Perspective from a VP Reward and ex-Big 4 (5) consultant
The rise of the freelancer revolution and growing prominence of virtual freelance consultants is both evident and obvious. Traditional consultant models are all but broke as companies reduce costs and choose agility, speed, depth of expertise and, above all, direct access to quality at a fair price, as needed.
A short, old story
On one of many long sessions in the Group CFO’s office, we needed a document (requested 3 weeks ago) from our tax advisors urgently.
We eventually connected to the senior relationship partner at the firm, who seemed to be the only person with the authority to release the document to us. We were told it had been sitting with risk review for the last week and promised this would be faxed (this story is that old!) through immediately.
We got back to work while the fax machine whirred. After about 30 minutes, we checked to see if the fax had come through. The CFO’s assistant told us that only the first 120 pages had arrived, so far, and there was more on the way.
Stunned, the CFO blurted out, I know I’m paying them per page, but for God’s sake, I just want the conclusion and recommendations section!
Traditional consulting firms
Working with external consultants provides access to specialist skills but requires deep patience and deep pockets.
Currently, available choices are loaded towards the higher end of the price spectrum.
There is an insider joke about some consulting brands that their initial response, without even asking for more details related to a service request, is “one million”.
- Chasing margins
Consulting firms generally price their advisory services depending on the mix of consultants working on a project. The larger the proportion of “junior” hours booked, the higher the margin.
This explains why the sharply dressed partner who sold you on an idea is swiftly replaced by the starry-eyed less senior (experienced) consultant when the project starts.
I was part of this business for many years. We genuinely tried to achieve an optimal mix that delivered great work – back when it was a Big 5 and brands stood for something more than a flashy HQ building.
- The slide in quality
Nowadays, however, it amazes me that Big Brand Consultants put unimpressive, poorly equipped people in front of their clients. On top of that, they charge the same rate regardless of who does the work. The model itself is at fault, not the consultants themselves.
As recent as a month ago, one of the biggest HR consulting companies globally tried pitching their services to me, tragically through a consultant who didn’t know which industry my company operated in.
Reflect on that for a moment. They got our industry wrong, and not subtly. The type of company we are even appears in our name and logo!
The consulting companies expect clients to believe that all their people within a hierarchical category operate at the same level, hence they have the same rate.
These rates are not driven by competence, but by category (e.g. partner / manager / etc) and salary.
The ones with the highest rates are the ones who cost the firms the most and must be billed out the highest, but do the least amount of actual work. The higher I progressed in the firm, the less my charge-out target was (number of billed hours dived by total hours, a key Big 4 metric).
The highest rates are therefore not for the ones who add the most value, but the ones with the highest salaries. It is assumed (without much science) that the higher earning consultants are the ones who will add the most value.
On top of the salary goes the firm’s margin, plus the cost of the flashy HQ building, plus the bespoke stationery, plus plus plus.
We end up paying nothing less than tens to hundreds of thousands, regardless of the ask.
Open talent platforms as an option
Imagine for a second if companies had the ability to access these consultants’ skills directly, without having to pay for these overheads.
This would probably appeal to each party, since most consultants seem to be on the lookout for an exit strategy from their big brand employers.
It’s not all that rosy on the inside, after all.
Platforms offering access to virtual freelance consultants are mushrooming, with almost all reasonable business functions being represented.
The benefits of direct access to virtual freelance consultants
These are compelling to buyers of services. Since the lower cost does not mean lower quality – on the contrary, a virtual freelance consultant with comparable skills to a firm partner typically charges a direct fee equivalent to that of a junior consultant.
I also like being able to choose the individual specialist who will work on my project, not just the brand, and know that it isn’t going to be pushed down to a faceless junior consultant midway through.
It is also refreshing to have external perspective undiluted by politics and future business development. Many times, traditional consultants bite their tongues instead of offering practical solutions simply because of the relationship partner, or because it impacts future potential for business.
Virtual freelance consultants on platforms run their own businesses too, granted, but they seem more pragmatic. They also select clients who they like working with. Its a two-way street.
The pandemic fast-forwarded many things, I hope that among them will be an upheaval of the staid consulting world. Full of average dressed up as glitz, bland marketed as spice, and shabby touted as luxury.
I’m tired of off-the shelf.
I’m tired of padded documents and meaningless presentations.
I’m tired of copy-paste.
I see all of this and hope I’m not alone.
In the freelancer revolution, finally, I HAVE A VIABLE ALTERNATIVE.
One Circle is a freelancing platform for independent HR consultants.
Where businesses of all sizes can find coaches and HR specialist consultants across the entire HR spectrum with multiple areas of expertise. If you are a business and are looking to get HR projects done, virtually, consider signing up!