After an interviewer gives you the initial spiel on the company and problem that you need to solve, you will have a moment to ask some clarifying questions. Here are some tips to use this time effectively.
Cover The Basics
Especially on a phone interview, it can be really useful to repeat some of the basic information in the prompt to make sure you heard it correctly. As I mentioned in my Case Interview Controversies post, not everyone likes that. Once you get proficient at cases, you should work on asking questions that can both verify the data, as well as provide additional insights. Many of the questions below will enable you to do that, though I will say that if any numbers are given in the prompt, make sure you check that you heard them correctly one way or another.
Define The Finish Line
You should certainly make sure you clearly understand what the interviewer is asking you to do. It is also helpful to try to get further specifications on the objective.
For example, if your case requires you to boost profitability, you can find out if you need to increase profitability to a specific value. Do you just need to get it back to its profitability from some time past? Do you need to double today’s profitability? If you have a specific value you’ll have an easier time knowing when you’ve completed the case.
You can also try to bind the objective by time. How quickly do you need to get profitability back up? Should your recommendations focus on long-term improvement, or do we need the fixes now?
Although interviewers typically don’t have a lot of specific information to provide on this vein, they sometimes do, and it never hurts to ask. It’s easier to run toward a finish line with a flag up instead of guessing when the race might be over.
Find Out How It Works
I highly recommend that you describe the “value-chain” of your “client’s” business. Walk through your high-level perception of what the company does so that the interviewer can correct any incorrect steps or relationships.
For example, if you’re client is a frozen pizza factory, you might say something like
“As I understand it, our client is going to gather lots of food related materials (wheat, tomatoes, meats, etc.), have people assemble the pizzas in factories with ovens and cooking materials, flash freeze the pizza, put them in plastic wrap and boxes, load them onto freezer trucks, and sell them to grocery stores that then sell our pizzas to customers.”
This can guard against any critical misconceptions you might have. For example, this pizza factory might outsource the flash-freezing process or sell to discount delivery outlets (I don’t know if that actually exists) instead of to grocery stores. If any of that is critical to the case, the interviewer will likely clarify what’s going on.
It can also be helpful to make sure you understand your client’s product. The prompt may tell you that your client has invented a new product that makes people 50% smarter. If that’s all you know, it’s helpful to find out how it works. Is it a pill you take? Is it a surgery you receive? Do you strap a weird looking device on your head? Will it paralyze you from the waist down? Just asking “how does the product work” is often enough to get you the relevant information.
Finally, find out about other products in the company’s portfolio. For example, if you’re dealing with a frozen pizza factory, see if they’re flash freezing other products, or if they do fresh pizzas as well, or if they’re in something entirely different. If the company does things beyond what’s given in the prompt, it’s plausible that those other things won’t help you directly solve the case, but they often help you provide better insight into the company’s strategic alignment and can provide interesting material for more creative parts of the case. This is especially true if you’re dealing with a Private Equity firm with a portfolio of various companies; find out the spectrum of what your client does.
You should make sure you know a bit of the timeline of your client. Consider asking if the date of the case is today, or if the case takes place in the past. Every once in a while a case will pop up that places you in 2009, right after the housing crisis, or in 1995, just at the start of the internet age.
You should also find out how long any stated problems have been going on. If your client has been experiencing declining profitability, ask how long profitability has been declining. You may approach a 1 year decline differently from a 20 year decline, so find out the extent of the problem early in the case.
How To Handle Too Much Information
It’s easy to ask an overly specific question when clarifying the information in the prompt. You might ask for some information about your product and end up having a multi-dimensional exhibit slapped in front of you. If this happens, I recommend looking into the exhibit to find the specific information you asked for, and then ignoring the rest of the exhibit for a little while. After you find the info you wanted, let the interviewer know that you would like to back-up and organize your thoughts a bit more clearly and then construct your framework. After you have your framework, you should have a better idea of how that exhibit fits in to the case and what other information you need to extract from it.
It can be easy to get led into the weeds or tempted into a disorganized chase if they dump too much data on you too quickly. Stay calm and take control of the situation so that you don’t risk appearing like a disorganized thinker.
Questioning the prompt is all about making sure you clearly understand your client and the objective. Although you shouldn’t start any deep analysis or get too specific in your questioning, asking a few of the right questions can set you up nicely for building your framework and moving through the rest of the case.
Keep seeking truth.
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