How to navigate a consulting career coffee chat

the image is a cover for an article about consulting coffee chats

Last Updated on January 3, 2024

A consulting firm partner invited you for a coffee chat? Amazing!

  • What can you expect?
  • Should you prepare for this opportunity?

In this article, we show you how to make the most of this opportunity!

What is a consulting coffee chat?

A coffee chat is an informal meeting with someone in a consulting firm of your choice who can provide insights and advice on your career path while also investigating if you would be a good fit for their own company. The objective of a coffee chat is usually twofold:

First, a consulting coffee chat is an informal yet strategic tool used by consulting firms to assess a candidate’s potential fit with both the job and the company. In this relaxed setting, away from the high-pressure environment of formal interviews, consultants and candidates engage in a more personal dialogue. This gives the consultant a chance to observe how well the candidate aligns with the firm’s culture, values, and expectations. For the candidate, it’s an opportunity to showcase their interpersonal skills, industry knowledge, and to gauge whether the firm’s working environment resonates with their career aspirations. These coffee chats are crucial as they provide insights that go beyond what is evident in resumes and formal interviews, already at the very start of the recruiting journey.

Second, management consulting firms are selective, wanting a certain set of skills, and honestly, there aren’t too many people out there who tick all the boxes. That’s where coffee chats come in – they’re like a scouting mission to spot high-potential candidates with interesting profiles. In the war for talent, consulting firms aren’t just trying to get on candidates’ radars; they want to stand out, to be the top pick. They figure if more folks jump into the application process, even if the same percentage make it through each recruitment stage, they’ll end up hiring more or at least snagging the cream of the crop from each group of applicants.

The reality is that when someone’s good enough to get an offer from one firm, chances are they’ve got options. These candidates aren’t just looking at the salary or career path; they’re also feeling out the atmosphere, and the vibes they get from the people they meet during the hiring process. So, each consulting firm wants to make a killer impression on candidates.

In consulting, these short meetings are usually conducted by Senior Associates, Managers, and sometimes even Partners of a firm. It is employed by all top-tier consulting firms such as McKinsey, BCG, and Bain as well as by tier-2 firms such as LEK, Oliver Wyman, Roland Berger, Strategy&, etc. for high-potential candidates.

During a career coffee chat, you should be prepared to discuss your career goals, your experiences and skills, and your areas of interest. You should also be prepared to ask questions and seek advice on how to achieve your goals and navigate the consulting job market. Some topics you might discuss during a career coffee chat include your current job, your long-term career aspirations, any challenges or obstacles you’re facing, and any specific advice or guidance you’re seeking. It’s also a good idea to come prepared with a list of questions to ask the person you’re meeting with.

Since the start of the pandemic, most coffee chats have been virtual or just on the phone.

What questions should you expect during the coffee chat?

In consulting, a coffee chat is a casual interview that is typically used to determine whether you have the experience, drive, and fit for consulting and the particular firm. You can expect three types of questions:

Basic coffee chat questions

These types of questions always show up in a coffee chat and help your counterparty understand your background and motivation.

  • Introduce yourself.
  • Guide me through your resume.
  • Why do you wish to work in consulting?
  • Why do you wish to work for our firm?
  • Why do you want to change careers/employers? (in case of a professional lateral hire)
  • Tell me about your aspirations
  • Did you have any touchpoints with our firm in the past? Do you know someone who works here?
  • Are you familiar with the recruiting process or have any questions?
  • Do you have any questions for me (hint: it is important to also prepare thoughtful questions for the interviewer – more on that below)

Deeper personal fit questions

These are more like typical fit interview questions to help the interviewer evaluate your fit with the type of work and the culture of consulting. They are not as common as the more basic questions listed above. See below for a couple of examples.

  • Tell me about a challenging leadership experience.
  • Tell me about a time you failed.
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • Tell me about a situation where you had to influence someone.
  • Discuss a situation where you had to adjust to a setback.

Case questions

Rarely, interviewers might ask you case interview questions to test your case talents as well. If you get a case, it will often be a short market sizing exercise (e.g., “How many cars are sold in Germany per year?”).

The ideal outcome of a coffee chat

Making the right impression is key in coffee chats. Think of them as low-key interviews. Every interaction is a chance for someone to form an opinion about you, so it’s crucial to put your best foot forward. Dress sharply, be friendly, and show genuine curiosity and interest in the person you’re meeting. You want to leave a lasting, positive impression that they’ll remember well after the chat.

It’s all about building a rapport. At this stage, your technical skills matter less than your ability to communicate and connect. They’ve probably got a good idea of your capabilities, which is why they agreed to meet. What they’re really looking for is a glimpse of who you are. Can they picture you fitting seamlessly into their team? How would you interact with clients? Are you someone who handles social situations with ease? If you come across as open and inquisitive, you’re the kind of person they’ll want to stay in touch with and support throughout the hiring process.

The best outcome would be securing a referral, which would boost your chances during the screening stage. If you don’t already have one, the coffee chat is an ideal moment to indirectly ask for a referral. For instance, you could ask: “Are referrals common at your firm?” or “Is there anything you could help me with that could boost my application?” If consultants are comfortable with the meeting, they are usually more than willing to offer it on their own.

