Welcome back!

No apps configured. Please contact your administrator.
Forgot password?

Don’t have an account? Subscribe now

The power of unconscious signals in a consulting case interview

Today we will focus on how to positively influence an interviewer during a consulting case interview. This topic is discussed poorly online so I thought we have to address it.


The signals you send, both conscious and unconscious, create an impression in people’s minds. That impression determines the way they act towards you and the way they interpret what you say and what you do. Moreover, the way they act towards you influences how you perform.

How is this relevant to a consulting case interview? An interviewer forms an opinion of you during the first few minutes of a consulting case interview and this opinion is very hard to change. Once an interviewer has formed an opinion of you, that opinion will influence how he or she interprets what you say and what you do.

Moreover, an interviewer’s opinion of you will influence the way he or she acts towards you. This will, in turn, influence the way you perform. It is much easier to be at your best when you are with someone who considers you an intelligent and capable person.

Therefore, the first few minutes of a consulting case interview, typically the small talk part of it, are vitally more important than people realize. The exhibit below summarizes this point. You can use it as a cheat sheet in your preparation for consulting case interviews.


What are signals?

Signalling is taking an action that demonstrates to other people how they should profile you. For example, you may signal to demonstrate that what you are saying is true (e.g. getting a tattoo with the name of your loved one shows your life long commitment) or that your intentions are serious (e.g. getting an MBA shows that you are firmly focused on building a career or succeeding in business).

Signals are a very important concept in economics. If you want to learn more about signalling, read the work of Barry Nalebuff at the Yale School of Management. He has done a lot of work in this area. Barry is a great guy with some interesting anecdotes. The last time I read his work he discussed using signalling for his latest, at the time, entrepreneurial endeavor, Honest Tea.

Lets look at some examples of signals.

“I am intelligent” signal: If you write to lecturers at weakly ranked schools, you will notice that those lecturers have the highest statistical probability of putting PhD behind their email signatures versus lecturers from Harvard, Stanford or Wharton.

Do you know why that is? Humans are all about trying to improve their status and image. If you work at Harvard, you don’t need to put PhD behind your name to improve your image. Everyone knows that Harvard is not going to hire you as a lecturer unless you have extraordinary skills, amazing intellect and/or you have a PhD.

On the other hand, if you work in an unknown school, you want to signal to people that you are intelligent. And because the name of your school cannot signal that, you put PhD behind your name.

“Luxury goods” signal: Would you ever see Louis Vuitton sending out a mass email to people saying, “Unbelievable new product is being launched by Louis Vuitton”? No, you will never see that. But you will see that by copycat companies who are selling handbags for $50 or $10.

The signal Louis Vuitton is sending to the market is, “We don’t hype things up because our products are amazing”. The other subtle signal they are sending to you, which is a flattery signal, is that, “We know you are intelligent. We know you understand quality. We don’t have to hype up things”. They are flattering you to get you to buy from them.

“I am successful” signal: Another example of a signal is business suits people wear. The suit you wear signals something about your standing in business and standing in life. That is why people take so much time and spend so much money to dress well.

“Bargain” signal: Think about the ads you see for products that are sold on television at two in the morning. They always tell you things like, “Buy 1 and get 1 free” or “Buy 5 and get 2 free”. They are signalling that, “You know what, this is a cost game more than a quality game. Therefore, focus on the cost”.

“We are the cream of the crop” signal: Think about top management consulting firms. They aggressively recruit people and reject people that don’t fit the model. They hire the best candidates from the best schools. They aggressively train them.

This is done so that when you get a McKinseyBCG or Bain person standing in front of you in a boardroom, you know that this person is one of the best, aggressively trained and he/she was hired after comparing thousands of candidates who were ultimately declined.

McKinsey, BCG and Bain do all of these things as a signal. They could do this in private. They could never ever divulge how they operate. Yet, they don’t do it privately because this is a signal to the market that they are the best at what they do.

How signals impact people’s behavior

Imagine you meet someone in a supermarket. The person comes up to you, jumps in front of you and starts blabbering about needing help with something, but they can’t explain anything. They look like they are on drugs.

Because of the signals this person has given you, you will probably think, “Maybe this person is on drugs, crazy or has a gun. I have got to stay away from this person“. Your thoughts and actions are driven by an impression of that person.

On the other hand, if you are in a supermarket shopping and a very well put together young lady comes up to you: polite, prim and proper while articulate. She explains she needs help with finding her son. You will likely help her because of the signals she has given you.

You will probably decide, “You know what, this person knows what she is doing. She seems like she needs help. Let me help her”.

When someone is treating you badly, it is partly because of the signals you have given earlier that created the impression that this is the way you should be treated. Read that again since it is important.

We can apply this level of thinking to romantic relationships. When you get treated badly in a relationship, it is partly because you allowed the other person to treat you badly and you give the signals that it’s okay.

