I recently received an email from a reader about being rejected by Boston Consulting Group and how he could have better answered the case interview question he was given to help him practice for his next interview with Bain.

The case interview question he was given was this:

A trucking company in China had GM as their main client and had heard rumors that the contract wasn’t going to be renewed, the trucking company wanted to know whether to do anything about this.

Here is how I would have tackled this case.

“Oh, I see, the client is losing a big contract.  Before I get into this, may I ask some background questions?”

“What is the client’s goal?”

“Oh, they want to figure out what they should do about potentially losing one of their biggest clients in China?”

As in, should they do something right now about this particular client, or are they asking in the picture long-term sense if they should do something strategically over a period of years?

(My guess is given the very specific clarifying question, it would indicate short term.)

“Okay, so the client wants to know if they should do something about this huge contract that is in serious risk of not being renewed and they want to know if they should do something right now.”

(Thinking to myself… “okay, the hypothesis is likely to be YES, they should do something right now” or “NO.”)

“Before I jump in, do we know why GM is considering not renewing the contract? Is there a reason?”

(In my Look Over My Shoulder program I talk about the importance of asking why questions to seek qualitative understanding?)

“Oh, I see, there is a new low priced entrant. I see… hmmm…. this seems like an important issue.”

“Given the client’s goal of figuring out if they should do anything right now, my hypothesis will be: Yes…. they should.”

(Or if the point about the new entrant being low-priced was emphasized, I might say my hypothesis is that the client should lower pricing on their contract to be competitive with the new entrant’s proposal).

This hypothesis could be tested by looking at three key factors.

1) Client – Does GM perceive they can get something they want from the competitor, that they are not currently getting from the client? If so, what is it?

2) Competitor – I’d like to better understand the new entrant to understand what they are offering and why they are able to offer it.

3) Company – I’d like to understand whether or not our client can provide GM with what they want and perceive to be able to get from the competitor.

Basically, I want to figure out where the current contract is falling short for the client, and compare their ability to close that gap vs. the new entrant, and if the client can match or beat the new entrant at whatever is missing and do so profitably, they should offer a counter proposal to rescue this deal – that’s my hypothesis.

(Note how the above structure is similar yet different to the business situation framework. There is still a customer analysis, a competitor analysis, and a company analysis… but notice that none of the questions listed under each category match the questions on my framework handout.)

This is conscious and deliberate because although client, competitor and company are important factors, those particular questions on my handout are not relevant in this particular case.

When something doesn’t fit exactly, you have to consider what does fit.

Significantly, I have never seen, given, or heard of this kind of case.  For practical purposes, no framework exists that is dedicated to this problem.

The thought process should be, “What is the hypothesis?” and, “What data is needed to support it?”

When in doubt about a framework, ask these two questions. It is very hard to go wrong.

And the issue tree structure I chose happens to contain elements of the business situation framework… but it would be a mistake to ask all the questions in the framework like some kind of robot going through a checklist.

Ask only what is necessary to test the hypothesis.

One of the mistakes I think this reader made was that he assumed the question was an interview question… almost like an exam question.

I suggest using a different mindset.

Let’s say your best friend has invested his life savings in a company, he just won this huge contract with a Fortune 500 company (without which the company will go bankrupt).  He then tells you that rumor has it the client is about to cancel the contract.

Instinctively, what is the key issue in figuring out how to help your friend?

Or assuming this is your business and you’re about to lose your #1 client, instinctively, what would you do?

By the way (on an unrelated note), one of the reasons I did so well at McKinsey on the job, and I suppose in the interviews as well, was I always asked myself constantly, “If this were my business, what would I do?”

I was able to combine analytical skills, problem structuring skills, and intuition/common sense/creativity — at the same time.  Incidentally, this is not easy to do.

My first 20 cases (practice and live interviews combined) were almost entirely analytical skill + problem structuring skills (e.g., frameworks + using a process of elimination approach, as shared in LOMS).

But from my 20th case interview to my 60th case interview, I finally got comfortable enough with the analytics and problem structuring that I could integrate my intuition/judgement/common sense/creativity with the mechanics (frameworks, issues trees, etc…).

In thinking about this some more, I think this ability to integrate these softer skills into the “hard” skills is what happens when you go through LOMS the third, fourth and fifth time.

You get to know the “rules” well enough that you know when you should break the rules.

This is why so many people who got offers say they found LOMS so incredibly useful, yet the actual interview experience only mirrored LOMS about 65% – 80% of the time.

That might seem like an odd thing to say, but I suspect people who have gone through LOMS five times will understand what I mean by that.

The reality is it is impossible to have frameworks for every possible problem in the world of business. Inevitably you get a problem type you’ve never encountered before, and have to find some way to structure it.

The goal of LOMS is to get you extremely competent at the cases that do fit.

Going back to the case, the business judgment / intuition / common sense would say if you just angered your best client and are about to go bankrupt because of it, why not figure out what you did to make the client angry, and see if you can fix it.

I think the reader missed this qualitative point early in the case, the interviewer noticed it, wasn’t inclined to re-direct you (many aren’t… they want to see if given the chance, you will drown… I used to do this routinely as an interviewer and would only rescue someone if it was too painful to see them struggle and they were way off base).

From a process standpoint, the question you likely did not ask in the first three minutes of the case, which is ALWAYS a good idea to ask is, “What is the client’s goal?  And confirm this goal with the interviewer.

Sometimes the interviewer will be repetitive and just repeat the opening question… which is a hint that the goal itself IS an insight the interviewer is hoping you will discover.

Let’s say you did ask that question, and the interviewer responds by saying:

“A client is about to lose a major client in China (GM) via a contract being renewed, and they want to know what, if anything, they should do about it.”

Sometimes hearing the goal a second time gives you another chance to think about it one more time. Maybe the first time you heard it, you were thinking, “Which framework do I use?”

Maybe the second time you hear it, you use a common sense filter / “What would I do if it were my business?” approach.

And then when you talk, you try to integrate the two perspectives to see what makes sense as a starting point.