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What questions to ask MBB consultants at informational chats over phone?

Anonymous A asked on Jul 26, 2019 - 3 answers

Hi there,

I cold-messaged both via email and LinkedIn several MBB consultants for an informational chat. A couple days ago I had a phone call with a principal at an MBB firm after cold-emailing her (she is an alumnus at my current university). Although, from my perspective, I asked quite open-ended and well-thought questions which showed interest and answers can't be found very easily by a google search (mostly about personal experiences, differences (pros/cons) to previous jobs she had, focus by office etc.), she seemed quite bored even before we started talking and her answers were relatively short and without much elaboration. After stating that I would like to apply in the next couple weeks etc., she didn't volunteer to have me sent her my CV for a referral, but just said that I should feel free to reach out if further questions come up... Even taking into consideration time constraints MBB consultants have, this was a quite short phone call...

So, my question is: what would your advice be regarding asking "good" questions (=what should the content be?) and the general flow of the conversation? Generally, how high should the expectations for a person to refer me be after accepting a request for a phone call?

Also, at the same firm, I already had a conversation with a Consultant (who has only been at the firm for 3-4 years though) and he told me to send him my CV (implying that he is willing to give me a referral), which I did. Given that he is in a relatively low position and a referral would not have as much weight as principal/partner (although the conversation went quite well), should I continue reaching out to principals/partners or rather leverage my current connection to the consultant and apply via this referral?

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Francesco
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replied on Jul 27, 2019
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Hi Anonymous,

your current ratio of proposed referrals seems to be 50%, which is pretty good. Not all the people you will talk to will be willing to refer you for a number of reasons, including:

  • Lack of strong personal pitch – you usually start the conversation presenting yourself. If you go too long/present irrelevant motivations and abilities this may already decrease the chances to receive a referral
  • Lack of connection with the person – sometimes you just won’t be able to click with the other person, even when sharing the same university. This is usually related to asking questions referring to the company, rather than to the particular experience of the person. It is difficult though to understand if you the questions you are asking are “right” or “wrong” without knowing what exactly you asked.
  • Lack of closing question for a referral – the person may not directly refer you if you don’t ask “indirectly” for a referral – in the end, referring you implies some work and reputational risks only partially compensated by a possible referral bonus.

Besides that, as mentioned by Leif, it could simply be the Principal was too busy in this particular moment.

In terms of the referral person to contact, I recommend to connect with Manager and Principals, as they have a good weight in terms of referrals and higher response rate than partners, who unless you have a very strong connection are unlikely to reply. You can definitely look for additional connections to strengthen your application, although the Consultant may have already completed the referral process by the time you connect with someone else.

For more information on how to optimize the referral flow please feel free to PM me.

Best,

Francesco

Hi, so, regarding the pitch, I actually try to appear as somebody who just wants to have an informal and friendly chat in order to get a better overview of how it is to work at that particular firm, rather than somebody who wants to sell himself. Therefore, I avoid giving formal pitches right from the start, but rather try to indirectly refer to my strengths and genuine interest during the conversation at appropriate moments. Many will disagree here, but I feel awkward (and I suppose the other person as well) if I try to sell myself too obviously. Also, could you please give an example of how to „indirectly“ ask for referrals at the end? Up to now I didn‘t mention a referral at all, assuming that the person knows the reason why I’m contacting him/her and would therefore volunteer if he/she thinks I would be a good fit. — Anonymous A on Jul 27, 2019 (edited)

Hi Anonymous, happy to clarify further, please feel free to PM me for that. — Francesco on Jul 28, 2019

Leif
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replied on Jul 27, 2019
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Re: first paragraph -

Well first of all, you should not expect a principal to volunteer to give you a referal. There is no reason for her to do that to a boy/girl who she "met" on LinkedIn and chatted for only once. I would say that she is already being super nice by talking with you and offering to help you out if questions come up in the future. Second, you have no idea how busy an MBB principal is. She could have been making the firm thousands of dollars with the time she spent talking to you.

That being said, it may not be an issue with your questions at all. She might be super busy at that moment and might be in the middle of something. She might have had a bad day. She might just be that type of person who does not like talking too much. You never know. So don't blame yourself too hard on this.

Re: second paragraph -

You listed several important criteria youself, such as 1) open-ended instead of yes-or-no questions, 2) related to personal experience and 3) cannot be easily found online. If you truly stick to these standards, I'm pretty sure you asked the right types of questions. (I would say your "focus by office" question easily falls into the third category unfortunately). Then, generally, you should never expect a person to refer you after accepting a phone call request. Some people are super nice and they may volunteer, but that does not happen very often.

Re: third paragraph -

Yes you should continue to reach out to principal/partner if you want to maximize your chance of getting an interview. However, please do not forget that consultant. Keep building on that relationship.

Also, you seem to equate "asking for your CV" with "giving you a referral". That may not be the case. The consultant may send your CV to the HR and tell them that "you had a conversation", which technically does not count as a referral. Even worse, the consultant could take a look at your CV, decide that you are not good enough, and end up not passing it on to the HR. I do not mean to upset you. Just want you to have the right expectation.

Vlad
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replied on Jul 28, 2019
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Hi,

Your biggest problem is not the questions but reaching the wrong people. Principals are not motivated to make you a referral unless they don't know you personally. Consultants are motivated with $ bonus.

As for the weight of the recommendation - consultants recommendation is just enough. So pls continue your conversations with consultants instead of making partners bored in advance:)

Best!