How should you prepare for a consulting coffee chat?

The preparation on your end should consist of three parts:

Answer to fit question

Similar to how you would prepare for the fit portion of the interview, you should prepare for a coffee chat. In fact, I advise you to get ready in advance for the questions you will be asked because they are the initial part of your assessment and you should be ready for them in any case. To learn more about the fit interview, read this article.

Prepare your answers in the following way:

  1. Prepare your responses. To structure shorter answers, use bullet points. For longer story answers, use the SCORE framework.
  2. Practice your answers by recording yourself and by rehearsing with friends and peers.
  3. Iterate your responses based on the feedback you receive and repeat them as many times as necessary to become comfortable with them.

All answers should be structured, top-down, and authentic.

Prepare your own questions

Many applicants fail to prepare their own questions, which is an important part of the conversation. Interviewers want to learn more about you but you should also use this opportunity to learn more about them, the firm, the consulting lifestyle, and the application process and interviews. Asking pertinent questions throughout the interview is a great way to demonstrate your interest in the firm.

The secret to asking smart and interesting questions is to link them with the consultant’s experience (e.g., instead of asking “What are the future trends in McKinsey and consulting in general?”, ask “What future trends are you working on in McKinsey?”)

A list of common questions you could ask:

  1. When you first joined your, were there any aspects that took you by surprise?
  2. Can you share your experience with a team that really stood out for you, and why it was memorable?
  3. What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned in consulting?
  4. How did you find yourself drawn to a career in management consulting?
  5. Are there any upcoming events, either on-campus or online, that you’d recommend I attend?
  6. How has the work changed for you since the pandemic?
  7. What’s the work environment like at your firm, office, or practice?
  8. From your perspective, what advice would you give to someone with my background who’s looking to enter the consulting field?
  9. Where do you see the industry headed? What are the key trends and how are they impacting the firm and the consultants?
  10. If you’ve specialized in a particular field, how did you land on that choice?
  11. In your role, how often do you get to engage with clients and partners of your firm?

Prepare a stellar resume

While these informal discussions might seem just conversational, they often serve as gateways to larger prospects. The individual across the table or on the phone, sipping their latte, might be the connection you need to your dream job.

Hence, arriving prepared with a polished resume is crucial. It not only demonstrates your professionalism but also ensures you’re ready should the counterparty express interest in forwarding your details to HR and recruiting. Think of it as having an ace up your sleeve; you never know when the conversation might pivot from casual banter to serious career opportunities. So, before heading out for that seemingly laid-back coffee chat, make sure your resume is in tow.

Get the help you need to transform your consulting application into success.

Play it cool

How you come across is as important as the answers you are presenting. To do that, you need to show sincere interest in the other person, the firm, and the opportunity. Ask them about their experiences, insights, and lessons learned. People enjoy talking about themselves, and showing that you’re interested in their journey can create a positive connection. Keep the conversation casual and genuine. Only ask questions that you are genuinely curious to learn about. Do not fall into the trap of coming up with loaded questions just to sound smart. Also, if they’re looking for a relaxed chat, avoid probing too deeply with challenging questions like ‘What was the most difficult client you had to deal with?’

Also, embrace the chat with enthusiasm and curiosity. View it as a chance to meet someone with more experience in the field you’re aiming for, someone who can offer valuable insights on how to get there, or genuinely great advice for your career (I remember that one of my McKinsey interviewers had a great tip once after the interview that I could implement in daily life). Don’t think of them as a gatekeeper; that mindset can lead to intimidation or a desire to please, neither of which makes for a good conversation.

Finally, be authentic. Consultants deal with people every day and any attempt to be someone you are not tends to be pretty obvious and detrimental.

Get a referral to consulting

As mentioned earlier, the outcome of a coffee chat should always be to score a referral from your counterpart as this can significantly increase your chances to pass the screening stage.

If you follow the tips from above, you should be well-positioned to get your interviewer’s buy-in and boost your application with top-tier consulting firms.

How we can help you score a job with McKinsey, BCG, and Bain

We have specialized in placing people from all walks of life with different backgrounds into top consulting firms both as generalist hires as well as specialized hires and experts. As former McKinsey consultants and interview experts, we help you by

Reach out to us if you have any questions! We are happy to help and offer a tailored program to help you break into consulting.

To improve your skills in all areas of the interview, check out some of our targeted offers below.

Setting up a coffee chat

Finally, not all firms, offices, or geographical regions engage in coffee chats as a standard practice. If you find yourself in a situation where it is difficult to set up such an opportunity, don’t hesitate to initiate the conversation. Reach out to consultants directly via LinkedIn or the recruiters at the firm you’re interested in and express your desire to apply for a role there, mentioning your eagerness to learn more about the firm.

Ask if they offer any opportunities for a coffee chat or direct interaction with their consultants. Chances are, they might connect you with someone from the office you’re aiming for. Another opportunity for an impromptu coffee chat could arise during a recruiting event. Ultimately, there’s nothing to lose by asking, and potentially a lot to gain, making it a worthwhile effort.

Share the content!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *