Four Keys to Cracking the Case Interview

“How should I prepare for a case interview?”

 

For anybody considering a career in management consulting, this question would’ve popped up at one point or another. I’m often asked this question by eager beavers raring to don the consultant suit. As all management consultants will tell you, preparing for a case interview and cracking one can often be different experiences.

 

Here are four keys (because you do need all of them) to cracking the case interview:

 

  1. Define the Problem Situation

 

To be able to define the problem as accurately as possible, call in your listening skills. When in doubt about what you’ve heard, seek clarifications. Your aim will not be to gather deep understanding of the industry in question, but to gain a reasonable appreciation of the critical business decisions that must be made.

 

Once you have assimilated the information, verbalise your understanding of the problem situation. Let the interviewer know that you will be driving the interview from here on; summarize the problem statement and proceed.

 

  1. Solve the Problem

 

Take a minute or two to think through the key issues at hand. Identify at least two and at most five issues for the deep-dive.

 

Now, think aloud. Here’s where the ‘S’ word figures – Structure your analysis of the issues, ideally 3-4 levels deep, not more, based on a flexible framework. Where frameworks are concerned, incorporate them, adapt them, merge them, but do not be constrained by them. Do ensure, however, that your issue tree is mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (MECE). Hypothesise the direction of the solution and begin your analysis of the issues.

 

Bear in mind that you are not only a problem solver but also a presenter all this time. The interviewer needs to ‘hear’ and ‘see’ how you are thinking. Take her along with you in your analysis. Signpost as you pass each step of your journey.

 

Collect evidence for each issue by seeking more information. Where it is unavailable, explain the assumptions you would be making. Be data-driven; correct your course if the information provided is contrary to your hypothesis.

 

  1. Make Recommendations

 

Develop (ideally) more than one solution and provide the ideal scenarios for use of each. Step through the key actions required to execute each solution.

 

  1. Summarize

 

End well. Finish in time, without requiring prompting. Summarise the case problem, what issues you identified, what evidence you collected for your analysis, what your key findings were, and what your key recommendations are.

 

Throughout the interview, remember to stay composed, look confident, and make eye contact. Show strong logic and stick to your guns.

 

Go ace that case!

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A Seven-point Recipe for E-commerce Success

As an avid consumer of e-commerce, I’ve seen how some portals manage to do such a great job of difficult things while others flounder with even simple tasks. Problems occur when e-commerce players focus on the good-to-have items before the must-have items.

Five ‘Must-haves’ (because these are the basics to attract any customer)

  1. Genuine products and pricing

This one is obvious, really, a sine qua non, for any player to last beyond the first sale. The customer is smart enough to realize if he is being duped by fakes. A baby-care e-tailer (not going to name it) got a bad name because the diapers it dispatched were not the genuine stuff. Similarly, inflated prices, even if discounted later, seem like a case of smokes and mirrors – not good for businesses in the long run.

  1. Logical suggestions and reviews

The appearance of a website is one thing but the suggestions that it throws up while the customer is still filling up her cart can do a fantastic job of driving up the margins. The reviews for each product add to the authenticity of the suggestions. @Amazon does a brilliant job here, especially where books are concerned, also tying in one’s search and purchase history while they are at it.

  1. Prominent contact information

This relates to one of my earlier posts. Make it easy for the customer to reach you; flash your contact information so that it is easily visible, ideally at the top of the page. Man your helpdesk with capable people who know your business and products well. @UrbanLadder has put an efficient team, which keeps all product information handy, at the other end of its sales helpline.

  1. Convenient order tracking

Allow the customer to track his order at his convenience. It gives them confidence that their package is actually moving towards them, especially where delivery times are long. @Flipkart details every step, including location of each delivery, on the customer’s account page.

  1. Reliable delivery

Deliver as per the time estimate provided to the customer. Here, the golden rule should be: ‘Under-commit and over-deliver.’ @FirstCry regularly delivers ahead of the delivery times provided, which are already shorter than those of most competitors.

Two ‘Good-to-haves’ (because these can be the differentiators to keep ‘em coming back)

  1. Great cataloguing and search engines

‘Sales’ is really about making it as easy and quick as possible for the customer to make up her mind about purchase. Without the benefit of a convincing personality to make the sale, the biggest tool you have at your disposal is making the product easy to find and come alive in how you describe it. A well-thought out catalogue goes a long way here. @Zivame, the lingerie e-tailer, is easily ahead of not just its direct competitors but also most of the diversified ones. Take a look at the @Zappos search widget and you’ll know what a long distance Indian e-tailers still have to cover.

  1. Easy returns and Fast refunds

A customer who is dissatisfied with the product she received (because of wrong size, wrong colour, wrong fit, damaged product, anything) doesn’t have to become a customer who will never return to your portal… as long as you manage the returns and refunds well. Make it as painless and as devoid of follow-ups for the customer as possible. @Jabong has managed to exploit this opportunity well. I’ve talked about it here.