If you get treated well in a relationship, it is partly because you give the signals to someone, “You know what, I’m important, my time counts, this is a relationship of equals. Therefore, treat me well”. If you give signals that you are important, the person will more likely profile you in that way and treat you in that way.

Importance of signals in a consulting case interview

Now how does this apply to you in a consulting case interview? Let me distil the essence down here for you.

The interviewer’s behavior towards you gets hardwired before you even start the case. You need to make sure it is hardwired to your benefit because when the case begins, how the interviewer wants to run that case has already been set up.

It has little to do with the way you are doing that case.

In fact, because the way the interviewer wants to treat you in the consulting case interview has already been preset, all other things being equal, the way you do in the consulting case interview will be predetermined.

Think about this, if someone treat you like you are not intelligent, keeps cutting you of, constantly challenging you and not giving you the benefit of the doubt, your performance and morale will drop. If someone thinks you are not worth their time, the case will never progress far enough for you to prove them otherwise.

Remember you have got to lay the groundwork in the beginning of the consulting case interview by presenting the right signals to the interviewer. In your informal communication with the interviewer you want to be structured, analytical and confident. You also want to be poised, balanced and grounded.

And most people mess this up.

management consulting case interview p3


A hypothetical  example:

Lets imagine I was still a partner at the firm and I’m interviewing Sheila in a final round of the consulting case interview process. Sheila spent significant amount of time preparing for case interviews and is a whiz at it. However, because she feels so confident about her consulting case interview skills, she is not treating the beginning of the case interview seriously.

She is a little bit disorganized. She does not take small talk seriously. She starts the discussion, meandering around, not really paying attention to eye contact or to what I am saying. In fact, she is short on a small talk. It is almost as if I am trying to have a conversation with her and she is cutting me off by being too quick in her responses.

She also looks a bit disheveled from the way she dressed. Relatively neat but not as neat as she could be.

So my impression of Sheila is that she seems like a nice lady but she does not really want to be here. In other words, she is wasting my time.

Because I have created this impression in my head, when I go through the cases with her that impression is going to dictate how I respond to her. I am obviously not going to be as attentive to someone who does not seem to be committed to succeeding in the consulting case interview or interested in me.

And despite how good she is at cases, and this is the key thing, because of the way I am managing her through the cases, she is ending up having a bad case interview.

On the other hand, if Sheila come in and was witty, charming, smiled with her pearly whites and flirted a little, subtly obviously, and if I have seen that she is interested, she likes to be here and she has a bubbly personality, my behavior towards her would change.

In my mind I would think, “Here is a talented young lady. Amazing resume! She wants to be here and has a lot of interesting stories. I wish I could spend more time listening to her but I have to do this case, unfortunately”.

The way I would do this case completely changes.

Real client examples – influencing the interviewer during a consulting case interview

Now lets look at examples of real Firmsconsulting clients who were particularly good or bad at creating the right impression at the beginning of a consulting case interview.

Positively influencing the interviewer during the consulting case interview

Lets look at an example of a candidate who is skillful in creating positive impression during a consulting case interview. This candidate is about 32-33 years old, Joyce, based out of Europe. When we did our screening calls with her, one thing that struck me about her is her maturity in her ability to hold a conversation with us.

She was exceptionally adept at coming across crisply, candidly, confidently but also talking to me like I was a peer. At no point did I feel I am talking to someone who was apprehensive, scared of the process or unsure of herself. She handled herself remarkably well.

And how does she do that? When I have a conversation with her she pauses, she takes her time and says, “Well, let me think about that”. In the first few seconds of the call she does a lot of little things that implies she is structured, mature and intelligent.

Moreover, in her responses, she would even question some of the things I put forward. She would not just accept it. She would say, “Michael, why would you say that because this is what I believe. It does not reconcile with what you are saying”. She does not question me in an abrupt way but she asks questions which is a very good sign. And she does it in a very mature way.

She does not say, “Michael, I have just one question” or “Could I ask you a question?”. She says “Michael, that makes sense. However, …”. When you are mature and you see someone as a peer, you are moving into a question as a natural part of your conversation. When you see someone as superior to you, you will ask permission to ask a question.

Interestingly, she behaves this way during the consulting case interview training sessions on purpose. She knows full well that she needs to manage her image very carefully because if she mismanages her image, we will respond to that weak image. So she creates a very strong image.

Think very carefully about this candidate’s consulting case interview strategy. She deliberately works extra hard to create that right first impression so that you would believe she is very intelligent. Because if you will believe she is very intelligent, you will not question her.

Negatively influencing the interviewer during the consulting case interview

Now lets talk about a counter example, another candidate who created a terrible initial impression during the consulting case interview training sessions. This is Rafik from TCO I.

