Consulting Interview: A guided conversation

Why is interviewing an important skill for consultants?

  • It’s the information in our heads that is critical to most management consulting – assumptions, forecasts, beliefs, opinions, judgements, fears, values, culture, expectations, motivation, insights. Even if you are a subject expect, every organisation and situation is unique – you need to hear from the people involved
  • In many McKinsey studies the key insights come from interviews, some are mostly driven by interviews. Every interview has both informational and relationship-building role. It can also start engaging the client in solutions
  • Interviews are about depth not breadth. They are not intended to be statistically significant, they are to get to deeper layers on the problem – the presenting problem, how others contribute, how the interviewee contributes
  • Consultants can contribute to their client’s understanding through good interviews – a consultant can ask questions the client’s managers cannot:
      • Inside the Client – from CEO to tealady
      • Outside the client – Customers, industry experts, partners, government, competitors

Getting the interview

  • Interviews are time consuming, so be proactive – plan who you want to interview from your issue tree:
    • What information are you looking for?
    • Who is likely to have that information?
    • What else can you ask them about?
    • What is the best way to approach them?
  • Be honest when setting the interview up – say who you are and what the general purpose of the interview is
  • Be confident (and persistent!) – people are more willing than you think. Don’t talk yourself out of it before you even ask! Start aim for the best interviewees and only compromise when it is clear you will not be able to interview the best
  • Try to find some value for the interviewee. This could be as little as sharing your notes afterwards, all the way up to sharing a sanitised version of the project findings.
  • Best way – Ask your client to set it up! They have the relationships. If you have to operate on your own, practice basic networking skills
    • Chatting up assistants
    • Ask everyone you interview to suggest 2 other people to talk to, so your network expands
  • Be exact in the logistics – when, where and who will make the call. For face-to-face interviews, their office is best location. Data is immediately to hand, they are most comfortable, they can introduce you to additional contacts personally, they are likely to give you more time (harder to run away!)

Preparing for the Interview

  • Prepare for the interview as if it is your ONLY chance to speak to this person, so you want to invest the time to make sure you ask all your important questions.
  • Write down what you want to get from the interview – be intentional. What is the balance of information gathering vs relationship building? What questions/issues from your issue tree are you looking to answer in the interview?
  • Do your homework first! Don’t use your valuable interview time to ask questions that you can find answers to in other ways (unless they are your warm-up ones). Research the interviewee and their company – and show that you have done your homework in the interview. You will get more respect
  • Don’t rely on memory! Take notes. Or use a recorder – mp3, but ask permission first
  • If possible interview in pairs. One leads, the other takes notes and asks supporting questions

Writing an Interview Guide

OK, so you can “wing it” in an interview, but you will look much more professional and get more value from it if you invest the time to prepare a good interview guide. The interview guide approach provides more focus than a free-wheeling conversation, but still allows a degree of freedom and adaptability in getting information from the interviewee.

When you are a highly skilled interviewer, you may be able to deliver a good interview without a guide. Until then, write a guide for every interview, even if it is just a list of questions. You appear professional, it ensures you cover the key points – you may only get one shot at speaking to this person.

A good Interview Guide will have:

1) Reference data (Date, Location, Interviewee, Interviewer)

2) Introduction

  • Introduce yourself and the purpose of the interview
  • Thank the interviewee for their time
  • What’s in it for the interviewee? Anything you can offer – e.g. send you a copy of our report if non-confidential, or even just a copy of the interview note
  • Confidentiality promise – who will this interview be shared with?
  • Confirm how much time the interview will take
  • Any questions before we start?

3) A list of good questions

  • Wording should be open-ended. Respondents should be able to choose their own terms when answering questions. Ask questions which allow the interviewee to expand. Avoid questions that can be answered “yes” or “no”
  • Questions should be asked one at a time; avoid composite, multi-faceted questions
  • Questions should be as neutral as possible. Avoid wording that might influence answers, e.g., emotional, judgmental wording. Phrase your questions so that the desired or “right” answer is not apparent to the applicant. Listen don’t lead. Don’t answer your own questions – don’t try to look smart! Don’t try to bully your interviewee into agreeing with your hypothesis! Can test your hypotheses by asking about them – neutrally!
  • “Why” questions are very important, but handle them carefully. This type of question infers a cause-effect relationship that may not truly exist. These questions may also cause respondents to feel defensive, e.g., that they have to justify their response
  • Prepare twice as many questions as you will have time for – know which ones are easy ice-breakers, which are essential ones you must ask even if time is short, which you can supplement with if the interviewee has more time

4) Close

  • Confirm the key points that came out from the interview
  • Close with an open question (e.g. “Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you think is important?”) Don’t forget this – the most useful insights can come from this question because the interviewee is more relaxed and in control
  • Open networking question (e.g. “Can you think of anyone else I should speak to?”)
  • Leave the door open (e.g. “Is it OK to call you if there is something I missed?”)
  • Thank the interviewee for their time

Types of question in an interview

Permission.Permission questions demonstrate concern for the other party. They are used at the beginning of the interview to put the other person at ease “Are there any questions you have before we begin the interview?” or “Can I check the time – that you have 30 minutes for this interview?”

