Doing consulting interviews over the phone or video conference is NOT the same as doing them in person.
So, how should you prepare if you know your interview won’t be in-person?
As I write this, the Coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe. Flights are cancelled, countries closed their borders and companies have sent people to their home offices.
But, of course, nothing really stops. The world keeps going.
This means that, for who knows how long, consulting firms will do their recruiting interviews remotely more and more.
Instead of inviting you to their offices (sometimes even flying you across the country for that), they’ll ask you to join them through a video conference (Skype, Zoom, etc.) or even through the phone.
This raises the question: how to do better remote interviews?
Specifically, how can you be successful at remote case interviews?
Case interviews are tough to do over video or the phone because you’re actually solving a problem with the interviewer (instead of simply telling a story about yourself as in other job interviews).
There’s much more rigor involved, and rigor asks for clarity — which is harder to get without the in-person element.
There are three key differences between doing an in-person interview and doing one over video conferencing or over the phone:
- The technical elements involved (audio, video, etc.)
- The need to communicate differently (the interviewer can’t see your paper)
- The extra challenge at connecting with your interviewer
In this short article, I’ll show you exactly how to overcome these three obstacles.
By its end, you’ll know exactly what to do so you don’t blow your chances of getting a top consulting job because of a damn virus (or an unreliable internet connection).
Let’s start with what is (surprisingly) the most important one: the technical elements.
How to make your audio and video professional (without any professional equipment)
If you read stuff on the internet on video interviews, they’ll tell you that the video and audio don’t really matter.
And if you ask a consulting firm’s HR about this, they’ll probably tell you not to worry about it.
Frankly, this is all bullshit.
While you certainly don’t need any professional equipment or special setup to do a remote job interview, if you look like a teenager streaming games at Twitch that may hurt you indeed.
Also, if they have an hour to interview you and your internet connection drops all the time, that’s obviously not gonna help.
Will interviewers try to “filter out” this technical noise from their perception of you? Maybe.
Can they actually do this? Given that they’re humans, probably not.
How polished audio and video can give you an advantage in remote interviews (without giving you more work)
- They’ll always be on time for critical meetings (and may fly in a day early to ensure that as flights can delay).
- They’ll always have back-up documents (even if there’s only a 1% chance of them being needed in a specific meeting).
- They’ll format their spreadsheets and slides meticulously before showing them to the client (even for “work-in-progress” documents).
- Their clients are C-Level executives who are used to (and expect) a different level of professionalism than most people.
- If you pay a million dollars for a project, you expect that level of polish — even if you’re not really used to it.
- Consulting firms heavily depend on their reputation and brand, and those things are built and maintained through those small actions.
Step 1: Ensure a good environment and internet connection
This is obvious, and it should sound obvious to you.
Still, it’s where most people mess up. They just pick the first place that comes to mind and count on luck for the internet there to work.
Yet, it’s hard to have a good internet if you’re in a noisy place, full of distractions and with shitty internet.
It’s gonna suck for you AND for your interviewer.
So, the first thing you should do is to:
Find a place with a fast, stable internet connection that is NOT NOISY, with FEW DISTRACTIONS and NOT MESSY.
This is the single most important thing in this article (and probably the most overlooked as well).
Anyone who’s ever worked from home knows how critical having a good place to work (or do calls from) is. If you’ve never worked from home, trust me on this.
Then, there’s the second thing you should do:
Have a back-up internet connection with you.
For most people this is their phone’s 4G (which also doubles as a “third connection” — you could just call your interviewer if both connections are bad for some reason).
Think of this as “interview insurance”.
Finally, a third tip for you:
Reboot your computer before your interview.
If you’re like me you have 20 apps and 40 tabs opened. This sucks the speed out of your computer, which makes your video laggy. This feels the same as a bad internet connection and could destroy the experience of the interview.
So, go ahead and brainstorm 3-5 places you could do your next interview from and pick the best one.
Now you’re ready for great audio and video…
Step 2: Get great audio in less than 30 seconds
So, back when Julio and I started making videos for Crafting Cases, we had to learn the fundamentals of audio quality.
(In fact, if you watch some of our older videos, you’ll see that the quality isn’t great).
