Secrets to opening a case interview – Part 2

Secrets to opening a case interview - Part 1

How to ask great clarifying questions in your opening to get an offer from a top consulting firm? In this article, we will continue with our 3-step instruction on how to perfectly open a case interview and go deeper into step two, which is asking clarifying questions.

  1. Reiterate the case prompt (Secrets to opening a case interview – Part 1)
  2. Asking clarification questions about the case given (Part 2)
  3. Laying out your initial structure to approach this case (Part 3)

Before we dig deeper into why asking clarifying questions is important as well as how to do it to perfection, let’s listen to the audio of an exemplary opening to a case interview from an excellent candidate.

Here is a summary of the case prompt: John is the owner of a hot sauce shop in Manhattan. The type of hot sauce he produces can be used for all kinds of different culinary purposes. Over the 10 years where he has done this business, he has experienced both revenue and profit increases. However, this year, for whatever reason, his profit has declined. You are a friend of his and knowing your background in business consulting, he really wants your help.

So why do you need to ask clarifying questions?

Some candidates say that asking clarifying questions is not a necessary step. I couldn’t disagree more. The reason is twofold.

Firstly, similar to reiterating the initial case prompt, asking clarification questions goes a step further and makes sure that your understanding of the broad overview of the case as well as the nitty-gritty details of the case are aligned with the interviewer.

Secondly, asking clarifying questions show respect to the interviewer (who might have come up with the case question) and makes his impression of you more favorable.  Think of it from the interviewer’s perspective. Your final round interviewer Jack is a senior partner with Mckinsey in the New York office. Yesterday he had a client meeting with Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, but he left the meeting early to spend an extra two hours to create a new case for your case interview based on his own client engagements. Jack spends a lot of time developing the case, making twists and turns and believing it would be a hell of a ride for you to try to solve the case, a tough intellectual challenge. If you are the candidate, and the first thing that you do after hearing the case prompt is to immediately tell Jack that you got it and start laying out your framework and solution, how will Jack feel? if I were Jack personally, I would be feeling quite surprised and a little bit annoyed that this very complicated case that I’ve come up with didn’t even present any twists and turns for you and didn’t even merit any clarification.

So as a candidate, you should always ask at least one clarifying question and give your interviewer some credit for coming up with a case for you.

So now, how to best ask clarifying questions?

Here are the 4 things that you should pay attention to when asking clarifying questions.

A. If this is a case involving money and profit, always ask questions about the business model of the company or how this company makes money.

Let’s take this hot sauce case for example where our friend John sells hot sauce for a living. If I were the candidate, my intuition would be to think that John derives revenue from every bottle of hot sauce that he sells and would immediately lay out a profitability framework where profit is unit profit per bottle multiplied by the volume of bottles sold. However, if the hot sauce shop has a different “subscription-based” business model catering to restaurants, where restaurants pay a monthly subscription fee to John for a certain number of hot sauce, then in that case, the framework that you will be laying out would be very different. So asking the business model is always a good idea to give you a sense of how this company makes money and to guide you on how to lay out your framework.

B. Ask the key objective of the client.

If the client wants to improve profit, does the client want to focus on revenue growth, cost reduction, or a combination of both. If the client is entering a new market and wants a strategy from you, ask if the client’s objective is to initially gain market share or directly gain profit immediately. The strategies that you should give are vastly different if the client’s objective is expanding market share versus immediately trying to go for profit.

C. Ask clarifying questions on anything that you don’t understand about the business, whether the process of the business flow, the industry details, or any details that you think is critical in laying out your framework. 

Let’s just give an example here. A pharmaceutical company is rolling out a new drug that can cure chronic heart diseases. Knowing that the healthcare space is very complicated with doctors, insurance companies and hospitals all involved in this process, the client wants to know what’s the best way of rolling out the drug to maximize its profit. If I were the candidate, I would immediately ask clarifying questions on exactly what this pharmaceutical company does. For example, does this company only take care of manufacturing the drugs, developing the drugs or rolling out the drugs? How does the insurance companies come into play? Is this drug only able to be offered to the client if it is under an insurance plan with an insurance company? Without understanding the fundamentals of these questions, it will be very difficult for me to even lay out an initial framework on how to solve this problem.

D. Don’t poke too much ahead and ask too many questions related to your framework.

Oftentimes, newbies in the area of case interviews would spend 3 or 4 minutes in the clarification section asking about customer segments, market growth etc. When it is time for them to lay out a framework for the case, they don’t have anything else to say that is not repetitive to what they already asked. So our recommendation to you is to simply ask clarifying questions that cover the broader scope of the business in terms of the business process and business model and not go too much into detail on the things that you will lay out in the framework for the next step.

So these are the 4 key things that we recommend that you pay attention to when asking clarifying questions in a case interview.

  1. Reiterate the case prompt (Secrets to opening a case interview – Part 1)
  2. Asking clarification questions about the case given (Part 2)
  3. Laying out your initial structure to approach this case (Part 3)

And please listen to this audio again with this exemplary candidate on how he opened his case interview to perfection and landed him an the offer at BCG.

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(from Case Interview Experts and ex-BCG, ex-Bain consultants)

Hi, my name is Jackie Zhao, a case interview expert. As a candidate, I passed 15 out of 16 case interviews and landed 5 consulting jobs offers in BCG, Deloitte S&O, Roland Berger, etc. Here at CasePrep Master, our group of case interview experts and ex-BCG, ex-Bain consultants have helped hundreds of aspiring candidates get offers from top firms like Mckinsey, BCG and Bain.

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