Interview Insider: How to answer “failure” interview questions

*Interview Insider is an educational series by neteffects dedicated to sharing the “inside scoop” on the latest and most effective interviewing techniques that land jobs. 

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It can be quite puzzling when an interviewer asks you to tell them about a time you failed. Some use it as a way to find any sign of a flaw in order to have an excuse to reject you. (If that is truly the case, you wouldn’t want to work there any how. Who in their professional lifetime hasn’t failed? Repeat after us: there is NO such thing as a perfect person; professionally or personally.)

Many hiring managers know that everyone has had a failure or two. They are asking these type of interview questions to understand:

1) Can you/have you learned from your failures?

2) How you view success/failure in general

3) Are you self-aware enough to acknowledge your failures?

There are numerous other ways that this question is presented to a candidate, but each variation has one goal in mind: to see if and what you’ll divulge. With that in mind, we recommend that your response: be a real failure, not raise any red flags, and allows the “lesson learned” to be the main focus of your answer.

How to answer the “Tell me about a time you failed” question:

Give the Backstory –

Start off by providing them with a general overview of the particular situation or project that you’ve decided to go with and only provide them with enough information to establish context. There’s no need to go into a lot of detail, or to sugarcoat things.

Example:

“A failure that I had occurred in my role at XYZ company, where I was the account executive. Our team failed to land the contract for a new piece of a business with an established client of the company. In short, we dropped the ball.”

Provide Details on the ‘How’ and ‘Why’ –

Now that the interviewer knows what the failure was (in this case it is failing to land a contract), it’s time to take the interviewer through the ‘how’ and ‘why’ it happened using a bit more detail.

Example:

“The biggest issue was that we all took it for granted that since we had a good relationship with the client and had done excellent with them that they’ve been extremely pleased, the contract would be ours.

We got the RFP and our team, led by the VP of Client Services submitted our proposal and we got good feedback.

Looking back, we didn’t put in the extra effort to really impress them and that left it open for a competitor to nab the business.

We failed to understand all of the nuances with the client’s new piece of business – a new service offering for them that we were made aware of long before the RFP went out. They had stated keeping long-term costs down was their primary concern, so we build our proposal around cost effectiveness.

During this time, a new Director had joined our client’s company, and these efforts. Reflecting back upon the situation, I realize he was more concerned with selecting a vendor whom he had a relationship with; not his predecessor. As the person who worked with this account regularly, I should have picked up on that, and addressed it.”

Share What You’ve Learned –

With a story about failure, you’ll want to share with them what you’ve learned and drive it home that it was a learning experience and hopefully not one you’ll repeat again.

Example:

“Not landing the contract was an upset and an embarrassment for our team. What we took away from this was that we can never rest on our laurels and leave anything to chance with any RFP’s we respond to, established client or not.

I personally learned that I need to be more in-tune to the dynamics of client relationships, even those where I am not the lead. As the account executive, responding to RFP’s wasn’t my primary focus. However, as one of the contacts for this client, there was quite a bit I could do to help with business development.

After this experience I asked to work more closely with the VP and become more involved in the RFP process, and new business development outside of responding to RFP’s. Despite our team not getting that particular contract, I made it a point to get to know the new Director and build a relationship with her, even though she was not a contact of mine at the client’s.

In fact, we participated in another RFP for that same client and we were awarded a contract for another expanded area of their business, when that same Director took a promotion an became the VP. I’ve also helped the VP of XYZ land two more sizable accounts before more departure, which nets the company an additional 1.2 million in annual billings.”

REMEMBER:

Even though this example answer may be a little long, you’ll want to pick a failure where you can take the interviewer through a “story” and demonstrate your ability to learn from the experience. We also recommend thinking through your answer first, and writing it out so that you’ll have something to reference as you practice your answer before the interview.