He started off his consulting case interview training with us in a disappointing manner. He was always late. His laptop was not connected. The first 4-5 sessions I told him, “Rafik, do you know you are the only candidate we have who is consistently late? Do you understand that your laptop is not connected correctly? Do you know that the notes you were meant to send me have not been sent? Do you know that we just spent 15 minutes setting up technical things so we only have 45 minutes left in the call?”.

An experiment

Because of the way Joyce started her calls with us – on the ball, relaxed, interesting conversation – she created an impression she was in control and that she was intelligent. And because she created this impression in our heads, we responded to her like she was competent and intelligent. And because we responded to her like she was competent and intelligent, she did well during her consulting case interview training sessions.

On the other hand, when Rafik was disorganized and making a mess of things, how do you think I treated him in a case? My tone, my pitch, the questions I gave him, even my willingness to help him were impacted. The guy has just wasted 15 minutes of my time. Am I going to take the time to help him? The signals he sent me shaped my behaviour towards him.

Knowing the degree to which an interviewer’s impression about a candidate influences the candidate’s performance during a consulting case interview, we realized we had to switch gears. We had to test how the female candidate will handle a more hostile interviewer, someone who would be digging and questioning her. We also had to teach Rafik how to create a positive influence at the beginning of a consulting case interview.

Changing our approach with Joyce: This candidate had been so good at managing the first impression she makes that people rarely had to question her. And because people rarely questioned her, she have not developed sufficient skill at handling deeper questions.

As soon as we started digging and pointing out flaws, her performance noticeably deteriorated. We would question her, “Why do you say this? But this does not make sense. Explain to me how this works“, and she would struggle to handle it. Handling digging and questioning turned out to be this candidate’s greatest weakness.

So, the lesson is that while you need to create a great impression of yourself, it cannot be a substitute for an actual ability to handle tough questions. It cannot be a mirage. There must be depth behind the impression.

Changing our approach with Rafik: With Rafik we did the same thing. We set down with him and we said, “Look, you have to do four things. If you can do these four things by yourself, without me prompting you, I can assure you, you are going to start off the call magnificently“.

He did it. And what happens? Because he starts off the call well, he creates the impression of being competent and organized. Because he creates the impression of being competent and organized, I treat him like he is competent and organized. And what happens with his consulting case interview training call? He does well.

You can actually watch Rafik’s videos online and see what happens from session 6.

How to create a favorable impression during a consulting case interview?

People always tell me, “You know, Michael, some people, when I do cases with them, they really rattle me. Other people when I do cases with them, I do it very nicely, I have no problem. So how do I make sure I’m not rattled”.

I always tell them, The reason you are rattled is partly, and sometimes completely, due to the signals you are giving to the person who is rattling you”.

When you feel someone is treating you badly in a case, it is because you have not given them the right signals early on. In fact, if they are already treating you badly it will be very difficult for you to change the interviewer’s impression of you.

The interviewer’s impression of you will only start adjusting if you do something extraordinary brilliant, which is very tough to do when the other person acts like you are incompetent.

When you engage with anyone, you give them signals in the first few seconds which shape how they perceive you. They then take those signals, process it, and profile you. The way they profile you then impacts how they act towards you.

So how do you create a favorable impression during a consulting case interview? Refer to the diagram above for a full list of key signals you need to give to an interviewer. However, being structured, analytical and confident are the most important signals. I always tell people, if you can show structure, analytical thinking, and you approach me like I am a peer, you are on your way to create the right impression.

As always I will be happy to answer any questions and respond to comments.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: How do you think this awareness of signalling can help you during your case interviews? Please let us know in the comments.

SPREAD THE WORD! Like this? Please share it.

PODCASTS: It will be great if you visit our Case Interviews podcast or  Strategy Skills on iTunes and leave a review. It helps more people find us.

COME HANG OUT WITH US: Facebook / Twitter / LinkedIn


Image from Trey Ratcliff under cc.

Want to learn more about how FIRMSconsulting
can help your organization?

Related Articles

Management Consulting

Digital Transformation Consulting: Top Challenges

Digital Transformation Consulting: Top Challenges The Digital Transformation consulting space is one of the most lucrative and stressful right now. Today, I had an insightful discussion with Raj (name changed to protect his privacy), a technology leader in the digital transformation space working for a major consulting firm. We spoke…


The Powell Doctrine

The Powell Doctrine "When McKinsey arrives at a client’s office and wants to present a recommendation, it may get challenged at times. But most of the time, it will not be. The same applies to BCG, Bain, and other top firms. I will use a military analogy, but please do…

Authority Based Business

Want to become a Bestselling Author?

Want to become a Bestselling Author? I hope this message finds you well. I am reaching out to share an exciting opportunity that may align perfectly with your expertise and passion. I am in the process of organizing a co-authored book project, with the theme centered around "Success Habits." This project…