We wanted an easy way to get great audio without having to set up a studio.
And so we watched a hundred Youtube videos and tested everything: different types of microphones (including some very expensive ones), audio software, etc.
Only two things really matter: a low noise environment and having your microphone close to your mouth or throat.
In fact, we discovered that a cheap mic close to you has way better sound than a very expensive mic a foot away (unless it’s a mic designed for that, but those cost hundreds of dollars).
Well, guess what? When you’re doing a call, your laptop’s about a foot away from you.
Get a pair of earphones with mics and use those in your interview.
Those that come with your smartphone are fine. I recommend wired earphones so you don’t have to deal with a battery problem.
Airpods’ bateries last just below two hours when you’re talking as well as listening, so they’re fine if you have just one interview, but risky if you have two or more back-to-back interviews.
And avoid large headphones – you don’t want to look like a gamer.
Step 3: Minimum Viable Video
Video quality is way less important than audio, and it’s gonna be mainly driven by the quality of your internet connection anyway.
Still, there are two things you can do to easily boost your video quality (which helps your interviewer get a better sense of who you are because now they can actually see your face).
Thing #1) Have a light source in front of you (and never behind your head).
Your laptop camera is a good camera as long as it has enough light to “see” you.
So, the best place to sit is with a window in front of you.
The second best place is somewhere with no windows and with a lamp (or a cheap LED ring light) in front of you.
And by all means, NEVER have a window on your back. This will mess up your camera’s automatic contrast settings and your interviewer will feel like he’s talking to a thug.
Thing #2) Have a stack of books below your laptop so you can look straight into your camera.
This is a minor tweak, but if you have a stack of books beneath your laptop, you’ll be able to have its screen aligned at 90 degrees with your table, and you’ll be able to look straight into it (and not down).
It’s a small tweak that makes you look more professional and confident.
How to communicate well in a video or phone case interview
When you’re doing your interview over video or phone, one critical thing changes: your interviewer can’t see your piece of paper well.
They won’t be able to see your issue trees, frameworks and equations.
Thus, they’ll need to understand your whole logic purely by what you say and how you say it.
Needless to say, this makes communication 2X harder.
Still, candidates are making it work, and interviewers are giving offers to people who can communicate in this “remote-interview-friendly” way.
Check out this email I got from a candidate recently:
Notice how specific Marina was in her communication: she got to the point of telling the McKinsey partners where she was drawing her columns in her paper.
And guess what?
They loved it!
Or at least liked it enough to give her an offer even though we’re going through some troubled times.
Another example… Take a look at this email:
This candidate’s communication was so good that most interviewers didn’t even bother asking him to show it to them — and they gave him the offer too!
In other words: in remote interviews, communication is key.
So, here are three habits for you to make your communication better:
Communication habit #1: Train yourself to always speak EXPLICITLY about what you're doing
Here’s what most people do when solving cases:
They first draw their structure, then they present it to their interviewer…
Finally, as they use their structure throughout the case, they’ll say things like “let’s move on to the second bucket”, or “now I think my third hypothesis should be tested”.
This works fine in in-person interviews because the interviewer can see your second bucket, or third hypothesis right in front of them (it’s written in your papers).
If you use this type of language over the phone or video, though, you’re in trouble.
It’ll be very hard for them to understand and/or remember what you mean by “second bucket”, or “third hypothesis”. They’ll either try to follow on and may confuse what you’re saying, or interrupt you all the time.
The reason why it’s so hard is because you’re using implicit language. You’re implying they will remember it and know what you’re talking about.
Instead, you should use 100% explicit language.
Instead of “let’s move on to the second bucket”, say “let’s move on to the second bucket, which is on ‘how to improve Customer Satisfaction’“.
Instead of “now I think my third hypothesis should be tested”, say “now my third hypothesis, which is that ‘the affluent segment of customers will demand a higher level of service than the mass market’ should be tested”.
While this way of speaking is a bit awkward at first (we’re not used to use it in everyday language) and it does take a little bit more time to speak (which is why we don’t normally speak this way), it removes 100% of the uncertainty.
It makes you sound an extremely clear communicator, and someone who’s conscious about the listener while speaking.
The best part? All other candidates that interviewer has interviewed that day sounded confusing and your interviewer felt lost.
