The Consulting Guide

Question #2: Are you capable of selling the work?

Kenton Kivestu, ex-Google, ex-BCG, Founder at RocketBlocks
Published: April 27, 2017 | Last updated: May 29, 2019

Selling is a critical skill in consulting, as it is in pretty much any vertical of business. The hiring consulting firm, whether it's McKinsey or Accenture or Strategy&, will evaluate your ability to sell on multiple levels, not just the traditional sense.

That said, candidates often forget to give sales skills due respect, instead focusing myopically on analytics only. Do not lose the forest through the trees! Let's review why this question is so important and what type of sales skills the consulting firms want to see evidence of.

The sales skill ladder in consulting

In many cases, the partners of the firm will have made significant, proactive pitches to clients to keep building that book of business. Deloitte did $34B in revenue in 2016 - that work dosn't just sell itself. Like Alec Baldwin's character preaches in the cult sales classic Glengarry Glen Ross: always be closing.

Consider the fact that these consulting firms are not structured like typical product firms (e.g., Google or P&G) - there is no 20,000 person sales force at a consulting firm! Thus, for a consulting firm, the sales force is the partner ranks. Accordingly, as you move up the ranks, this skillset is increasingly important. While you won't be expected to sell new business on day one, firms will want to see you exhibit some of the foundations for growing this skill. For example, at each level, you'll find you need to employ sales skills:

  • Consultant level: can you sell your manager? Example: Will you be able to convince your manager that your approach, technique, etc is the best way to drive toward a solution?
  • Engagement manager / Project leader level: can you sell your client? Example: will you be able to convince your client that the team's work and recommendations are the best course of action?
  • Principal / Partner: can you sell *new* clients? Example: Can you bring in net new business to help your firm grow? Will execs take a chance on you to deliver results?

As a result, during both the fit and case portions of the interview, the interviewer will be asking themselves how you will fare on the aforementioned tasks.

Unless you're a rare, experienced industry hire coming in at a partner or principal level, they'll focus on the type of "selling" you'll need to do in the first four years on the job. Ultimately, that type of selling comes down to how well you can do two things: communicate effectively and lead.

How do I prove I can be good at sales?

Do you communicate effectively?

First and foremost, your interviewer will ask: "Can I put you on a case team tomorrow and trust that you'll be able to effectively communicate with your manager to get the work done?" Will he/she communicate in a logical and easy to follow way? Would they be off putting? Would they be convincing in selling their ideas?

An extension of these questions are: can I put this person in front of a client today? Can I trust that they can effectively communicate their work stream and findings to a client in a meeting? There are many sub-questions to this overall question too. But, generally, firms want to know that you'll communicate concisely, clearly and support your points with data. If you can do that, you'll be on your way to building that sales skillset further over time.

"The people that impressed me most [when I was the interviewer], were those that were confident and were not second guessing themselves constantly. They would drive to answer, they had logic to back up their answer and they could deliver the answer, even if it wasn't exactly how I would have approached it. I felt much better about the way they delivered it [the answer] to me and that air of confidence, for me, makes the difference between a good and a great candidate..."
Richard Smith, former Bain & Co. Consultant

Are you a leader?

This category should come as no surprise. But it's important, so let's break it down a little bit. Leadership comes in many shapes and sizes - it's not a one size fits all proposition.

If you don't think you fit the high bravado leadership model of a general fearlessly leading his/her troops into battle, don't fret. Ultimately, leadership is borne out of a true strength. That strength could be a functional skillset you index very highly in (e.g., pricing), a personality trait (e.g., incredible charisma) or a broad skill you excel in (e.g., ability to paint a compelling vision). It's not important which type of leadership you can demonstrate, but rather that you'll have the capability to do so.

The first tier of "leadership" questions the interviewer will ask themselves is: can this person lead themselves? For example, can you lead yourself through a challenging problem solving exercise. If the interviewer has to give you hints at every step of the way, or you look to the interviewer repeatedly with a "what's next?" type of look, that won't be inspiring. This is essentially what the case interview is testing in a single sentence.

Assuming you pass that with flying colors, they'll move on to deeper tiers of the same type of question: can they lead a team through an exercise? Do they have the gravitas, composure and intellect to command my respect? Finally, they'll ask themselves if you could you lead a client? Could you help a client recognize the full extent of the problem, buy into your recommendation and convince them to take action?

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Are you coachable?

Finally, sales does not come naturally to most people.

In fact, most people learn how to be an effective salesperson over the course of their career. So a key element in whether or not you'll ultimately be able to drive the sales a firm needs is: are you coachable? Or another way of asking this is: with help, can the firm turn you into an effective sales person? As a result, the interviewer will want to see positive demonstrations throughout the interview that you can be coached to improve your game.

"We explicitly looked for coachability. If we give them a hint or tip in an interview, did they actually listen to the interviewers advice and take the redirection? I know it may be shocking, but there were several occasions in which I try to help the candidate get through the certain part of the case and the candidate doesn't take the help. They are so dead set on their own approach that they aren't flexible to change."
Genelle Kahan, Vice President, Bain & Co.

When asked about interview performance, consultants will often say "there is no one right answer!" Usually, candidates perceive that as a deceptive answer. The truth is far from that and coachability is one of the key proof points of that.

The reason that you'll often hear stories about candidates who didn't "ace" interviews but still ended up with offers is because they demonstrated all the traits above. In addition, when they stumbled in an interview, they allowed themselves to take a hint or nudge from an interviewer and break through. Basically, they demonstrated a fast, tight feedback loop that operates like this: "I'm not perfect, I messed up X, but when it was pointed out and why, I was able to quickly correct and move on." That demonstrates coachability. And coachability is incredibly important because it means that a candidate will get better over time. A great candidate who seems uncoachable is a big red flag - they might be able to do great analytics but if they don't take feedback well, how will they ever mature in other aspects of the job?

Am I sold?

After all of this, one final question will remain in the interviewer's mind: did they sell me? Essentially, if this person is part of my firm tomorrow am I going to be fighting for them to be staffed on my case or hoping that I never have to work with them?

P.S. Are you preparing for consulting interviews?

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