What Are Problem-Solving Skills? (Definition, Examples, And How To List On A Resume)

By Kristin Kizer - May. 9, 2021
Skills Based Articles

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Most jobs essentially boil down to identifying and solving problems consistently and effectively. That’s why employers value problem-solving skills in job candidates for just about every role.

Companies rely on employees who can handle unexpected challenges, identify persistent issues, and offer workable solutions in a positive way. If you can show off your problem-solving skills on your resume, in your cover letter, and during a job interview, you’ll be one step closer to landing a job.

We’ll cover problem-solving methods, ways to improve your problem-solving skills, and examples of showcasing your problem-solving skills during your job search.

What Are Problem Solving Skills?

Problem-solving skills are skills that help you identify and solve problems effectively and efficiently. Your ability to solve problems is one of the main ways that hiring managers and recruiters assess candidates, as those with excellent problem-solving skills are more likely to autonomously carry out their responsibilities.

It’s important to start at the beginning and get pretty specific. Being a problem solver doesn’t mean that you can walk into a situation and say, “Do it this way!” and expect that to be the resolution to the problem.

A true problem solver can look at a situation, find the cause of the problem (or causes, because there are often many issues at play), and then come up with a reasonable solution that effectively fixes the problem or at least remedies most of it.

The ability to solve problems is considered a soft skill, meaning that it’s more of a personality trait than a skill you’ve learned at school, on the job, or through technical training.

That being said, your proficiency with various hard skills will have a direct bearing on your ability to solve problems. For example, it doesn’t matter if you’re a great problem-solver; if you have no experience with astrophysics, you probably won’t be hired as a space station technician.

While your natural ability to tackle problems and solve them is something you were born with or began to hone early on, it doesn’t mean that you can’t work on it. This is a skill that can be cultivated and nurtured so you can become better at dealing with problems over time.

Types of Problem-Solving Skills

Problem-solving is considered a skill on its own, but it’s supported by many other skills that can help you be a better problem solver. These skills fall into a few different categories of problem-solving skills.

  1. Problem recognition and analysis. The first step is to recognize that there is a problem and discover what it is or what the root cause of it is.

    You can’t begin to solve a problem unless you’re aware of it. Sometimes you’ll see the problem yourself and other times you’ll be told about the problem. Both methods of discovery are very important, but they can require some different skills. The following can be an important part of the process:

  2. Create possible solutions. You know what the problem is, and you might even know the why of it, but then what? Your next step is the come up with some solutions.

    Most of the time, the first solution you come up with won’t be the right one. Don’t fall victim to knee-jerk reactions; try some of the following methods to give you solution options.

    • Brainstorming

    • Creativity

    • Prediction

    • Forecasting

    • Decision-making

    • Topic knowledge/understanding

    • Process flow

  3. Evaluation of solution options. Now that you have a lot of solution options, it’s time to weed through them and start casting some aside. There might be some ridiculous ones, bad ones, and ones you know could never be implemented. Throw them away and focus on the potentially winning ideas.

    This step is probably the one where a true, natural problem solver will shine. They intuitively can put together mental scenarios and try out solutions to see their plusses and minuses. If you’re still working on your skill set — try listing the pros and cons on a sheet of paper.

    • Data analysis

    • Creativity

    • Decision-making

    • Prioritizing

    • Prediction

    • Forecasting

    • Evaluating and weighing

  4. Solution implementation. This is your “take action” step. Once you’ve decided which way to go, it’s time to head down that path and see if you were right. This step takes a lot of people and management skills to make it work for you.

  5. Evaluation of the solution. Was it a good solution? Did your plan work or did it fail miserably? Sometimes the evaluation step takes a lot of work and review to accurately determine effectiveness. The following skills might be essential for a thorough evaluation.

    • Active listening

    • Data analysis

    • Research

    • Communication

    • Decision-making

    • Customer service

    • Feedback responses

    • Troubleshooting

    • Flexibility

More About Problem-Solving Skills

You’ve no doubt noticed that many of the skills listed in the problem-solving process are repeated. This is because having these abilities or talents is so important to the entire course of getting a problem solved.

In fact, they’re worthy of a little more attention. Many of them are similar, so we’ll pull them together and discuss how they’re important and how they work together.

  • Communication, active listening, and customer service skills. No matter where you are in the process of problem-solving, you need to be able to show that you’re listening and engaged and really hearing what the problem is or what a solution may be.

    Obviously, the other part of this is being able to communicate effectively so people understand what you’re saying without confusion. Rolled into this are customer service skills, which really are all about listening and responding appropriately — it’s the ultimate in interpersonal communications.

  • Analysis (data and historical), research, and topic knowledge/understanding. This is how you intellectually grasp the issue and approach it. This can come from studying the topic and the process or it can come from knowledge you’ve gained after years in the business. But the best solutions come from people who thoroughly understand the problem.

