10 Tips for Answering Consulting Case Questions Successfully
April 13, 2016
If you're interested in a career in the consulting industry, the case interview is an unavoidable fact of life: at some point, you're going to have to prove that you have the ability to break down a business problem on the fly. And even if you've got your methodologies down pat, it's possible to mess up the basics in a pressure situation. Here are a handful of tips—excerpted from the 2015 edition of Vault's Guide to the Case Interview—that will help to keep you focused.
1. Take Notes
As your interviewer presents your case, be sure to take careful notes on the numbers or other facts given. (Always bring a notepad and a pen to a consulting interview.) If you plan on drawing graphs, add brownie points by bringing graph paper (which shows major foresight). Bringing all these accessories - plus resumes and business cards - in a professional-looking portfolio is a nice touch. Take notes so you don't have to ask your interviewer to repeat information. Turn the notepad to landscape orientation, because consultants use that arrangement in their presentations. At the end of the interview, your notes usually are collected and contribute to your good or bad impression. The logical layout of the notes counts for more than the amount of detail.
2. Make No Assumptions
As a case interviewee, you should never make any assumptions. Your interviewer will inevitably leave things out of the case presented to you. (If an apple juice manufacturer has seen its expenses rise dramatically, for example, your interviewer probably won't mention the tree blight that's constricting the supply of apples.) You should assume the persona of an actual consultant trying to learn about an assignment. You should also ask if the company has encountered a similar problem, or what other companies in the field have done when faced with similar situations. Your interviewer may not release that information but will be impressed that you asked these sensible questions. Some good basic "professional" questions to ask, which apply to most cases:
- What is the product?
- Who hired us?
- How long will this engagement last?
- Has the company faced this problem (or opportunity) before? If so, how did it react? What was the outcome?
- What have other companies facing this situation done?
One way to firm up the premises of the case is to quickly summarize the problem that was just presented to you. Base your summary on your notes. As you do this, whenever you come upon an element that you are not 100 percent sure you understand, ask for clarification. If you're lucky, your interviewer may point out any places in your summary where you interpreted the case incorrectly.
3. Ask Questions
Your interviewer expects you to ask questions - as many intelligent questions as you need to obtain an accurate picture of the relevant facts in the case. By asking questions, you turn the encounter from a presentation to a conversation, which is a much more enjoyable experience for the interviewer. Many inexperienced case interviewees make the error of asking their interviewer too few questions. They may be afraid that they will look ignorant, or not wish to "bother" the interviewer. Remember, not asking questions is a fatal error in a case interview. If you don't know the first thing about the helicopter market, ask how much it costs to manufacture a rotor. If you need to estimate the demand for a beef-flavored potato snack in Wichita, Kansas, then feel free to ask the population of Wichita and environs. Keep in mind that all business is done within a context, so you may want to ask about trends in the industry in which the case is situated.
You will often find that your interviewer will direct your line of questioning to a specific area, but you must always be ready to control the conversation in case the interviewer does not direct your reasoning. If you are unsure, simply ask the interviewer. For instance, if you find the interviewer offering little direction as you move through your initial questions, you may wish to ask, "I find the lack of a risk assessment to be a potential showstopper. Might I ask some detailed questions about this?" Or you might say, "Given what you have told me about the situation, I would like to find out more about the client's current relationship with its distribution partner. Would that be OK?" In this way, you take charge of the line of questioning without stepping on the interviewer's role.
4. Listen to the Answers You Get
One interviewer warns: "Many candidates get so caught up in asking the perfect questions that they don't listen to the answers they receive. They go through a mental list of all the questions they want to ask, and ignore the response they got. That throws off their reasoning." Make sure you respond to the information you receive and incorporate it into your analysis.
5. Maintain Eye Contact
Always maintain direct eye contact during the case interview. Eye contact is critical when answering case questions. It demonstrates confidence and authority. Remember that in consulting you may find yourself in front of 20 executives at a major corporation presenting a strategy you were briefed on only a half-hour ago. And then you have to answer questions! So you can see why business case interviewing is so important to consulting. It simulates the work environment consultants must face every day.
