Monday, August 2, 2010

Consulting industry facing double whammy

Tough times lie ahead for those in the consulting industry, make no mistake. Based on my soundings of both leading global brands and niche consultancies, employees have had enough – and are choosing to show this by walking out the door. All the while, lop-sided client demand means firms can do little to sweeten the pill. I can see only one outcome from the double whammy currently facing the consulting industry – and that’s stagnation in consultants’ earnings coupled with an industry-wide push for scale.

For consultants employed in our industry, the next years will see you presented with a stark choice. Staying loyal to your employer is likely to result in only meagre gains in salary. For those wanting to achieve a hike in rewards, looking elsewhere and securing a job offer represents the only plausible route.

For those running consulting firms meanwhile, greater scale will be needed if acceptable margins are to be achieved – which would explain the dramatic pushes for growth and the M&A courting activity we’ve seen of late.

Consulting: an industry that can no longer pay its way

So what are the key components of this malaise in the consulting industry? I would highlight the following:

o As an industry, consulting is tough on the employee and continuous career progression / gains in reward are needed to retain talent.

o Employee costs typically represent two-thirds of the cost base of your average consulting firm. Universal pay rises therefore have major implications for the cost base of a consultancy.

o Advances in employee reward across the industry are therefore contingent on profit margins being fattened, or shareholders accepting a reduction in the returns they enjoy. The latter is unlikely for any sustained period, so pay gains become contingent on finding ways of enhancing the profitability of the consulting industry.

Herein lies the rub. Profitability gains through offshoring have been largely exploited. Downward pressure on fee rates remains intense. Public sector consulting demand has collapsed. Even the rebound in private sector work can only partly compensate. So we find ourselves faced with an industry where staff are restless but employers cannot afford to do anything about it. Readers of our consultants’ forum will have seen this play out over the last months in a series of disappointing pay rounds.

The situation for employers is made all the more acute by the resurgence of the financial services / banking sector and the changes to remuneration that have taken place there. The shift to higher basic salaries and lower bonuses means that compensation at every level looks far more attractive in the City. Consultancies are fighting a losing battle to retain their stars in the face of this remuneration gulf.

The upshot of this all is that firms are adopting a two-tiered approach to rewards. For the general consulting population meagre pay awards and slow or “virtual” career progression are the order of the day (and by “virtual” I mean firms offering progression in job title but with the corresponding remuneration gain postponed or phased in so that a period of higher margin can be achieved). By contrast, new hires can be enticed with more favourable pay offers as these are small incremental costs rather than awards that must be applied to the firms’ whole cost base. A similar story is unfolding for those able to secure a counter-offer. Put bluntly, firms can afford to buy off incremental hires and counter offerees; but they cannot afford to buy off the whole workforce.

Of course across a whole industry a surge in staff churn is costly to address. One of the majors this month announced that employee churn had risen from 8% of staff a year ago to 17% today. That’s a lot of additional hiring that needs to be undertaken just for firms to stand still – and correspondingly a very hefty rise in recruiting costs for any business to swallow, which explains why firms have been making as much noise as they possibly can about their intentions to increasingly hire via social media. The latter of course is low cost and so reduces the financial impact of greater staff churn. But as all seasoned recruiters know, attempts at direct hiring only ever get a firm so far and inevitably significant additional hiring costs will be incurred as staff churn worsens.

All of which leaves individual firms with a narrow set of options. Try to carve out a niche or unique approach that allows some premium to be achieved on fee rates: unlikely. Try to tap into new markets: if only a new fad would present itself. Try to gain share and scale the business so that employee remuneration gains can beat those of the overall market: possible, but mostly at the expense of others in the industry.

The major players in consulting are all making a play to gain share and scale their businesses. Look at the lofty growth aspirations that have been published this last year and it’s clear to all that they can’t all be achieved simultaneously. Pick the employer that wins this battle and you’re likely to be at the upper end of the remuneration curve. But for the industry as a whole, only when client demand surges to the extent that fee rates can truly recover will we see sizeable remuneration gains across the industry. Until then you’re in the realms of either “picking the winner” or of changing employer to secure a rise in earnings. I know which option I would have more confidence in.

Related link: Business-critical market intelligence for Consulting Practitioners

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