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I have received conflicting feedback regarding how many clarifying questions are appropriate and when I should be asking them.

Some say I can ask questions as long as they clarify main points and help understand the context and client objectives without asking for any actual data (i.e. no fishing for answers).

However, I've also been told that I should only clarify any points I didn't understandin the prompt and our clients objective, then leave all other questions for when I'm going through my structure (e.g. Who are our customers?, What are our products? How is this market doing relative to our client?)

Perhaps there is a middle-ground between the two sets of feedback I've received?

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Originally answered:

Clarifying questions

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An (Jack)
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replied on Jun 05, 2018
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Hey there,

It could be helpful if you clarified with whoever provided your feedback on why you should have asked clarifying questions.

In the absence of more detail, I'll share 2 cents from some common pitfalls that I observe, where candidates have made unfounded assumptions without clarifying the situation. This affects their structure, but also affects other parts of their answer also.

Here are 2 "verbal tricks" that I suggest to help you ask clarifying questions.

1. Ask broad, open-ended questions, especially at the start - I see a lot of candidates delve into too much detail from the outset because they have memorized frameworks - and make unfounded assumptions of the direction of the case. A few open ended questions at the start is a good way to set the scene. Some good dimensions are:

  • Goals:
    • Do we know what success looks like for the client?
    • Do we know what goals or metrics are the client aiming towards?
  • Products + Customers:
    • Can you help me understand what kind of products / services our client sells? How does it work?
    • Who are our customers? Why do they need our product / services?
  • Business model:
    • How do we make money?

2. Keep questions simple and short, follow up with more questions

  • If you are not sure whether you are asking the right question. Just confidently ask the question, but keep it simple and short - this can have the effect of putting the onus of more explanations on the interviewer, who will then elaborate on the case.
  • You should use some judgment when doing this though as the interviewer could turn the question back on you if the question is very basic.
  • However, from the POV of an interviewer, I much more willing to explain some basic concepts to a candidate (after all, no one expects you to be a business expert) compared to seeing a candidate ask an elaborate and detailed question - but which shows the candidate making an illogical assumption about the situation.

Hope that helps!

Jack

Vlad
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Pre-structure questions

1) Clarify the business model. Even if you think you understand it, try to repeat it to make sure that you understand in correctly.

2) Clarify the objective. Here make sure that your goal is:

  • Measurable
  • Has a time-framed
  • Has / has no limitations

e.g. Should I invest 100k in this business for 1 year if I want to get 15% return?

3) Ask the questions that will help you build a relevant structure and remove ambiguity.

e.g. if the case is about oil&gas company which revenues are decling, ask if it is Up / mid / down-stream problem. In this case defining a revenue stream is critical to seting up the right structure.

Post-structure questions:

It's kind of hard to generalize all the cases. I will try to provide a general algorythm here:

  1. Ask for a piece of data / info you've defined in a structure
  2. Compare the data with historical trend / becnhmarks
  3. If you find something interesting ask for the root / cause or state the hypothesis
  4. If no root/cause at this point available - ask for segmentation to drill down further
  5. Once you are done with analysis in one branch of your framework (found the root-cause / found nothing interesting) - summarize what you've learnt so far and move to the next one

Again, the last one is super high-level and the devil is in details:)

Srihari
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Good news here - there is no hard and fast rule, although I'd say watch it on the time - you definitely shouldn't be asking 2 minutes of questions before you come up with your structure. Here is what you definitely need to do before the structure.

1) Replay your understanding of the situation

2) Clarify that you understand the exact objectives, ensure there aren't any others

3) (This is what I think you are asking about it) - ask any quick questions before your structure. I'd start by thinking "What would be general parts of the analysis that I would do?" And leave that to be covered in your structure and later. This would include any trend performance, number data, market/competitor/company information/performance, etc. It's hard to define everything that you would cover in your structure, so I'll move to some of the common things it would be okay to ask before the structure.

Definitions - if you simply don't understand a term or description that was given, it's okay to ask. In fact, it's best to ask early (either before or shortly after the structure). Asking later can look pretty bad, whereas asking early shows you aren't afraid to get clarification on things early and avoids the embarressment later. This is especially acceptable if it's a very technical/nuanced industry, or for example you are from a different country/industry etc and lack some basic context (for example, if you are an Indian national and don't know what exactly an American interviewer means by a "strip mall", better to clarify than assume it has something to do with stripping - you may laugh, but I've seen that go wrong in the past)

Scope of the problem/options - related to objectives, but you can clarify what exactly the focus/options for consideration are. For example, for an large MNC, you might want to clarify if adjacent markets/products/ or divesting is something the company can consider or if there are any "sacred cows" which can't be touched. Don't force this though, and only bring it up at this stage if you have some interesting potential insight or it would shape your framework. You can also address this within the structure itself and discover it through your analysis.

