Asking the right clarifying questions in a case interview is important to start the case interview on the right track. If you don’t ask any clarifying questions, you may misunderstand the case objective, the company, or unfamiliar terminology. This may steer you down the wrong direction in the case interview.
Asking the right clarifying questions can give you critical information needed to solve the case. It can also help you develop a strong hypothesis, which will help you solve the case more easily.
However, if you ask too many clarifying questions, you waste valuable time that could have been spent on solving the case. You may also end up asking questions that are too detailed or not relevant.
So, how many clarifying questions should you ask to start the case interview?
Candidates usually ask 2 – 3 clarifying questions to start the case interview. However, some case interviews will need no clarifying questions while other case interviews may need more than 3. The answer depends on how unclear the case background information is.
A sign from the interviewer that you have likely asked too many questions is if they respond to your question by saying:
- “We don’t know”
- “We’ll see later on”
- “This is not relevant”
So, what are the right clarifying questions to ask to start a case interview?
There are four types of questions you should ask at the beginning of a case interview:
- Asking for questions that clarify the objective of the case interview
- Asking for information that strengthens your understanding of the company
- Asking for a definition of a term you are unfamiliar with
- Asking to repeat information you may have missed
Asking Questions that Clarify the Objective of the Case
During a case interview, you want to ensure that you are addressing the right business objective. Addressing the wrong business objective is the quickest way to fail a case interview.
Therefore, you want to make sure you fully understand what the exact objective of the case is. There are three things you should know about the case objective:
- What is the measurable metric of success?
- What is the time frame?
- What are potential restrictions or limitations?
For example, let’s say that you are working with a retail client that is looking to increase revenues.
You should ask what is the specific revenue figure that the client is trying to reach. You should also ask what timeframe the client would like to achieve this revenue increase by. Finally, you could also ask whether the client is open to inorganic growth, such as growth through acquisitions, or if they are only focused on organic growth.
Asking for Information About the Company
The better you understand the company, the better you will be able to think through and solve their problems. At a minimum, you should understand the company’s:
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?
Asking for a Definition of an Unfamiliar Term
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.
Most of the time, interviewers will define terminology or lingo that the average person would not know. However, they sometimes forget to do this.
If the interviewer has been frequently using a term that you don’t understand, it is likely very important that you understand what that term means.
For example, you may not know what CAGR stands for (compounded annual growth rate) or what POA stands for (plan of action).
Asking to Repeat Information You May Have Missed
The amount of case background information that you get varies from case to case. For case interviews in which you get a ton of case background information, it may be difficult to record every piece of information given.
Was there a particular number or figure that you didn’t have time to write down? Were there long lists that you only caught a part of?
It is completely acceptable to ask the interviewer to repeat certain parts of the case background information that you may have missed.
Example of Clarifying Questions to Ask in a Case Interview
Example: Let’s say that the interviewer gives you the following case background information.
“Nature Company makes several varieties of sweet jams, such as apricot, peach, and strawberry jams. They grow their own produce and process them in their own factories, all in the US. These jams are sold to boutique and high-end supermarkets across the US, where consumers purchase and use them as spreads for toast, sandwiches, or desserts. Nature Company had $500M in revenue last year.
Nature Company is considering expanding their product line by planting peanuts in South America and entering the peanut butter market. Should they enter the peanut butter market?”
Great Clarifying Questions to Ask
I’m not familiar with the term “boutique supermarket.” Can you explain what those are?
It is helpful to clarify what this term means so that you better understand who the client’s customers are.
Is there a reason why Nature Company has decided to grow peanuts in South America and not in the U.S.?
This question is helpful in understanding the company better. It is unusual that they are entering South America if all of their current operations is in the United States. It will be helpful to understand the context behind this decision in order to understand the company’s circumstances better.
Does Nature Company have specific financial targets or timelines in mind for this market entry?
You should always identify the specific measure of success for the case objective. Determine if there is a specific number that needs to be reached within a defined timeframe.
I missed one figure you provided. Can you repeat how much revenue Nature Company made last year?
Knowing the client’s revenue will likely be important in order to see how much revenues would increase by if the client entered the market. It is completely acceptable to make a request to repeat a specific piece of information.
Poor Clarifying Questions to Ask:
Has Nature Company considered selling their jams directly to the consumer?
This question is not relevant to the case. How the client chooses to sell their product to customers is not related to whether they should enter the peanut butter market. Getting the answer to this question does not help you solve the case.
Do you think the peanut butter market is attractive?
This question is too direct in asking the interviewer for the answer to the case. To solve this case, it is up to you to determine whether the peanut butter market is attractive. You should not ask the interviewer for the answer without doing the thinking yourself.
If Nature Company were to enter the peanut butter market, where would they get their peanut seeds from?
This question is too specific and not relevant. It is a question focused on tactical implementation rather than on strategy. Before asking where the client would get their peanut seeds from, you would first need to determine whether the peanut butter market is attractive and whether the client should even enter.
Can you repeat everything you said one more time?
While it is acceptable to ask the interviewer to repeat specific pieces of information, asking the interviewer to repeat everything is a poor practice. This shows that you are not paying close enough attention.
Final Thoughts on Asking Clarifying Questions
In summary, only ask clarifying questions if they are critical to helping you understand and solve the case. You’ll always have opportunities to ask questions during the case interview, so you don’t need to ask all your questions in the beginning.
Also don’t feel that you are required to ask 2 – 3 clarifying questions to start the case interview. Often, interviewers will try to make the case background information as detailed and clear as they can to avoid any confusion. If you don’t ask any clarifying questions, know that you won’t be penalized.
Creating a structured framework and solving the case are much more important than the clarifying questions that you ask in the beginning. So, don’t spend too much time worrying about the best clarifying questions to ask in a case interview.
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