  • Creativity, brainstorming, troubleshooting, and flexibility. All of you creative thinkers will like this area because it’s when your brain is at its best.

    Coming up with ideas, collaborating with others, leaping over hurdles, and then being able to change courses immediately, if need be, are all essential. If you’re not creative by nature, then having a team of diverse thinkers can help you in this area.

  • Dependability, believability, trustworthiness, and follow-through. Think about it, these are all traits a person needs to have to make change happen and to make you comfortable taking that next step with them. Someone who is shifty and shady and never follows through, well, you’re simply not going to do what they ask, are you?

  • Leadership, teambuilding, decision-making, and project management. These are the skills that someone who is in charge is brimming with. These are the leaders you enjoy working for because you know they’re doing what they can to keep everything in working order. These skills can be learned but they’re often innate.

  • Prioritizing, prediction, forecasting, evaluating and weighing, and process flow. If you love flow charts, data analysis, prediction modeling, and all of that part of the equation, then you might have some great problem-solving abilities.

    These are all great skills because they can help you weed out bad ideas, see flaws, and save massive amounts of time in trial and error.

How to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills

You now have a ton of skills in front of you. Some of them you have naturally and some — not so much. If you want to solve a problem, and you want to be known for doing that well and consistently, then it’s time to sharpen those skills.

  • Develop industry knowledge. Whether it’s broad-based industry knowledge, on-the-job training, or very specific knowledge about a small sector — knowing all that you can and feeling very confident in your knowledge goes a long way to learning how to solve problems.

  • Be a part of a solution. Step up and become involved in the problem-solving process. Don’t lead — but follow. Watch an expert solve the problem and, if you pay attention, you’ll learn how to solve a problem, too. Pay attention to the steps and the skills that a person uses.

  • Practice solving problems. Do some role-playing with a mentor, a professor, co-workers, other students — just start throwing problems out there and coming up with solutions and then detail how those solutions may play out.

    Go a step further, find some real-world problems and create your solutions, then find out what they did to solve the problem in actuality.

  • Identify your weaknesses. If you could easily point out a few of your weaknesses in the list of skills above, then those are the areas you need to focus on improving. How you do it is incredibly varied, so find a method that works for you.

  • Solve some problems — for real. If the opportunity arises, step in and use your problem-solving skills. You’ll never really know how good (or bad) you are at it until you fail.

    That’s right, failing will teach you so much more than succeeding will. You’ll learn how to go back and readdress the problem, find out where you went wrong, learn more from listening even better. Failure will be your best teacher; it might not make you feel good, but it’ll make you a better problem-solver in the long run.

How to Show Off Problem-Solving Skills on a Resume

It’s time to get a job and you know your future employer is going to be impressed by all of the problem-solving work you’ve been doing. Hey, you’re a champ at it now and have several successes under your belt. It’s time to highlight those successes on your resume to prove that you can walk the walk.

You can bring up your problem-solving skills in your resume summary statement, in your work experience, and under your education section, if you’re a recent graduate. The key is to include items on your resume that speak direclty to your ability to solve problems and generate results.

If you can, quantify your problem-solving accomplishments on your resume. Hiring managers and recruiters are always more impressed with results that include numbers because they provide much-needed context.

This sample resume for a Customer Service Representative will give you an idea of how you can work problem solving into your resume.

Example Resume With Problem-Solving Skills

Michelle Beattle

111 Millennial Parkway
Chicago, IL 60007
(555) 987-6543
MBeattle@email.com

Professional Summary

Qualified Customer Services Representative with 3 years in a high-pressure customer service environment. Professional, personable, and a true problem solver.

Work History

ABC Store — Customer Service Representative
01/2015 — 12/2017

Managed in-person and phone relations with customers coming in to pick up purchases, return purchased products, helped find and order items not on store shelves, and explained details and care of merchandise. Became a key player in the customer service department and was promoted to team lead.

XYZ Store — Customer Service Representative/Night Manager
01/2018 — 03/2020, released due to Covid-19 layoffs

Worked as the night manager of the customer service department and filled in daytime hours when needed. Streamlined a process of moving customers to the right department through an app to ease the burden on the phone lines and reduce customer wait time by 50%. Was working on additional wait time problems when the Covid-19 pandemic caused our stores to close permanently.

Education

Chicago Tech
2014-2016
Earned an Associate’s Degree in Principles of Customer Care

Skills

  • Strong customer service skills

  • Excellent customer complaint resolution

  • Stock record management

  • Order fulfillment

  • New product information

  • Cash register skills and proficiency

  • Leader in problem solving initiatives

How to Include Problem-Solving on Your Cover Letter

You can see how the resume gives you a chance to point out your problem-solving skills and to show where you used them a few times. Your cover letter is your chance to introduce yourself and list a few things that make you stand out from the crowd.