Major contextual scenarios/assumptions - If I were to give you a case on an oil producer, you may want to clarify the time period before assuming the structure. If we are in the post 2015 world with low oil prices, that's very different than 2013 with $100/barrel prices. You can see how the different contexts would influence your framework and where you focus your analysis. Again, don't force this, but if some elements of the context would greatly change how you approach the case, good to quickly ask. It isn't essential, but it can help shape your framework and make it more contextualized, less generic which is always a good thing.

----

The rule of thumb I'd give is to always stop short of getting data or analysis related to the case - if you find yourself asking for detailed information, that's too much before a framework. Think quick questions, especially with a focus on definitions you don't understand and any major scope/context questions if it would help you better frame the case.

Originally answered:

How to ask open questions

Anonymous replied on Feb 16, 2017

Hi Jiesheng,

I guess you mean questions to the interviewer after he/she presented the case setting.

In general, these questions should be very focused on defining the scope of the case. As a rule-of-thumb, I would not recommend asking more than 2-3 questions / 1-2 minutes.

In my experience, the most common mistakes that candidates make during this phase are

  1. Not being focused on the case setting just described
  2. Going into detail at this stage already
  3. Not asking (the right) questions

Hope that helps!

Hi Chris! Thanks for the reply! I am curious about the 3rd point you've mentioned: What kind of questions are THE RIGHT QUESTIONS? Could you pls elaborate a little bit more? — Jiesheng on Feb 22, 2017

Sidi
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replied on Aug 20, 2018
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Hi Kay,

the questions you ask at the beginning have the following objectives:

  1. Completely understanding the context/situation (including, unclear terminology, but also, for example, the business model of the client if unclear!)
  2. Understanding the question(s) of the client
  3. Understanding (and quantifying if applicable) the underlying objective(s) of the client

These questions are aiming at understanding the initial setting, hence forming a precondition to outline your structure towards answering the core question (the issue tree)!

The later questions that you ask while navigating through the case are then aiming to verify the actual relevance of each sub-branch in your tree. So if you have defined and disaggregated the criterion to answer the client's core question in a clean way, all these leater questions follow a this precise "roadmap" as layed out by your tree. These questions then oftentimes also comprise enquiries on current performance metrics (revenues, costs, growth rates etc.), which normally should never be asked in the clarifying questions (before making explicit your structure).

Cheers, Sidi

Originally answered:

Clarifying questions

Anonymous replied on Jun 24, 2019

There is always more that you can understand. If you understand the goal as improving profits, there's so much more you can ask - do they have a % change target in mind, how long do we have to turn this around, do they prefer this to be done through raising revenue or cutting costs, etc.

I always write BOTMG at the bottom of my framework page to help myself think of things I'm missing in case I'm stuck.

This helps "trigger" you to consider questions around B = Business Model, O = Objective, T = Timing, M = Market, G = Geography.

However, you should never just say "so, what is their business model?" Obviously, ask questions that help you frame your hypothesis, understand the situation, and ultimately drive your case better.

Alessandro
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From my point of view, you should ask as many clarifying questions as you need in order to feel you fully understand the client's situation. Any question which can impact the way you think about the problem, and therefore structure it, is important. Examples:

- "What exactly is product X?" - if you don't fully understand what a product/service the company/industry is selling is, you have to ask. it will actually look bad on you if you get halfway through the structure and it becomes clear you don't really understand what we are selling.

- "How exactly does this industry work?" - If you are unfamiliar with an industry and aren't sure how it works, ask about it - e.g. repair parts for cars - does this mean you ship cars to manufacturers, sell directly to consumers, etc.

- "What specifically is the client's objective?" If the objective isn't super clear (e.g. want to return to profitability) clarify this as much as possible. Even if the overall objective appears clear, further clarifying it (e.g. does the client have a specific timeframe in mind.

These are definitely not exhaustive, and every case will have it's own nuances and ambiguities.

As for when to ask, you should firstly clarify the prompt (essentially repeat it back to the interview to make sure you haven't misunderstood anything), then ask as many clarifying questions as you need, and then take a minute to lay out your structure.

Andrea
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Yes, as highlighted, not asking this might be an hindrance to the development of a customized framework and hence resolution of the case. The way I would phrase such a question would be (let's take credit card as an example) "My knowledge of this sector is purely from a consumer perspective, so wanted to check with you whether my understanding of revenue strams of credit card companies is accurate and complete: the two main revenue sources I am aware of are interest on outstanding balances and transaction fees, anything else?" (in this case interviewer might say that annual fees can be also a factor since they can be up to $500-1,000 for premium cards).