They’re going to be hooked on you because of this contrast.
So, how do you train yourself to speak 100% explicit language?
Simple: set up mock-interviews with other candidates via Skype, Zoom or some other video conferencing software from now on…
… Then ask them to call you out every time they feel even a little bit lost.
Keep adjusting (i.e. making more clear and explicit) your communication as you get feedback until your case partners can almost “see” you navigating through your structures and issue trees.
(They might even say you’re TOO explicit — that’s a good sign in this situation because their mental benchmark is for in-person interviews, not remote interviews.)
By the way, training this won’t hurt you in live, in-person interviews.
Most candidates aren’t clear enough when communicating in real interviews, so while speaking this way is a requirement for video/audio interviews, it’s a good practice in in-person as well.
If you’re the one person who is 100% clear, deliberate and structured as you speak, you’re gonna create a lasting impression as the one your interviewers want to work with.
Communication habit #2: Improve your habit of creating numbered lists
You should always declare the number of items in a list (of buckets, of issues, of hypotheses) before you start saying the list in a case interview.
Now it’s even more important to nail this habit down.
So, instead of saying:
“Here’s my framework. The first place I want to look at is if ‘customers are demanding new products in the market’, the second thing is our ‘competitors new product pipeline’, the third thing…”
Start saying this:
“Here’s my framework. I have four main buckets I want to look at. The first one is if ‘customers are demanding new products in the market’, the second, our ‘competitors new product pipeline’, the third…”
It’s a small change, but it has a dramatic effect: when you say the number of items in a list, your interviewer can immediately picture that and know what to expect.
This works at all levels of the case…
Within a bucket, you want to say how many hypotheses there are before you start mentioning the hypotheses.
Within a quantitative analysis, you want to say how many variables there are, then say the relationship between the variables, then solve the equation.
Essentially, what you want to do is to NARRATE EVERYTHING to your interviewer, as if you were describing a MAP of what you’re doing.
Even when interpreting a chart, for instance, you want to say where you’re looking at the chart first (e.g. “I’m looking at the top-right quadrant”), then say the insights you get from that region of the chart.
In a real case interview, one subtle thing interviewers do is to look at where you’re looking to judge what you’re saying.
In-person, they naturally understand how large your framework is, or if you didn’t yet look at a specific table that came with the chart. They will take that context into consideration when evaluating your problem-solving skills.
In remote interviews they don’t have that context. You must compensate that by narrating/mapping it to them.
Communication habit #3: Send them a picture
I’ve never tested this one personally, but it’s something I’d do if I were interviewing right now.
You can offer to quickly send them a picture of your initial structure once you’ve structured the case.
Say something like:
“Would you like me to send you a picture of my structure so you can follow my thoughts better? It will take 30 seconds or so.”
Then send them via email or the video conference software they’re using.
If they like this idea and say yes, they’ll understand you better.
If they don’t, they’ll probably still appreciate your care and creativity.
It’s hard to think of a scenario where you lose points by doing this (besides sending them a bad structure, but then you’d be in trouble anyway), but as I said… I’ve never personally done it.
So, if you do it and they love it (or hate it), send me an email telling me about their reaction and how it worked out for you.
How to create a human connection over video or phone
Almost every candidate I talk to really wants to create that human connection with their interviewer.
They think this is what will help them differentiate them from other candidates — a magical spark between their personality and their interviewer’s.
Interviewers are human, so this certainly helps…
But most people count too much on it (in other words, they count too much on luck) and too little in actual competence in solving the problems.
Still, if you’re well prepared for your cases and fit interviews, and you have a remote interview, it may make sense to spend a bit of time making sure your interviewer still feels you’re a human being even though you’re not in front of them.
So, I’ll show you three specific tips to create a good connection between you and your interviewer over video conferences.
But to do that, I’ll have to show you counterintuitive Rule #1 first.
Counterintuitive Rule #1: Don't try too hard.
I’ve once coached a candidate who was obsessed with bonding with his interviewers.
He got unlucky, though.
His first McKinsey Final Round interview was with an interviewer who couldn’t care less about having a human connection. His interviewer was one of those guys who not only put competence first, he put competence as the only thing that mattered.
The problem is: my ex-client tried to connect with his interviewer in many different ways throughout the interview (smiling, finding something in common, etc.).
His interviewer saw those attitudes as unnecessary deviations from him solving the case problem.
To him, those deviations were problematic… He had limited time, how could he solve the problem the best way possible if his interest was doing small talk?
He failed that interview because he tried to do something that’s usually deemed to be “good”.
(This was in an in-person interview, by the way, but it’s a fascinating lesson anyway.)
I always tell that story to remind people that trying to creating a human connection with your interviewer is a nice-to-have but shouldn’t be something forced.
Especially if your interviewer is not a people’s person.
This effect of trying to hard can be even more harmful in interviews that are not in-person.
Here’s the reason: why candidates know it’s harder to create that human connection they want so much and so they get anxious to achieve that.
But you shouldn’t be concerned with that. Your interviewer KNOWS it’s harder to connect via video, and they mainly want to see if you’re competent to solve problems (and that you’re not a jerk, the famous airport test).
Trying too hard may in fact destroy your chances of creating the human connection and it will take your attention off the case.
That said, here are three things you can do.
Thing #1: Present yourself as if you were in the office
Thing #2: Don't skip the small talk, greetings and smiles, but don't overdo it
You’re aiming for exactly as much small talk, greetings, smiles and politeness as if you were in the office.
Not more, not less.
The hard part is that most people in the world treat video conferences in one of these two opposing ways:
People Type #1) Those who go straight to the point because they’re all business and they’re not even with a person in front of them anyway.
People Type #2) Those who try to overcompensate the fact that they’re virtual and do too much small talk.
Try to do as much as you would with a real person.
If that’s hard for you to do, get a cup of coffee or tea before the interview and tell your interviewer that you love that specific brand so you brewed some for the interview.
For some reason humans are wired to like people who comment on the drink they’re drinking — just leave the beer or wine for when you get the offer 🙂 .
Thing #3: Craft a great "end of interview" question that's focused on your interviewer's interests
Most interviewers will let you ask any questions you want at the last 5 minutes of your interview.
This isn’t just a convenient way to solve your curiosities regarding the firms or the career, it is also and opportunity for them to see:
- How much you care about consulting.
- How informed and insightful you are in asking questions about something that interests you.
- Your ability to ask great follow-up questions.
I talk more about why they have this part of the interview and how to craft great questions for it in this article.
There is one particular spin your question could have (that I mention in the article) which is questions that ask about one particular topic (e.g. how career growth works in this firm) with your interviewer’s personal experience.
For instance, you could ask: “I’m curious how was your career trajectory here in the firm — I ask that to get a sense of how real careers here are and how they’re different from the typical archetypes we see on the brochures”.
Two reasons why this type of question work:
(1) It’s and interesting question that you can’t find the answer for anywhere but from your interviewer.
(2) People LOVE talking about their own stories.
Any question that you ask your interviewer that’s related to their own story will create a stronger connection than other types of questions.
So I recommend you use one of these in your remote interviews.
Remote interviews aren’t hard, nor are they really harder than in-person interviews.
They’re just different.
And because most people won’t prepare for them, they seem harder. Yet, if you’re one of the only people who HAS prepared for them, that gives you a natural advantage.
So I decided to finish this article with a quick “minimum viable preparation” checklist for you to set yourself up to success in video and phone case interviews in less than 10 minutes:
- Take 5 minutes to test your “interview technical setup”. Find a place in your house with great lighting, low distractions and low noise. Test your camera and microphone there. Also run an internet connection test by using a test or calling a friend (Google’s internet speed test is good — check the upload data). Test your 4G in that part of the house as well
- Create a “technical checklist” to use before every remote interview you have. Use the guidelines from the first section of this article to create it.
- Create your own “communication improvement checklist”. Go back to the “communication” section of this article and re-read it creating a small 2-3 point checklist of communication habits you want to incorporate in a post-it note. Have it by your side in the next 5-10 cases you do over the web and track your improvement.
- Craft a good, interviewer-centric “end of interview question”. This is the highest leverage action you can do upfront to have a better “human connection with your interviewer. Use the guidelines from our article on end of interview questions to do that.