How consultants interview clients

Interview notesThis week my team interviewed more than 20 people, everyone from VPs down to the analysts and clerks.  The interviews were a gold mine of insights – especially since we were still in the early days of the project and collecting data.  My throat was killing me, but these interviews helped us get our bearings on the client’s business, the personalities, and the politics.  Every consulting project has interviews and here are my top interviewing tips:

1. Be prepared. It’s no different than if you were going to a job interview for yourself.  Do the research.  Know the audience.  It’s painful to watch a consultant lose credibility when he asks questions that can be answered by the FAQ page of the company’s website:

  • What are the company’s key products, customers, competitors?
  • What is the title, background of the interviewee?
  • Where does the interviewee’s function sit within the larger organization?
  • What the 3 most important events (ERP launch, acquisition) in the last 12 months?

Management consultants usually create interview guides.  It helps the consultant prepare for the interview, but it also forces them to organize their thoughts.  It is usually a simple list of well-organized questions.  It’s good practice for analysts.

2. Build rapport quickly. This is a core skill of any management consultant.  It comes easier to some than others, but the idea is simple – build a connection with the interviewee so he is comfortable opening up and speaking frankly.  It is nothing new.  All the things you would find in How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie:

  • Be personable and attractive (more on this later)
  • Find a connection (look around the office)
  • Describe the objective of interview
  • Respect the interviewee’s time and space

If this is an area you would like to improve, practice.  Seems odd, but sales and business development people were not all born that way.  It takes a lot of emotional intelligence.  Everyone’s is different, but there is a lot you can learn by watching partners and senior managers.  Be authentic, but inviting.  Be willing to share details about yourself – it is disarming and makes you more human.  Be self-deprecating, when appropriate.

3. Ask open-ended questions.  The first few questions should be open-ended.  Let the interviewee say what she wants to say.  See where the conversation takes you.

  • “Why do you think there has been a problem with XYZ?”
  • “What are some changes you would like to see?”

4. Hone in on the details.  Like a detective, once you hear something promising – either a surprising fact, or confirmation of your hypothesis - ask follow-up questions:

  • “Would long would you say that XYZ process takes you?”
  • “How often does that happen each week?”

For consultants, it is not enough to get a laundry list of problems (client will say, “yeah, I knew that already”).  Nudge the interviewee to give numbers or estimates that provide more detail and context.  If you hear of a report, or presentation that has the information – get a copy of it right then or get it sent by email (perfect time for business cards).

5. Transition between topics.   This is where the art comes in.  Junior analysts have a tendency to run down the interview list, as if they were calling off BINGO numbers.  This can be unnerving to the interviewee, and also a bit dogmatic.  The trick is to create a conversational tone while listening to the interviewee’s answer (while also writing down notes), and also making smooth transitions between the topics:

  • “Sure, that makes sense.  Would you say that XYZ is the main reason for that?”
  • “Has it always been that way?  Has anything changed organizationally?”
  • “Understood.  Does it make sense to take a look at costs next?”

Thinking back to our high-school prep days, my English professor would constantly point out that my essays did not have transitions between the paragraphs.  It is as if I would talk about A, then B, and C. . . but there was no stitching between the topics.

The goal is to stitch together as much of the interview as possible and create a narrative to keep the conversation going.  Refer to things already said in the first half of the interview.  Refer to similar comments made from other interviewees (no names).  If the interviewee feels that you really listened to what they said, you are getting buy-in for your recommendation as you go.   If the interviewee feels like you just stormed in and made them answer 20 questions, you have just created a skeptic, and perhaps an unfriendly.

6. Earn the right to continue with the interview. An interview should be a conversation, not an interrogation.  While it might be slightly more efficient to just blaze down the list of questions, I would argue that the interviewee will get more defensive, and just give you short, one sentence answers.  You will be winning the battle, but not the war.  With each set of questions, your demeanor, confidence, and empathy will determine whether you are earning the right to continue the interview.  This will become quickly apparent by the interviewee.  Either they remain engaged and feel interview was worth the time, or they start to mentally check out (checking their watch, rolling their eyes, tapping their fingers, itching to leave)

Relevance to Case Interviews:This is where many MBAs do poorly in case interviews.  MBAs know the basics of business problems, structure their thinking well, and even can do market sizing (read: # of meter maids in NYC) in their head.   What they do poorly with is keeping the interview conversational and building rapport.

The BCG / Accenture / Bain interviewer is asking herself, could this MBA effectively handle an interview with a super-jaded, war-horse of  interviewee?  How would this kid fare against a 57 year-old who has been doing Materials Management for the last 20 years?  A lot of this has to do with emotional intelligence and keeping the interview conversational.

What if #1: Interviewee is scared.  This happens.  There are all kinds of projects, and sadly, some of them end with organizational changes, layoffs or worse.  It helps to:

  • Confirm that you will be speaking with a lot people, not just him
  • Ensure confidentiality of comments (and be sure to keep your word)
  • “Prime the pump” by offering up some of the comments from other interviews
  • Focus the conversation on the existing process (less on the solution)

What if #2: Interviewee is rude or a jerk.  Here you need to make a determination pretty quickly what you want to get out of the situation.  First, be deferential and offer to re-schedule the appointment (we all have some bad days).  Figure out if it is a credibility issue because she/he thinks all consultants are full of crap – in which case you may need to do some name dropping of the executive sponsor and also refer to projects you have done in the past.   If they are a hater (some exist), then just ask open-ended questions and listen.  Let them vent, and at least you can say that you fielded their opinion.

What if #3: Too many interviewers.  This happened on Tuesday.  There were 4 consultants interviewing 3 people.  In order to keep from tripping over ourselves, and having the conversation go in 12 directions, we had a lead interviewer.

What if #4: No more questions to ask. Wrap up the interview, summarize some of the comments, and end early.  Always ask “Is there anything I did not cover, that you might think it relevant to this issue?” It is a freebie question.

What if #5: Cannot remember what was said.  This is why it is critical to write up the interview notes as soon as possible, and have them passed to other people who were in the interview.  They can layer on comments, and hopefully, little detail will be lost.

It’s also a good habit to ask permission to reach out to the interviewee again – if additional questions come up.  Get their business card and don’t hesitate sending a thank you follow up email, if you believe it is appropriate.

What if #6: Not a good place to interview.  No such thing.  I have interviewed people in board rooms, hospital exam rooms, warehouses, airports, and sadly, utility closets.

Consultants are in the business of asking good questions.  We conduct interviews on every project – without fail.  People want to be heard.  It is also a chance to socialize some of the recommendations.  It is like the wisdom of the crowds. . . after hearing the diverse opinions of people through interviews, you will have a better recommendation.

Once, a partner told me, “If you tell the client what they told you, they think you’re brilliant.” Very cynical, but also very true.

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2 thoughts on “How consultants interview clients

  1. Interesting material. I’ve just been conducting interviews/ surveys concerning school programming myself and I have to say that your notes are spot-on and well-taken. Although I have to refute your last point, #6 as location can mightily affect interview outcomes if sensitive material might be revealed in the presence of superiors or colleagues. I don’t have any steadfast rules of thumb but it is certainly something to keep in mind when choosing a location to carry out an interview if candid conversation is to be facilitated.

    • Doug,

      Completely agree with everything you mentioned. Seems to be especially true if you want the interviews to have the same questions, interviewees from the same population, and are trying to drive some statistical significance across multiple samples. Thanks for that feedback.

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