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

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New answer on Aug 06, 2020
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Anonymous A asked on Jun 18, 2018

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 question:

Clarifying questions at the start of the case

Sidi
Expert
replied on Aug 09, 2020
McKinsey Senior EM & BCG Consultant | Interviewer at McK & BCG for 7 years | Coached 300+ candidates secure MBB offers

Hi Anonymous!

You touch on an important point here. Many candidates don't understand what distinguishes the clarifying questions at the start from later analysis-related questions (asking for market data. financials, etc.) In general, asking such analysis-related questions at the start is bad! It comes across completely arbitrary, and the interviewer will ask himself why you are asking analysis-questions before even having layed out an analysis approach (the structure)! It just makes no sense to ask for data before laying out your structure, because this information will have ZERO impact on this structure (--> the logic according to which you should address the question).

The clarifying 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/narrowing down the actual question(s) of the client (very often the question is poorly/vaguely stated in the prompt, and it is your duty as the candidate to make it precise!)
  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 analysis-related 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 never make sense to be asked in the clarifying questions (before making explicit your structure).

Cheers, Sidi

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Originally answered question:

Clarifying questions at the start of the case

Ian
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Content Creator
replied on Aug 09, 2020
BCG | 100% personal interview success rate (8/8) and 95% candidate success rate | Personalized interview prep

Good question! I look at it in two ways:

First: What isn't clear?

Here, you just want to ask anything you don't understand. Naturally, we want to run away from what we don't know...consultants run towards it!

  • Do you understand the context provided? Do I know how the industry works and how they company would likely be operating?
  • Do you understand the problem/opportunity they face? Is it clear what they're trying to do?

Second: Use GOBTM

Write GOBTM at the bottom of your page in case you're stumped in part 1.

G = Geography (Where to they operate, where are they looking to go, etc.)

O = Objective (Can I clarify the exact objective of this case. I.e. increase profits by how much)

B = Business Model (Am I clear on how the company makes money and what they sell?)

T = Timing (Over what time frame does this solution/problem take place?)

M = Market (Who are my customers? What market do I operate in?)

Bonus

Fundamentally, you are trying to narrow your framework. You are tyring to ask questions that get you closer to the solution

Bonus 2

Never ask an open-ended/vague question. Try to lead with a hypothesis. For example, don't say "How does this shoe company work?". Rather say "I imagine the shoemaking process involves reviewing wood/leather, cutting/shaping it, sewing/gluing it together, and then finishing it in some way. Is this about right?"

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Vlad
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replied on Jun 18, 2018
McKinsey / Accenture Alum / Got all BIG3 offers / Harvard Business School

Hi,

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.

Best!

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Anonymous replied on Jun 18, 2018

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.

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Originally answered question:

Clarifying questions at the start of the case

Anonymous updated the answer on Aug 10, 2020

Dear A,

Actually it's ok to ask 2-3 clarifying questions you start your case. Sometimes it may take more, depends on what basic information you have.

There are 3 main types of clarifying question which you may ask to fill the information gap before case solving. There are related to the objectives of the case, information about the company and some terminology you're unfamiliar with.

Here are some basic things you need to know before the case:

- about the case objective:

  • What is the measurable metric of success?

  • What is the time frame?

  • What are potential restrictions or limitations?

- about your understanding of the company

•. Business model: How does the company make money? Do they sell directly to customers or do they sell through retailers or partners?

  • Products and services: What products and services does the company sell? What benefits do these products and services provide?

  • Geographic location: Does the company have one location or are they a national chain? Does the company operate in just one country or do they have an international presence?

    - about definition of a term you are unfamiliar with

Most consulting interviews do not require you to have specialized knowledge or expertise in an industry. Therefore, if you come across a term that you are unfamiliar with, it is completely acceptable to ask the interviewer for the definition.

After getting the information about the case, make sure you have all the pieces of it that you need, if you don't then go for clarifying questions.


Best,

André

(edited)

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Originally answered question:

Clarifying questions at the start of the case

Francesco
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Content Creator
replied on Aug 09, 2020
#1 Expert for Coaching Sessions (3.700+) | 1.300+ Reviews with 100% Recommendation Rate | Ex BCG | 8+ Years of Coaching

Hi there,

The number of questions depends on the complexity of the case. For many cases, 2 to 4 are enough.

Good questions at the beginning are related to:

  • Clarify goal and constraints of the client
  • Understand the revenue model of the client
  • Clarify any part of the prompt which is unclear

You should ask questions until these points are clarified and avoid to ask questions related to parts of the initial structure in advance.

Best,
Francesco

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Andrea
Expert
Content Creator
replied on Jun 19, 2018
Former BCG Principal and decision round interviewer

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,

andrea

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Anonymous D 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!

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Anonymous E replied on Sep 20, 2018

The number of your questions shold be inversely proportional to the amount of information you get upfront/in the prompt. For example, in McKinsey style cases you might get so much information upfront, that additional questions would be irrelevant and irritating, you'd come as robotic. In all 12 McKinsey interviews I've had, there wasn't need in additional questions at all, I had enough data to move straight to issue tree.

At the same time, if all you know is that there is a client whose profitability is declining, your questions about business model, product and specific goals are valid. I wouldn't go beyond these 3 questions.

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Sidi gave the best answer

Sidi

McKinsey Senior EM & BCG Consultant | Interviewer at McK & BCG for 7 years | Coached 300+ candidates secure MBB offers
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