Hope it helps,

Andrea

Thanks Andrea. It definitely helps — Stephane on Feb 28, 2018

Benjamin replied on Aug 20, 2018
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Hi Kay,

Indeed calrification question should be asked with the objective to fully understand the situation.
In some cases, you might receive on purpose a limited info, and this will be your responsibility to ask theses question to fully understand the scope of the case and clearly identified the issue of the client.
The answer to these question should help you to focus your structure on the main issues in case the case opening is to wide.
Best
Benjamin

Anonymous replied on Feb 28, 2018

Hey Stephane,

For McK (and the rest in general) is not always fine but highly recommend that you clarify everything in your mind before jumping into the framework - that include for example understanding the overall problem of the company, their goal and their business model (that said, you need to use some basic common sense: if we were doing a case about a basic supermarket and you ask me how do they make money I’ll be negatively impressed by that question; however, if you ask what are their distribution channels that would be ok and interesting)

best

Bruno

Bruno, thanks for the clarification. — Stephane on Feb 28, 2018

Originally answered:

Clarifying questions

Ben
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Hi Tim,

I suggest that before starting with your structure, you should be clear on the following four questions, in order of importance:

  • Objective - what is the client's objective
  • Business Model - how does the client make money (e.g., B2B, B2C, B2B2C etc.)
  • Product - what does the product do and how (especially relevant in complex industries like pharma or finance
  • Timeline - when is the client looking to achieve the objective (e.g., doubling the revenues in 6 months is very different from a 2-5 year horizon)

Now, no point being a robot, even when clarifying:

  1. Don't ask the question, if you have the information or the answer is obvious (e.g., cafes make money by serving food and drinks to customers)
  2. The best way of clarifying, is by confirming a suggested hypothesis (e.g., "Would it be correct to assume that most of the revenues of a newspaper come from advertising?")

Hope it helps!

Anonymous E replied on Jun 19, 2018

Hi, I'm going to give you my thoughts based on MBB Interviews.

Generally, the prompt is fairly comprehensive and long - if the info isnt in the prompt the interviewer will not normally know it ( except if this is a partner interview and they are doing it themselves atm).

It is fine to clarify points that they have been said, however in my experience when i tried to ask about time frames, hard objectives etc there was no info.

"do we have a time period for achiving this market share---NO"

"do we have a specific financial target as a revenue goal...NO"

"Do we know if this has been experienced by our competitors...NO"

Get my point? By the last question we were both laughing as it clear i had extracted all the info there was and it was time to move on.

SO - my takeaway is clarify 2 or 3 things that have been said, but as for gathering extra new info, you can still ask for it...but dont expect them to tell you anything.

please note - this has just been my experiences, but good to know none the less!

GL!

Astrid replied on Jun 01, 2017
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Francesco
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Hi Stephane,

I agree with the previous comments. More specifically:

  • Definitely ok to ask for the business model
  • Segmentation is also ok, although you may also present it in the structure
  • As Vlad mentioned, clarify the objective is a must

In general, that’s not true only for McKinsey, but for all the companies.

Best,
Francesco

Anonymous replied on Oct 05, 2017

Tadeus,

You are right that there are a lot of possible fit questions. And while the fit interview may vary by firm, the fit questions sometimes are actually the same. It seems you are referring to the opening explanation of the case situation. In that scenario, you usually want to want to do the following:

  • Play back your understanding of the case, clarifying any points that you missed or didn’t understand
  • State your understanding of the objectives
  • Spend about 90 seconds gathering your thoughts and outlining your structure
  • Develop a logical, MECE structure that includes at least 2 but usually 3-4 logical buckets with 2-4 2nd level questions / thoughts

In the opening case scenario, you usually are not going to ask for more information. That will come after the first question. You should still feel free to ask for clarifying information should you see fit, but most likely the interviewer will defer.

It is also very important to understand that there is a big difference between first round interviews with Associates and Managers that “go by the book” and have recently received interview training and 2nd / 3rd round interviews with Associate Partners, Partners and Senior Partners, many of which had no formal interview training at the time when they joined the firm. This is why I encourage candidates to practice cases with a range of different people (i.e., other candidates, PrepLounge Experts that were Associates / Managers and PrepLounge Experts that were Associate Partners / Partners). You will not only experience a different interview style and receive different feedback, but it is also more cost effective for you and allows you to gain more practice experience.

Guillaume replied on Jun 05, 2017

Hi Anna,

as always, the good answer is "it depends". Keeping the leadership on a case interview seems to be a must while cracking the case, that means you are aksed to feel when you have enough data, and when you are lacking some, and of course, not knowing the difficulty of that specific case, it seems barely guessing... But the interiewer let you understand when you asked enough question and should work on your material, especially when you'll ear "we don't know" or "we'll see in a moment", or worst "not relevant here"... These are warning telling you the data you already possess should be enough to proceed next step...

I hope this helps.

Best regards

Originally answered:

How to ask open questions

Anonymous D replied on Feb 16, 2017

Hey Jerry.

Sorry that I am not answering your questions, I just wonder what type of BCG cases you had?could you share it with me?e*************@g****.com

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