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How many clarifying questions are appropriate and when should they be asked?

Anonymous A asked on Jun 18, 2018 - 4 answers

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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replied on Jun 18, 2018
Bain & Company | University of Cambridge | CV/Resume writing | 770 GMAT
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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.

Vlad replied on Jun 18, 2018
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You should ask the following questions:

1) Clarify the business model. Ask how the company actually makes the money. For several reasons:

  1. Even if you think you understand the business model, you need to make sure that you understand it correctly.
  2. Some cases have pitfalls related to a business model (re profitability cases with several revenue streams
  3. You need to understand the revenue streams to make a proper structure. E.g. if the case is about oil&gas company which revenues are declining, ask if it is Up / mid / down-stream problem. In this case, defining a revenue stream is critical to setting up the right structure. (At the end of the day it may be the decline of snack sales at the gas stations:). In case of telecom company it may be the problem of the core business (wireless) or non-core (landlines, internet)

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. in the market entry case ask whether we are entering the country organically or non-organically

!!! Finally - do the recap after asking the clarifying questions. Although most of the case books suggest to do it immediately at the beginning of the interview, it makes much more sense to clarify the situation first and then to make sure that you understand everything correctly.


Anonymous B 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!


replied on Jun 19, 2018
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I agree with the three categories of questions suggested but would suggest to limit time spend on those to 2-3 mins, depending on the lenght of the answer. If after 2-3 mins you are still asking questions without putting a structure together, then, very likely you are starting to solve the case without a structure in place and that’s not ideal.

hope it helps,