6. Take Your Time
It's perfectly fine to take a minute to think through your answer; in fact, most interviewers find it preferable. "Whenever I asked to take the time out to collect my thoughts," reports one consultant who's undergone "dozens" of case interviews, "my interviewers always said, 'Okay, good, go ahead.'" On the other hand, while "a minute of deep thinking" is fine, "five minutes is really overkill. You don't want your interviewer waiting there for five minutes. The case is only supposed to be 15 or 20 minutes."
7. Lay Out a Road Map for Your Interviewer
After you've selected your approach, don't keep it a secret. Tell your interviewer what approach you're going to take. For example, you might say, "First, I'm going to discuss the Mexican and Canadian markets. Second, I'll ask about our entry strategy. Finally, I'm making a recommendation." "One of the most important things consultants have to do is present complex ideas in a lucid manner," explains one interviewer. "That's why you should take time to explain your reasoning. Not only will it impress your interviewer and allow you to confirm any assumption that you're making, but it will allow you to get your own thinking straight."
8. Think Out Loud
In order to navigate case interviews successfully, you will need to act quickly and confidently. The business case is an opportunity to show the interviewer how you think. Your interviewer wants to know that you can reason in a rapid and logical fashion. As you assess, compile, and analyze the elements presented to you, be sure that you speak aloud and explain your reasoning. This is the only way the interviewer can assess your performance.
You may not be entirely comfortable thinking out loud. So if you're not feeling confident thinking aloud, try practicing by yourself. Start with something simple like explaining aloud to yourself how to change a tire or how you brush your teeth. Minimize "ums" and other fillers, so that what you say is concise, direct and clear.
Next, try practicing on friends or family. Have them ask questions for which you must assess a situation. For example, they might ask, "I'm not sure at which bank I should open a checking account. What are the trade-offs between Bank X and Bank Y?" or "I've got $50 to spend on groceries, so what should I buy?" Even speaking to yourself in front of the mirror will build your confidence thinking "on the fly" while simultaneously speaking.
9. Present Your Thinking in a Clear, Logical Manner
You should develop a framework for assessing case interview questions which can be applied to different situations. Where helpful, use frameworks and business concepts to organize your answer. In general, in any situation you will want to:
- Understand the scope of the engagement
- Pinpoint the objectives
- Identify the key players
- Work towards a recommendation
Beyond this, you may choose any line of questioning or structure with which you feel comfortable. As you practice, you will find yourself developing this framework unconsciously as you attempt to gain clarity over a situation. Capture and package this framework, and have it available by memory (or on paper if you wish) for use at any time.
Where useful, also use advanced business concepts and frameworks, such as Porter's Five Forces or Value Chain Analysis, to help organize your thoughts and impress your interviewer.
10. Quickly Summarize Your Conclusions
You have limited time in your case interview to make your point. In fact, interviewers sometimes cut off your presentation before you have finished. The interviewer has used this same case problem on countless job candidates before you, so she may want to move on once she sees you're on the right track. If she does let you reach a conclusion, she will appreciate brevity in your summary. If you are uncomfortable with quickly summarizing your conclusions, think about being faced with this classic situation:
"A consultant working for a multinational corporation inadvertently bumped into the CEO of the corporation while waiting for the elevator. As they got on the elevator, the CEO announced that he was on his way to a Board of Directors meeting on the 34th floor. He then instructed the consultant to brief him completely on the major findings of the project in the time it took the elevator to go from the 1st floor to the 34th floor."
While this is no doubt an urban legend, it is extremely likely that you will encounter time-pressured situations many times in your professional career, especially in consulting, where time is a precious commodity. If you are taking a while reaching your conclusion, your interviewer may ask you for the "60 second pitch." Practice summarizing your answer in a minute or less.
by Phil Stott