Answering business questions in a professional services interview

You need to demonstrate good business knowledge to impress at an interview at a professional services firm. The Gateway shows you how it's done

You can expect a crammed playing field when it comes to applying for graduate schemes at professional services firms. So when you go for an interview here, the onus is on you to show you really understand what your potential career here would involve. Professional service firms handle a whole host of varied kinds of work, but you'll make a graduate application to a specific "service line", such as audit, tax, or risk advisory, and the more deeply you understand your would-be career, the better impression you'll make on your interviewers.

Big Four recruiters we spoke to confirmed that not understanding the industry and graduate roles in it properly is the most common stumbling block for interviewees. If you go for an interview at a professional services firm you need to understand what these firms do overall, where the service line you've applied to fits in, and why you think you'd be suited to working there. And on top of that, you need to have researched the structure of the graduate programme you'd join.

Emma Duck, an operations manager at Deloitte, told The Gateway: "A lot of people do struggle when we ask for about our programmes in detail, particularly the professional qualifications they would be required to complete. If, for instance, somebody wanted to join our audit stream, they would need to be able to talk about our chartered accountant's qualification in quite a lot of detail, and know the modules and method of study."

Alongside making sure you're clued up on your firm and service line of choice, you can bolster your chances of success at interview by fostering an interest in and understanding of the broader business world. Since professional services firms work with a whole spectrum of business clients, you need to have a good breadth of knowledge about how businesses work, and be able to talk about it convincingly.

Getting acquainted with business publications like the Financial Times, the business sections of quality papers, and, indeed, the news pages of The Gateway, will keep you up-to-date in this area. Niche professional publications like Accountancy Age will also give you good insights, both into the business world and into how professional services firms work within it. Keeping a close eye on the websites of the firms you're interested in applying to is also a good idea, as you'll find a wealth of information here about how these firms work with businesses, their latest projects, and information about current big business issues affecting their clients.

What are interviewers looking for?

1. Social interaction

Every role at a professional services company has teamwork and client-facing elements, and an interview lets you prove that you have the ability to communicate in a professional style and build a rapport with others.

2. Communication

Concision and clarity are your watchwords here; you need to be excellent at conveying complicated information. Interviewers will expect you to express yourself well and be comfortable justifying or expanding on what you've said if prompted.

3. Commercial awareness

You need to show an interest in, and functional knowledge of, businesses and how they operate. Especially important is the ability to keep pace with change in the business world and to be able to talk about current business news.

4. Decision-making

The crux of professional services work is making recommendations to clients, so you'll have to be able not only to express an informed opinion on a matter, but be able to concisely explain why you've reached it.

5. Organisation and effectiveness

A proven ability to manage your time well and prioritise different tasks will need to shine through, and you can be expect to be asked for examples of managing hectic schedules and hitting deadlines. And in the interview, you'll be expected to show you're able to marshal your thoughts well and stay calm under pressure.

Worked example - Big City Sandwich Shop

Name a successful business. Why do you think it's successful and how could we help it become even more successful?

Why it's successful

This small chain of sandwich shops offers a delicious lunch product. Their sandwiches are more expensive than those offered by the alternative outlets, but their large size and high-quality ingredients means they're perceived as a good-value choice. The outlets are on busy roads, which draws in passing trade. Although they're too small to advertise much, good food and service, as well as the attractions of supporting a local business, has built a loyal customer base of people living and working nearby.

What affects its success

Location will have a large effect on profitability. Being in a good location is necessary to attract business, but expensive for the same reason and, particularly in city centres, rent levels can change frequently. The consultancy arms of professional services firms could get involved in advising whether a business's current base is the best option, and the potential effects of moving.

Competition from local sandwich shops, as well as franchises like Subway, could lure away loyal customers. Professional services firms regularly undertake research into market conditions and their clients' rivals, which can be used to help companies stay competitive.

Regulation, such as the "pastygate" proposals to apply VAT to toasted sandwiches and pastries, can push up costs and lead to increased prices or decreased profits. A professional services firm could help the company comply with new regulations, and adapt their business in order to remain profitable. For instance, to respond to "pastygate", our sandwich shop might stop offering to toast its sandwiches for free, or refocus on cold food.

How it could be improved

Expansion could boost sales and profitability. Big City Sandwich Shop could rent new properties, or try to acquire rival business Average-Sized City Sandwich Shop. For a company like Big City Sandwich Shop, deciding to do so would be a major business step. Risk and strategy experts at a professional services firm could help advise whether or not it's one worth taking.

Technology could have a profound effect. How does the company process its orders and store its sales data? Using proper software to automate labour-intensive processes might help the company cut the cost of labour. Better technology could also improve the customer experience - for example, free Wi-Fi might encourage people to eat in rather than take food away. Professional services firms' technology consulting teams would be well-placed to advise on these matters.

Efficiency could potentially be increased by using cheaper ingredients or smaller sandwiches. Doing so would have to be approached carefully as quality and quantity are both important parts of the brand. Management consultants would be able to research and advise on sensitive decisions such as these.

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