Cracking the Consulting Interview! Part 4: Case Prep — Tips & Tricks
What are the various sections of a typical case? How should you tackle each one? How can you earn brownie points? How can you stand out in your case interview? Part 4 in my latest series of articles on how to crack MBB case interviews.
I believe that if you’ve landed at this article, you’ve probably looked through the previous articles in this series as well. If not, I highly encourage you to do so as this builds on the previous pieces. Here, I’ll cover the various sections of a typical case and run you through what you should do from the moment you receive a case statement. These tips comprise my personal learnings with the benefit of hindsight and the tips I received from McKinsey, BCG and Bain consultants. Further, if you’re new to case-solving or are looking to take your skills to the next level, do check out the video series of Cracking the Consulting Interview where I walk you through cases end-to-end in a structured manner (I’d greatly appreciate the support!). So, let’s begin.
The interviewer has given you the case statement. What do you do now?
Step 1: Reiterate the Case Statement
Remember that a lot of the time interviewers give you cases that they themselves worked on in the firm. So, it needn’t be as short as “ABC saw a 50% decline in profits last year. Help them out.” It would have an additional backstory, facts and data. Don’t repeat every word that the interviewer uttered, instead summarize what the interviewer told you and check if your understanding of the statement is correct. Just to reiterate, don’t repeat the statement verbatim.
Step 2: Preliminary Questions
So you’ve checked whether you’ve noted stuff down properly. Good. The next step is to ask preliminary questions. In case the case statement is complex or it’s an unconventional case, you can ask for a few moments to come up with a set of questions. I’ve personally done that, it trumps asking haphazard questions that won’t help you much. Here are some tips for this section:
- Structure the preliminary questions. I personally adopt this strategy as much as possible. For example, my preliminary questions for profitability cases were structured as (a) Questions about the quantum of change in profits/revenues/costs and the time period (b) Clarification of objective (c)Questions about the company (d) Questions about the products and processes (e) Questions about the industry and competitors. With practice, you’ll find it easy to do this even for unconventional cases. It helps you get more information from a lesser number of questions.
- Clarify the objective. This is important. Your case statement may end with “Help out your client.” This, however, could range from the client wanting you to just find identify a problem to reviving a particular metric to a specific value. You need to clarify that in the very beginning.
- Don’t ask unnecessary questions. Usually, after solving a few cases, people tend to collect their preliminary questions and use them for future cases. I did this too and highly recommend it. But, there’s absolutely no need to pose every single question from your arsenal to the interviewer in each case. In a 30-minute case interview, you don’t want to spend 10 minutes just on preliminary questions.
- Don’t ask generic questions. This is also important. Tailor your questions to the case and the industry. If your case deals with the profitability of a tea stall, rather than posing questions like “Is this an industry-wide issue or a client-specific issue?”, reframe it as “Are other tea stalls affected as well or is our client the only one impacted?”
- Be innovative and employ business acumen. This is a great way to grab brownie points early on. There are certain things you should ask for in cases dealing with certain industries. For example, if your case is about a pharma player’s new drug and their market entry strategy, you should ask whether the drug is a prescription drug or OTC and what side effects it has. Pay attention to the case statement and incorporate this practice early on so that it comes naturally to you.
- Don’t start solving the case at this stage itself. Sometimes we tend to get carried away and ask way too many questions that the line between the preliminary questions section and the actual case gets blurred. For example, in a profitability case, questions like “Is the decline in profitability due to a change in revenues, costs or both?” should come later, not in the first section. Keep track of where you stand and pivot accordingly.
- Provide the rationale for questions as and when needed. I usually follow this practice. Don’t just ask questions but validate them with appropriate justifications. For example, you can state that “I’d like to know about the revenue streams of the company. This will help in analysing if there’s an issue in any particular one or across all revenue streams.” This is better than a blunt question. However, don’t overdo this. The rationale for certain questions are obvious and you needn’t discuss that. I typically employ this for one or two preliminary questions.
Step 3: Preliminary Structuring
This is quite important, as it sets the stage for your entire case. But, it’s alright if the initial structuring isn’t favoured by the interviewer, you can ask to change it if the interviewer is up for it. Focus on the following:
- Be MECE. You’re probably tired of this word, but it’s important. It’s harder for unconventional cases, but try to be as MECE as you can.
- Use a relatively broad structure and then drill down. If profits have declined, employ a simple framework of revenues and costs. Don’t directly list out all the costs and the formula for the revenue. That comes after you clarify which metric (revenues or costs or both) needs to be looked at.
Step 4: The Drill Down
Now, once you’ve got your preliminary structure set, it’s time to drill down the branches of the structure. This will be based on the direction the interviewer prescribes and how you feel the case ought to go. Here are some tips:
- Keep segmenting to eliminate possibilities. This can be done based on product group/geography/distributor/retailer/customer segment. For instance, the revenue of a toaster manufacturer may be down, but this might be happening only in South India. If you can clarify this early on (potentially before or right after you split revenue as price * volume), you’ll be one step closer to identifying the problem.
- Employ the 80–20 rule. Consultants love this and you’ve got to use it. Consider an FMCG client with a focus on biscuits, personal hygiene products and stationery in the ratio 70%, 20% and 10%. Revenues in each segment have fallen by 50%, 30% and 20% respectively. You should realize that by solving the problem with biscuits, a significant revival can be affected and thus, you should prioritize that segment. To help you with this, when you’re segmenting in terms of product group/geography/distributor/retailer/customer segment, always ask for percentage contribution to the metric under consideration and prioritize.
- Be structured. Try to be structured at each stage of a drill-down. There might be times when that’s hard, but always attempt to make a valid structure. This helps you analyse all that needs to be looked at and also shows the interviewer that you’re good at structuring.
- Keep track of time. A typical case interview usually lasts between 20 and 30 minutes. This is not set in stone though, I personally had cases lasting 45–50 minutes during a few of my interviews. But, 20–30 minutes is what you’ll hear a lot. So, while you shouldn’t rush the drill-down and do a shoddy job, do realize that you’re operating under some time constraints and enforce that during practice. You’ll learn to speed up your problem-solving ability without compromising on quality and comprehensiveness over time.
- Don’t be a framework robot. As you keep solving a lot of cases, you’ll come across many frameworks. What you’re supposed to do is understand how to come up with innovative frameworks on your own and employ them in situations. What you’re definitely not supposed to do is mug up frameworks and deploy them as is in cases. Using generic words like attraction, value proposition and retention is a dead giveaway and you’ll appear like a framework bot. Adapt to the industry and case provided and be innovative. Frameworks like the above are very useful as a foundation. Build on it and create your custom frameworks.
- Share your thought process and offer a rationale while asking questions. This is similar to preliminary questions.
- Collaborate with the interviewer. Remember, you’re not doing this alone. The interviewer is not your enemy. He/she is as much interested in figuring out the solution as you are and is rooting for you. So, collaborate and have fruitful discussions. Ask the interviewer for his/her opinion on a conclusion of yours, ask him/her if your approach seems alright or if a different approach must be taken. They are super experienced professionals and you’ll learn so much from them through each case. Make use of this opportunity well.
- Mini synthesis. This is really helpful in case the problem is quite convoluted and you’ve had to cover a lot of bases. At certain points in the case, just take a step back and, in a line or two, quickly summarize all that's been covered till that point and what you intend to do next. This would ensure that you and the interviewer are on the same page and, thus, enhances clarity.
Step 5: Recommendations
Once you’ve finished the drill-down and the analysis part of the case, it’s time for recommendations. In many cases, the drill-down consumes a lot of time and there’s not enough left for recommendations. But, if you do have time, then keep the following things in mind:
- Structure the recommendations. I tend to do this as it allows me to be comprehensive. In case it’s difficult to come up with innovative recommendations, structuring helps in getting ideas for the same.
- Prioritize them. Some recommendations are just better than the others in terms of feasibility and impact. While conveying the solutions, prioritize such recommendations over less feasible, more expensive and low-impact ones.
- Don’t bring out a laundry list. 3 to 4 solid recommendations are good. Don’t narrate a laundry list of 7 to 8 recommendations. The interviewer, and in fact anyone, will zone out and not pay full attention.
- Have innovative recommendations but not outlandish ones. While it’s good to be creative with recommendations (this is the portion where you can let your creativity shine, really), think about the feasibility of what you’re proposing. If an auto driver’s profits have declined due to the high cost of petrol emanating from a production cut by OPEC, your recommendation cannot be to prod the auto driver to negotiate with OPEC!
- Leverage your business acumen. While proposing recommendations, do try to infuse real-life examples and cases. You might come across different strategies employed by different companies in newspapers and videos. Use them for inspiration and mention them as and when feasible.
Step 6: Synthesis
I believe that synthesis is very important to achieve a sense of closure to a case-solving session. So, even when the interviewer tells me that time’s up, I tend to ask him/her if I can take a few moments to quickly synthesize what we’ve looked at till then. Mostly, they agree. Here are some golden rules for a synthesis:
- Keep it short and crisp. Remember, this is a synthesis, not a monologue. Don’t summarize case facts and the process. Focus on the outcome. Limit it to 30–40 seconds. Essentially, think that the CEO has asked you to tell him what to do and he has to rush to another meeting. You have only 30 seconds to make your case. Here’s a sample synthesis for a case where a toffee maker is witnessing a decline in profits: “We’ve seen that a change in the container shape had made it hard for shopkeepers to access our toffee, thus resulting in a revenue fall. We can alleviate this through (a) modified packaging (smaller wrappers, running packets), (b) offering packing tips and (c)capturing customer attention to our toffees.” One line about the problem identification, one line mentioning the recommendations (notice the point-wise approach).
- Be prepared for sudden synthesis. The interviewer may abruptly interrupt the case due to time constraints or because he/she feels that the covered content is enough. At that point, you might have to rapidly synthesize the case without taking out a few moments. Make sure that your writing is legible and neat so that you can access the important numbers and figures to make your synthesis.
So there, that’s all my tips on the actual case solving process. I hope you find this useful and benefit from incorporating it in your casing process. Do let me know your views in the comments section and stay tuned for the next article in the series where I’ll cover the personal interview section of the case interview, another key component in getting the offer.
If you enjoyed this article, do follow Swetha Srinivasan for future editions of the Cracking the Consulting Interview article series. You can also check out my articles on finance and business topics like SPACs, REITs, litigation finance and my cryptocurrency series amongst others. This will greatly help in building your industry knowledge. Also, do take a look at my initiative Cracking the Consulting Interview for case solving sessions and resume reviews.