What Does a Consultant Do?
A consultant is someone that works with clients to solve specific business problems. A consultant can work by themself as an independent consultant or work for a consulting firm that employs many consultants.
Consulting firms typically deploy consultants in teams of 4 to 6 people to work on a given project. There is typically one manager that leads the day to day work and a few analysts and consultants that work underneath them. A consulting partner provides high level guidance to the team by leveraging their expertise in a particular industry or function.
The projects that consultants work on take anywhere from a few months to a few years, although 3 to 9 months is typically the average project duration.
The business problems that consultants solve can be almost any type of problem. There are many different types of consulting:
Strategy or management consulting
Strategy or management consultants advise clients on their highest-level strategic issues. For example, these consultants can help a company determine which markets they should compete in and how they can win.
The top management consulting firms are McKinsey, BCG, and Bain, who are collectively known as MBB or Big Three Consulting.
Operations consultants help clients improve the performance of their operations. For example, these consultants can help improve a company’s production capabilities, supply chain, or sales team effectiveness.
Many strategy and management consulting firms also do operations consulting. McKinsey, BCG, and Bain all do operations consulting work.
Technology or IT consulting
Technology or IT consultants are focused on the development and application of information technology in an organization. For example, these consultants can help a company set up the right technologies and systems and make the necessary system integrations or transitions.
The largest technology and IT consulting firm is Accenture, although they do also do other types of consulting.
Financial consultants are focused on the financial capabilities of their clients. They help clients with a wide range of topics such as corporate finance, tax, restructuring, risk management, forensic research, and support disputes.
Financial consulting firms include FTI Consulting, Alvarez & Marsal, and Charles River Associates.
Human resources consulting
Human resource consultants help clients with human capital questions and improving the performance of their Human Resources department. For example, these consultants can help companies make organizational changes, manage talent, and improve employee learning and development.
HR consulting firms include Mercer and Aon Hewitt.
Some consulting firms are focused in a particular industry.
For example, Clearview Health Partners, ZS Associates, Huron Consulting Group, and Putnam Associates are all focused on life sciences consulting.
Some consulting firms focus on a particular function.
For example, IDEO is a consulting firm that focuses on design and innovation. Cornerstone Research is a consulting firm that focuses on economic consulting. They provide economic and financial analysis in commercial litigation and regulatory proceedings.
Who Hires Consultants?
The clients that hire consultants can be almost anyone. Large companies, investment firms, governments, and non-profit organizations all hire consultants. Any major company or organization that you can think of has probably hired consultants at some point.
Why Hire Consultants?
There are four main reasons why clients hire consultants.
Consulting partners have deep expertise in a particular industry or function
Imagine being a consulting partner that specializes in the healthcare sector. You’ve worked with 9 out of the 10 largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. You’ve seen all of the different types of problems these companies have faced and seen what solutions have worked and what solutions have not worked.
A big reason why clients hire consultants is for the expertise that consulting partners provide. Consulting partners have deep knowledge in a particular industry or function. They have likely already solved many business problems similar to the business problem that the client is hiring consultants for. Therefore, they can provide tremendous value in helping clients solve their own problems.
Consultants are smart people that can temporarily fill resource gaps
The top consulting firms hire the smartest, most talented people. They pay their consultants well in order to attract the best candidates.
Companies, governments, and non-profit organizations don’t always have the smartest, most talented people working for them. Hiring top talent can be difficult if these companies and organizations are not prestigious to work for or if they don’t pay well.
Therefore, consultants can help fill resource gaps that companies have. If a company or organization needs to solve an important business problem, but doesn’t have the right people to solve the problem, they can hire consultants instead of waiting to find the right people to hire as employees.
Hiring consultants is especially useful when there is an urgent business problem or crisis that needs to be resolved as soon as possible. In these situations, companies and organizations don’t have the time to wait to recruit and hire the right people.
Consultants provide an outside and unbiased opinion
Another reason why clients hire consultants is because they provide an outside and unbiased opinion.
Companies and organizations can be entrenched in tradition and the status quo. Executives and managers that have spent a long time working at a company or organization often get used to the same way of thinking about and solving a problem.
Consultants, on the other hand, work on many different problems for many different companies. They do not think about the same problems every single day. Therefore, consultants can offer a fresh perspective on a business situation or problem.
Additionally, consultants can focus on getting the right answer and developing the right recommendations for business problems without worrying about company politics.
Finally, consultants can provide another opinion for the company to confirm the company’s thinking. Sometimes, companies will already have an idea of what the solution to their business problem should be. They will hire consultants, but not tell them the solution they have in mind, to see if they get the same solution as them.
Hiring consultants is a safe choice to make
The last reason for hiring consultants is that it is a very safe choice to make.
McKinsey is one of the top strategy or management consulting firms in the world. A commonly used saying in consulting is: “Nobody ever got fired for hiring McKinsey.”
Company executives may get fired for making the wrong business decisions. However, by hiring McKinsey instead, executives may not always get the outcome or solution that they wanted, but they will not get in trouble because they hired McKinsey.
