Where's Your Peanut Butter: Unconventional Interview Questions that Uncover Key Skills

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by Nanci Lamborn – Writer/Blogger/HR Practitioner – BrightMove Recruiting Software

We’ve seen several articles recently about the rise of unconventional recruiting methods (http://tinyurl.com/kuq4yc) and off-the-wall interview questions (http://tinyurl.com/yz9kg5s) that are now gaining notoriety (http://tinyurl.com/yj4to9b). Some job seekers on the hunt are taking offense and complaining that questions like Microsoft’s “Why is a manhole cover round?” (http://tinyurl.com/kvmvb) cannot do much to really help an interviewer dig beneath the surface and uncover a candidate’s true passions and skills.

But to quote my favorite comedian John Pinette, “Oh, nay, nay!”

As a recruiter I am especially fond of unconventional interview questions when it comes to searching for specific behavioral traits and tendencies. Take Client Service Managers or Customer Support Reps for example. Let’s face it. CSM folks are a rare and special breed. Not only must they have the intellect to master whatever nifty product or unique service they’re supporting, but their role requires a certain level of patience and human finesse that many of us will never be able to achieve. Add to this the required skill of clearly communicating often complex processes, and conventional interview questions simply cannot suffice. So it’s here that I turn to my peanut butter.

Many years ago, a good friend who manages a fair-sized CSM team shared his favorite interview question with me, and its simplicity is only surpassed by its brilliance. The question is, “Your client needs a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Pretend I’m your client, and role-play with me as you take me through your conversation.”

Now I’m certain that there are multiple pairs of eyebrows either raising in surprise or furrowing in confusion. But, if you’ll just play along and work with me here, you’ll see where this question begins to uncover the presence or the absence of critical process communication ability. The ideal CSM candidate, in response to the question, would begin by asking me (the “client”) such things as, “Do you know where your jar of peanut butter and jelly are located, and what they look like? Can you get to your loaf of bread? You’ll also need a dull knife, a paper towel, and a plate. Are you able to locate all of those and get them in front of you?”

Anyone familiar with client support can attest to the numbers of often, ah, shall we say, rather technologically challenged customers. Let’s just say that there is a reason that a CSM role was never within my personal career sights. I simply do not have the knack within me to gently (or repeatedly) walk a customer through varying process instructions. And I would say many recruiters are in the same boat, finding camaraderie with the renowned Word Perfect Tech Support man who (although this tale was later proven to be false) reportedly told a customer he was too stupid to own a computer (http://tinyurl.com/2pep37).

So since I know my gifts and abilities are not the same as those on the list of required essentials for the CSM, if that means I have to be unconventional in my recruiting techniques in order to find the very best, so be it. When the first response from a candidate is, “Wow, I’ve never had that question before,” then I know that I’m getting ready to see underneath the façade, and that’s where all the good stuff is.

So where’s your peanut butter?

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