Factual. Factual questions are low-risk attempts to obtain objective data from the interviewee “What are your responsibilities in the company?” You may want to use these early in the interview as easy low-risk warm-up questions

Tell Me About. They ask the interviewee to describe their past experience “Tell me how that decision was reached?”

Tell Me More. These questions are used as follow-up to any of the other kinds of questions “Can you be more specific?

Feeling. Feeling questions are designed to obtain subjective data on the other party’s feelings, values and beliefs “How did you feel when the company announced that?”. You may want type of questions later in the interview after you have built up rapport

Speculative. Speculative questions are about the future. They ask the interviewee for their judgement and assumptions – important to identifying solutions “If we had to start from a blank page, what would you do?”

Checking. Checking questions allow you to make sure you understand the other person’s answer. They are useful at any point in the interview but most useful at the end to help you confirm your key points “As I understand it, you think the problem is this. Is that right?”

Conducting the interview

Remember an interview is a “guided conversation”. The consultant needs to ask questions to guide the conversation, but should allow the interviewee to do 80% of the talking.

Establish rapport

  •  First impressions count – your first 15 seconds determine how people react to you. Be on time – basic respect. If a call, call at exactly the time agreed. Be professional and respectful, lay the groundwork for trust
  • Explain the purpose of the interview; check confidentiality and permission to record
  • Practice active listening
    • Paraphrase and summarise their points to check you understand
    • Ask follow up and build questions: ask the person to tell you more, to give more details.
    • Make it clear that you are listening and interested in what the person is saying by using verbal placeholders such as “yes” and “I see”
    • If the interviewee doesn’t respond right away to a question, wait. Give them time, while you add to your notes. Be comfortable with silence. Don’t rush to fill it.
    • Rapport is 80% about body language. E.g. lean slightly forward, nod occasionally to let the applicant know you are listening, make eye contact frequently
    • Be interested and curious – people know when you don’t care
    • Establish a professional and relaxed atmosphere. Whatever the seniority of the person you are interviewing, try to speak on an equal-to-equal basis with respect and interest
  • Before asking about controversial matters (such as feelings and conclusions), first ask about some facts or easy questions. With this approach, respondents can more easily engage in the interview and you can establish rapport before the difficult questions
  • The easiest way to put yourself in the right mindset is to assume rapport already exists!

The Meat of the interview

  • Let the conversation flow naturally
    • Provide transitions between major topics, e.g., “we’ve been talking about (some topic) and now I’d like to move on to (another topic).” Balance natural conversational flow with getting the job done
    • Intersperse fact-based questions throughout the interview to avoid long lists of fact-based questions, which tends to leave respondents disengaged
    • Be sensitive – It is an interview, not an interrogation. Don’t ask for too much or press too hard. Build rapport before asking the tough questions
  • Be flexible!
    • Don’t stick rigidly to your interview guide. Listen to what the interviewee is saying and follow-up on any interesting avenues that are relevant to your project!
    • Be prepared to reword a question or come at a critical topic from another direction. Be persistent! If you can’t get what you need, politely terminate the interview. You will build more trust that way than you both mechanically go through the motions
  • Watch the time. Let the interviewee run if you are getting useful information, otherwise politely redirect to get back on topic. Make sure you ask your most important questions, even if you have to abandon the others
  • Ask questions about the present before questions about the past or future. It’s usually easier for them to talk about the present and then work into the past or future
  • Don’t judge. Attempt to remain as neutral as possible. That is, don’t show strong emotional reactions to their responses
  • Ask permission to run over time; it is usually ruder to run over your promised time than to interrupt politely and redirect

After the interview

  • Don’t rely on your memory! Make sure you have captured key figures and any direct quotes you can use! Check and supplement your notes immediately – you forget things fast.
  • Write-up interview notes properly within 24 hours – to share with team, not hoard information.
  • Use Pyramid Principle to write-up the notes – don’t waste time writing up every detail! Start with summary of key points, then expand on each. Make sure you log all useful quotes and key numbers.
  • After taking time from someone’s day for an interview, it is appropriate to write the person a polite and professional thank-you note or e-mail, and share anything you have promised with them. Sending them your interview notes has many advantages
    • They can check your understanding and figures
    • You will look professional
    • The note may be valuable to them, and they are more likely to spend time with you again

Using interviews to build client engagement

Remember the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle:

“the act of observing something changes the observed”

Be aware that your client interviews have the potential to impact how engaged your client is in your project

  • Approach every client interview as an opportunity to generate interest and commitment to your consulting project
  •  Your questions alone will stimulate their thinking in the direction of your question. “Don’t think of blue elephants” – what popped into your head?
  • Your questions also tell them what you think is important, and start them speculating. This can work to your disadvantage – if your client is worried about possible job losses, you can cause major problems with insensitive interviews.



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