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Consultancy Benches - Does Size Matter?

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The dreaded question for flexible consultancies: How many of your own consultants do you have on your bench?

Consultancy firms who boast a large permanent bench of their own employees have often used that as a strong selling point when bidding for project work.

Naturally, the idea of a large talent pool of pre-screened consultants immediately available to deploy is very appealing to any organization looking to scale a project team at pace.

Having spent the past 7 years regularly pitching against large consultancies, I used to dread the question of how many people we have on our bench. I would often observe prospect client’s faces drop with disappointment as I would inform them that we only have one or two available full time employed consultants on our bench (and that they wouldn’t be right for their project anyway), or sometimes that we do not have any at all.

I am convinced that question alone (and the lack of conviction of the answer) has turned winning pitches into losing ones. I dare say hundreds, if not thousands, of other small consultancies have been in the same position.

So recently I have started to ask myself the question:

Why is having a permanent bench so much of an advantage from the client's perspective?

At the center of this internal debate, was the fact that consultancies with a large bench are understandably incentivized to maintain as high a utilization rate as possible to maximize profit margins. This means consultancies could be forgiven for prioritizing the placement of "bench" consultants onto client programs even if that means forcing a "square peg into a round hole" in terms of skills, expertise and experience. Additionally, the cost of maintaining a permanent bench is one of the primary reasons that consultancy fees are famously so high.

The alternative model, which is gaining in popularity, is to maintain a "flexible-bench" of specialist independent contract resource.

This "associate-first" model enables consultancies to tap into specialist resource, avoiding the necessity of shoe-horning permanent resources into client roles to get them off the bench, whilst keeping overhead costs to a minimum.

Indeed, The Big 4 consultancies are actively selling and adding to their "flexible" contractor workforce at a greater pace than ever before due to greater demand from clients to provide specialist resource at an affordable cost.

The counter-argument to this is permanent staff have already been vigorously screened by the consultancy having been through their internal screening process and, critically, are known entities to the consultancy more so than a contract resource could ever be.

This gives the client confidence that the quality of the resource will be to the level that they require. Additionally, consultants can seamlessly be substituted in and out of client programs, with minimal disruption to delivery as permanent consultancy staff have been trained in a consistent way, following the same methodologies.

Refreshingly, in most recent conversations I have had with program leadership teams, the depth of a bench that the consultancy can offer is becoming less of a deciding factor.

The emergence of hybrid consultancy models over the past decade has seen client programs benefit enormously from flexible resource pools.

This, coupled with an increasing frustration of consultancy firms providing resource not best matched for the client program at a price point that is out of kilter with new innovative models has got them questioning whether size does matter after all….

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