Michelle Beattle
111 Millennial Parkway
Chicago, IL 60007
(555) 987-6543
MBeattle@email.com

Dear Mary McDonald,

I am writing in response to your ad on Zippia for a Customer Service Representative. Thank you for taking the time to consider me for this position.

Many people believe that a job in customer service is simply listening to people complain all day. I see the job as much more than that. It’s an opportunity to help people solve problems, make their experience with your company more enjoyable, and turn them into life-long advocates of your brand.

Through my years of experience and my educational background at Chicago Tech, where I earned an Associate’s Degree in the Principles of Customer Care, I have learned that the customers are the lifeline of the business and without good customer service representatives, a business will falter. I see it as my mission to make each and every customer I come in contact with a fan.

I have more than five years of experience in the Customer Services industry and had advanced my role at my last job to Night Manager. I am eager to again prove myself as a hard worker, a dedicated people person, and a problem solver that can be relied upon. I have built a professional reputation as an employee that respects all other employees and customers, as a manager who gets the job done and finds solutions when necessary, and a worker who dives in to learn all she can about the business. Most of my customers have been very satisfied with my resolution ideas and have returned to do business with us again.

I believe my expertise would make me a great match for LMNO Store. I have enclosed my resume for your review, and I would appreciate having the opportunity to meet with you to further discuss my qualifications. Thank you again for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Michelle Beattle

Example Answers to Problem-Solving Interview Questions

Once you’ve impressed a hiring manager with top-notch problem-solving skills on your resume and cover letter, you’ll need to continue selling yourself as a problem-solver in the job interview.

There are three main ways that employers can assess your problem-solving skills during an interview: by asking questions that relate to your past experiences solving problems, posing hypothetical problems for you to solve, and by administering problem-solving tests and exercises.

The third method varies wildly depending on what job you’re applying for, so we won’t attempt to cover all the possible problem-solving tests and exercises that may be a part of your application process.

Luckily, interview questions focused on problem-solving are pretty well-known, and most can be answered using the STAR method. STAR stands for situation, task, action, result, and it’s a great way to organize your answers to behavioral interview questions.

Let’s take a look at how to answer some common interview questions built to assess your problem-solving capabilities:

  1. Tell me about a time a project was delayed. How did you get back on track?

    At my current job as an operations analyst at XYZ Inc., my boss set a quarterly goal to cut contractor spending by 25% while maintaining the same level of production and moving more processes in-house. It turned out that achieving this goal required hiring an additional 6 full-time employees, which got stalled due to the pandemic. I suggested that we widen our net and hire remote employees after our initial applicant pool had no solid candidates. I ran the analysis on overhead costs and found that if even 4 of the 6 employees were remote, we’d save 16% annually compared to the contractors’ rates. In the end, all 6 employees we hired were fully remote, and we cut costs by 26% while production rose by a modest amount.

  2. What do you do when you’re given an assignment that you have no experience with?

    I try to step back and gather research as my first step. For instance, I had a client who needed a graphic designer to work with Crello, which I had never seen before, let alone used. After getting the project details straight, I began meticulously studying the program the YouTube tutorials, and the quick course Crello provides. I also reached out to coworkers who had worked on projects for this same client in the past. Once I felt comfortable with the software, I started work immediately. It was a slower process because I had to be more methodical in my approach, but by putting in some extra hours, I turned in the project ahead of schedule. The client was thrilled with my work and was shocked to hear me joke afterward that it was my first time using Crello.

  3. What metrics do you independently track? How do you apply that information to adjust your approach to your tasks?

    As a digital marketer, website traffic and conversion rates are my ultimate metrics. However, I also track less visible metrics that can illuminate the story behind the results. For instance, using Google Analytics, I found that 78% of our referral traffic was coming from one affiliate, but that these referrals were only accounting for 5% of our conversions. Another affiliate, who only accounted for about 10% of our referral traffic, was responsible for upwards of 30% of our conversions.

    I investigated further and found that the second, more effective affiliate was essentially qualifying our leads for us before sending them our way, which made it easier for us to close. I figured out exactly how they were sending us better customers, and reached out to the first, more prolific but less effective affiliate with my understanding of the results. They were able to change their pages that were referring us traffic, and our conversions from that source tripled in just a month. It showed me the importance of digging below the “big picture” metrics to see the mechanics of how revenue was really being generated through digital marketing.

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Author

Kristin Kizer

Kristin Kizer is an award-winning writer, television and documentary producer, and content specialist who has worked on a wide variety of written, broadcast, and electronic publications. A former writer/producer for The Discovery Channel, she is now a freelance writer and delighted to be sharing her talents and time with the wonderful Zippia audience.

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