What do consultants do?

Marta Szczerba takes a close look at the varied and fascinating work on offer in this field
Doing the job

Consulting is a secretive industry - consultants cannot reveal their clients' identity, clients have to sign non-disclosure agreements, and alumni do not divulge much about their former professional lives. That's why you're likely to have heard many contradictory and inconclusive opinions about what consultants actually do:

"Consulting is the most improbable business on earth: successful firms hiring people who are fresh out of school to tell them how to run their businesses, and paying millions for their advice."

"Consulting is the art of borrowing someone's watch to tell them the time."

"Consulting is doing work for companies that they don't want to do themselves."

What is consulting?

There is an element of truth to each of these sentences, but none of them portrays the full picture. At its simplest, consulting involves solving business problems through structured, rigorous and evidence-based analysis. Essentially, consulting firms supply "brains for hire" to be used by organisations as and when needed. However, it would be wrong to think of a consulting engagement in the form of a one-off, off-the-shelf solution.

Consultants want to establish trusting, long-term relationships with their clients, acting as their "sounding board" as and when needed, especially as they know that real change only happens when the client is convinced of the wisdom of their advice. As a result, corporations are likely to work with consultants over long periods of time, across multiple projects. For example, the NHS has a long history of engagements with McKinsey, while BCG has continuously worked for Save the Children on a pro bono basis.

What do consultants work on?

Consultants work across many industries and practice areas (see box). When you join a consulting firm as a graduate, you're regarded as a generalist, meaning you might be staffed on projects involving any industry or practice area your firm covers and will gain exposure to a wide range of businesses and business issues. One day you might be working on the organisational structure of a publishing company, and the next assessing whether a private equity client should buy a sports firm.This breadth of work is one of the key reasons why graduates choose consulting as a career. There's usually scope to express a preference for one practice area over the other, dependent on your office's project pipeline.

As consultants progress through the organisation to become project leaders, they tend to specialise in two industries and two functional practice areas. The generalist background allows them to apply knowledge from different areas to client cases, while specialist knowledge helps ensure that their work is cutting-edge.

How do consultants tackle a case?

A consultant's first step in any case is to articulate the problem. Is the client suffering declining revenues? Or maybe its cost base has grown quickly over the years? Whatever the issue consultants are working on, they'll quickly formulate a hypothesis as to what could be at the root of it.

Generating a hypothesis helps to focus their efforts and provides a framework to hit the ground running. Instead of conducting "analysis for analysis' sake", consultants list a number of hypotheses, define the analytical work needed to prove/disprove those assertions and create a roadmap that will lead to answering the problem. It's difficult to hypothesise with little or no information, so a bit of time upfront might be necessary to establish key issues and information. That's why consultants are likely to be allocated some time to read about the industry and familiarise themselves with a client's products/services and their recent business performance on the first day of working on a case.

After initial hypotheses have been framed, consultants scope the quantitative and qualitative** research work** that they'll need to do to prove or disprove them.

Qualitative research often first involves interviews - these can be done with in-house experts (usually partners or advisors hired by the consulting firm), clients' contacts or externally sourced specialists. It's usually the entry-level consultants who conduct the interviews and then religiously log the data. The second aspect of qualitative research is reviewing industry literature, such as industry publications, past in-house reports on the subject, press clippings and market research reports.

Quantitative research involves obtaining relevant data from the client and third party sources in order to make specific calculations. As a graduate joiner, you're likely to be responsible for a case Excel model, which will aim to verify some of the hypotheses.

Surprisingly, requesting quantitative client data can be one of the most time-consuming tasks of a consultant - often client's employees are reluctant to provide it as they're worried that data will be used against them (this can often happen on cost-cutting cases) or that it will create additional work for which they won't be rewarded. In addition to client data, consultants can also use third quantitative party data, from more traditional sources such as the Office of National Statistics, through to Google Trends or specialist agencies.

As consultants obtain more evidence and gain a clearer view of the client's problem, they continue to adjust their hypotheses - the problem-solving process is very fluid - and then eventually settle on a final conclusion.

Once consultants are comfortable with their answer, they'll choose the most appropriate evidence and structure it into a Powerpoint presentation. This report (also called a "deliverable") is then presented to the client's steering committee (usually the individuals who commissioned the consultants).

How is a case team structured?

When solving a problem, consultants always work in teams. The partner who won the work from the client oversees the team, while a project leader is responsible for day-to-day execution of the project.

As a new joiner it's your responsibility is to generate initial hypotheses and conduct research and analysis. You'll be helped by the firm's knowledge team, who provide relevant insights in the form of industry reports and data, and you'll also be guided by more senior members of the case team to help you learn and progress.

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