Hiring consultants is sometimes used as a safety measure to help executives avoid making their own decisions for a company, which could go wrong and get them fired. By hiring consultants, executives have someone else they can blame when things go wrong.
What Do Consultants Do Every Day?
There are eight main tasks that consultants do day to day. The tasks that a particular consultant does depends on their role and seniority.
Gathering information and data
Consulting recommendations are based on information and data. Therefore, a lot of the day to day consulting job involves gathering information and data.
Consultants can gather information by interviewing industry experts and clients. They may collect information from customers by running focus groups or conducting surveys. Consultants also perform secondary research, reading market and industry reports. They may also request data from their clients to analyze.
Once consultants have data, they’ll begin to analyze the data to identify insights to inform their recommendation. Microsoft Excel is the most commonly used tool for analysis, but consultants can also use more advanced statistical software such as Tableau, Alteryx, and R.
Making presentation slides
Once consultants have gathered the information they need, analyzed the data, and reached a recommendation, they will make slides in order to communicate their work.
Slide making is a skill that consultants must be able to do very well. In order to persuade their clients to take the recommended course of action, slides need to be clear and easy to follow. The slides need to tell a cohesive story.
Consultants will present their work several times to clients over the course of a project. Besides the final presentation at the end of the project, consultants will also deliver interim updates so that clients know that the project is on track.
During presentations, clients will often ask follow up questions and suggest additional ideas or areas that they would like the consulting team to explore.
Iterating on work
Consulting requires a lot of iteration. When a consultant has finished gathering information, analyzing the data, and making presentation slides, the case team manager will review the work and provide feedback.
This feedback will be incorporated before the partner reviews the work. The partner will also provide feedback, which will be incorporated before the client sees the work. Finally, the client will then provide their own feedback and suggestions, which will be incorporated before the next presentation.
This iterative process may be repetitive, but helps consultants deliver high-quality work.
Managing the project
Consulting managers take on the role of managing the team, the client, and the partners involved.
Managers ensure that team members are working on the right things and are on the right track. They also manage the direct relationship with their clients, setting up meetings to ask questions and get feedback. Finally, managers also deal with the partners involved with the project, collecting feedback and guidance from them on the team’s work and ensuring that they are satisfied.
Selling consulting work
Consulting managers and partners also take on the role of selling consulting services. They use their network and relationships to find opportunities where companies and clients could benefit from consulting services.
Selling consulting work may be an entire consulting project by itself. The process involves doing research on the company and industry to identify needs. Then, presentation slides need to be made to communicate a story on why the company needs help and why the consulting firm is best suited to help them. Finally, partners will pitch this presentation to clients to sell them on their services.
Building the firm’s expertise and knowledgebase
In addition to working on consulting projects and helping sell consulting work, consultants may also spend some time developing the firm’s own expertise and knowledgebase.
After a consulting project, consultants may be asked to document the learnings and knowledge acquired from the project into the firm’s knowledgebase. This lets other consultants refer back to this work to help with future consulting projects in the same industry or on a similar topic.
What is the Lifestyle of a Consultant?
Consultants typically travel for work since their clients are often not located in the same city as their home office. However, many consultants do work in their home offices if their clients are local or if their clients do not require them to travel.
From Monday to Thursday, consultants are typically at the client site. Consultants most commonly fly out on Sunday night or Monday in the early morning. They will typically fly back home on Thursday afternoon or evening. On Fridays, consultants usually work in their home office.
While traveling, consultants stay in hotels and have their meals paid for. An advantage to traveling is that from Monday to Thursday, consultants typically do not have any living expenses since food, transportation, and accommodation are all provided at the consulting firm’s expense.
Since consultants travel almost every week, they quickly earn loyalty reward points and status with airlines and hotels. These perks include complimentary seat upgrades, free flights with airlines, complimentary room upgrades, and free nights at hotels.
Consulting is a client and relationship business. Most consulting firms’ revenues come from clients that they have worked with for many years. Therefore, maintaining great relationships to get repeat business is very important.
This drives consulting firms to deliver outstanding results to their clients and to constantly exceed their expectations. In general, consultants work very hard, between 40 to 80 hours per week.
There are no typical hours in consulting because working hours depend largely on the client and the project. Some projects, such as government work, may be relaxed and slower paced. Other projects, such as company due diligences, may be intense and fast paced.
One upside of consulting, compared to other high-paying jobs, is that weekends are generally free and protected. However, the client always comes first, so consultants may need to work weekends every now and then.
You may think that traveling to different cities and countries for work can be fun, but work travel and personal travel are quite different. Since consultants work very hard, they likely won’t have time to explore the city or country that they are traveling to during the weekdays.
During weekdays, they may have some fun by getting dinner with their team. Many consulting teams typically eat together while traveling. Occasionally, consulting teams may organize some kind of fun team event by going to a nice restaurant or bar, a sporting event, or an entertainment event.
Additionally, some consulting firms allow consultants to stay in the city for the weekend or to travel to a different city instead of flying back home. These can be opportunities to travel and have fun while having the consulting firm cover part of the travel expenses.
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