@Bigbasket, by Innovative Retail Concepts, refunds an additional 50% of the amount of the product to be returned or one found defective, as part of its quality assurance policy.

Get customers not just to come to you but also to come back to you.

Five Things (Not) To Do When Talking To Customers

Economics tells us that buying decisions are a function of price, the intersection of demand and supply, and a willingness to pay. ‘Willingness to pay’ – such a clever term that can encompass so many biases.

Ever decided to buy from one shop rather than another because the shopkeeper at the first talked to you nicely while the one at the second was too curt for comfort? Ceteris paribus, a rational buyer should be indifferent between the two shops, but buyers still do make different choices based on how the seller interacts with the customer.

Large corporations have been able to remove any personality-driven biases in the customer’s mind by having a faceless Customer Service Department (CSD), aka Customer Relations Department (CRD) or Customer Care Department (CCD), do all the talking with customers. Without a face, however, the brand takes a hit if something goes wrong.

Here are five things that a company should do when talking to customers:

#1: Talk to the Customer

It doesn’t get simpler than this. Open up channels for the customer to reach you and make sure that someone with a solid idea of what your business is about is sitting at the internal end of the channel.

On one end of the scale, there’s Zappos, the American e-retailer, which made customer service their raison d’etre and the phone their main channel of communicating with the customer. Zappos removed the ‘script’ from their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) process and allowed its executives to speak to customers for as long as was reasonable to resolve their issues.

On the other end there is Vodafone India, one of the largest providers of telephony in India, which does not want to talk to the customer at all! When you call them, you could press through their endless IVR architecture about eleven times before you find an option where you can speak to a real person only to be told that your waiting time to speak to a Customer Service Executive (CSE) is 26 minutes! Worse still, you actually have to pay for every extra minute beyond a stipulated number that you spend on the phone talking to the CSE. It would seem that Vodafone India’s processes and incentive structure for the CSD are driven by a single metric – the least time spent talking to customers.

#2 Listen to what the customer is saying

Duh! Instead of rattling off a spiel that your CRM Manual proposes, take the time to actually hear what the customer is saying.

Emirates, the international carrier, has possibly trained their CSEs to record the gist of conversations with their customers, especially in cases where issues were not resolved, such that they are able to make it up to them, if not immediately, then in the near future. So, the next time you are flying them after a customer upset, don’t be surprised if your name is suddenly called out at the boarding gate for an upgrade.

HSBC India, the Indian arm of the global bank, could take a leaf out of their book. Whether it is a new product that they want to tell you about or a delayed credit card payment that they want to remind you about, the CSEs will take a good 120 seconds to trundle through your account status before getting to the point. Never mind if the customer has gone to sleep by then.

#3 Empower the CSE

In addition to imparting a solid understanding of the business to the CSE, give her some teeth to actually resolve customer issues.

Hilton, the international hotel chain, has a transparent and speedy escalation mechanism so the front-desk executive can not only make a note of the grievance you bring to his notice but also propose a resolution that is satisfactory to the customer, without seemingly overstepping his authority.

HDFC Bank, the leading Indian bank, however, is a different story. Their so-called Relationship Managers, who change every three odd months (too soon really to be able to form any ‘relationship), are rarely able to answer basic account-related questions, let alone resolve queries without checking with another two levels in the chain of command.

#4 Time cross-selling opportunities cautiously

Ensure that there are no unresolved issues for an existing customer before trying to push more products/ services down her throat.

Jabong, the Indian e-retailer, has done this beautifully and unobtrusively. A hard-nosed e-commerce player, it has refined its website based on surfer clicking patterns, cookies and cataloguing. Their returns policy makes them stand apart from the Amazons and Flipkarts of the industry. A no-questions asked returns policy in almost all cases, effortless reverse pick-ups, Jabong credits (with a year-long validity) for returned items, and fantastic discount schemes for all seasons, keeps customers coming back.

ICICI Securities, the Indian financial services company, on the other hand, has not realised just how many hand-offs they could do without in their customer care routine. Certainly the time when many of the hands in their extra-long chain fail to pick up the load should not be the time for trying to sell an already frustrated customer the latest product that has been launched.

#5 Be fair

It’s far easier to retain a customer than to find a new one (true with any professional relationship, really), so don’t take her for granted.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Uber India, the taxi network company, will charge a customer for a ride that has been cancelled by its driver at will. It is then up to the customer to petition for a reversal of charges.

FirstCry, the baby and child care e-retailer, on the other hand, has made its EZReturns policy so easy and transparent that the refund could come into your account as soon as you disconnect your call to the CSE, much quicker than the goods to be returned will be picked up from your doorstep.

From ‘let the buyer beware’ to ‘real’ customer care…