly seeing you in the role, they will tell you that, or they will tell you their concerns.  Either way, you will know where you stand and hopefully will be one step closer to the job offer.

How to answer the interview question: “How would your supervisor describe you?

“How would your supervisor describe you?”

web pic of supervisor opinion

The reason the interviewer is asking this question is because they want to know how you got along with your boss and if you will be a problem employee or a 5 star performer. This question can be a bit tricky, especially if you didn’t have the best relationship with your former manager.

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

The important thing here is to not badmouth a past manager or the company in general. The insurance industry is a small world and, whether you like it or not, hiring managers will back-check with people they know, such as carrier reps or former coworkers. This might have happened already once they saw your résumé — before they even scheduled the first interview! Do not make up answers here; you will be found out.

First, if you have a job description for the position you are applying for, look at the qualifications section. If it has words you know your past managers have said about you in past reviews or to others, use those words when answering this question. Just be prepared to back them up with concrete examples.

For instance, if the job requires strong detail orientation, and you were praised for your ability to work accurately, say something like: “My managers have often commented that they wished they were as detailed as I am. Last week, my boss came over to my desk and complimented me on the amount of certificates I made and how none of them required any revisions.”

If you don’t have a job description, think about the skills you feel are needed for the role and pick the most vital ones — the “meat and potatoes” necessary to perform the job. Then, share a past experience or two when you were praised for these skills. If you have a letter of reference or a thank-you letter from a customer, bring it out and offer to share it with the employer. The written word speaks volumes, especially if it is on company letterhead.

What if you know your past manager will not have “good things” to say about you and they are a well-known figure in the insurance industry? It happens to everyone at some point; there are just some people we don’t get along with no matter how hard we try.  Do not try to bypass the question or answer indirectly.  Instead, use the question to illustrate how you deal with difficult people and difficult managers.

For example: “My current boss and I have had cultural differences, and at times we have struggled to get along. If you asked her to describe me, she would say I’m not shy and I’m not afraid to voice my opinion. She might also say I am a little too quick to want to change things. However, she will also tell you I always put the customer first. She would say I go the extra mile to make sure my work is done right and on time; that I’m highly organized and extremely dependable.”

The bottom line with this question is to answer it honestly, directly and not give “fluff” answers that the interviewer can see right through. Your candor will be appreciated; it demonstrates that you aren’t afraid to deliver bad news when necessary.

 

 

How to answer the interview question: “Do you have any questions?”

“Do You Have Any Questions?”

web pic ask the right questions

I can’t tell you how many times hiring managers have told me they aren’t pursuing candidates because they didn’t ask enough questions and didn’t know anything about the company. When I follow up with the candidates and tell them this, I get, “What do you mean? I asked a lot of questions,” or “They didn’t really give me a chance to ask any questions.”

Why does this happen? Your questions aren’t the right questions — the ones the interviewer wants to hear!  Preparing your questions ahead of time is the key to mastering the end-of-interview Q-and-A.

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

Keep this simple thought in mind: you are probably one of five or more candidates visiting on that day or over a short period of time. The interviewer has lots of work they should be doing, their own deadlines, and they know they’ll have to work late all week to catch up. This is especially true of line managers who will be your supervisor. These are busy people who are frantically fitting in interviews around their already over booked schedule.  You need to make sure they don’t see your questions as a waste of their time.

The key here is to avoid questions that don’t advance you in the process or demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of the position. You want to pose the right kind of questions to the appropriate people. Often times a miss in this key question area is the difference of landing the job or getting a “no” form letter in the mail.

Example of questions for a Team Lead of a Service Department: This person is interested in making sure that you will follow procedures, get your work done quickly and efficiently, and not be a headache to the rest of the department. You are going to get a “technical” type of interview from this hiring manager. Don’t ask this person about far-reaching topics a CEO or Partner would answer, such as corporate giving or corporate vision. Ask about things that are important to this person: the day-to-day job duties and procedures.  Ask for specifics about how renewals are handled, documentation, claims advocacy, face time with the client, etc.  Remember, the quality of your question shows your understanding of the industry and the job you are applying for.

Make sure you listen to the answer and follow up with two more questions that reflect your understanding of their answer.  Make sure your follow up questions make sense and are not random. This is your chance for give-and-take; you don’t want to look like you need to get through a laundry list of questions.  Also the way that the interviewers answer your questions (with specifics, vaguely, or dismissively) will give you clues as to what it might be like to work with them on a daily basis.

A great question strategy is to use words like “we” and “us” and “I” in your questions, then listen to see if the employer responds back with answers that include the word “you” or if they respond with “the candidate we choose”.  You want them to see you in the position, and when they include you in their answers, you know that they feel positive about hiring you for the role.

For example: “When I start on a renewal, will I sit down ahead of time with the producer to work through a strategy or will I get all the quotes together and then present my findings to him?” If the employer sees you in the role, they will respond with a “we” or “you” in their answer.

At the end of the Q-and-A session, you will start to feel the interview “wrap up.” Your goal is to get the employer over the speed bump of indecision. You want real feedback so you know where you stand. Don’t be afraid to ask when they will make their decision and whether they see anything that would prevent them from moving you to the next stage of the process.  If they present you with concerns, it will give you an opportunity to correct any misunderstandings.  If they see you as a “go” for the next step, you will have the opportunity to schedule a follow on meeting or at least know that they intend to include you in a second round of interviews.  Either way, the interviewer will appreciate your candor and desire for the job.