What questions should I ask about a consulting opportunity?
December 4, 2021 7:21 AM   Subscribe

A recruiter from a local office of a global tech consulting firm (not one of the big ones) recently contacted me to have an informational interview (i.e., not focused on a specific role). The conversation went well and he wants me to talk with one of their managers/directors, again informationally. It sounds potentially interesting, but I've never done consulting before and I don't know what questions to ask along the way.

I'm in a tech adjacent field, and have been with my current company for over a decade. I have a somewhat niche role in my department, and I'm currently working on a major open ended project that I really enjoy. That being said, the project will have to end at some point, potentially within the next year, and so I want to keep my options open which is why I took the call.

A couple things I do know right now is that the local office has been open just over two years and is small, less than 100 employees, but have goals of growing to around 300. They also have a model which is very low/no travel, taking on projects with local companies. I understand that's different than most consulting firms, and seems to be one of their primary differentiators.

Since I've never worked in consulting before, I'm sure there are things I should ask about that I just don't know to ask. If you've worked in consulting before, what do you wish you would have asked before taking on a consultant role?
posted by noneuclidean to Work & Money (3 answers total)
Best answer: Oh boy, I would ask a lot of questions. Sorry for the overwhelm! I have a strong POV, so decide for yourself of course!

- I think it's good to understand how often people actually do end up traveling (e.g., what's the worst example of a travel heavy case, and how do you determine who staffs that?).
- I would understand that for your role, is there an expectation for you to be selling projects to companies? Partners/associated partners are effectively sales people, with goals to hit. If you don't have personal connections to people who'd buy services from your firm, I imagine it's tough to be successful off the bat
- Understand, what are the expectations for the hours that you are staffed on client billable and its impact on performance evaluations (and thus pay, bonus, advancement), and your responsibility in getting yourself staffed. Understand what are typical working hours vs. billable hours for a case? I worked for a firm that had as part of a performance review wanted to see 90% billable hours of 2080 hours a year (which is 40 x 52) as a target. So, if you take vacation, don't get staffed, your billable hours could be short, and there would be questions on your performance review of how hard did you try to get yourself staffed, etc. Also, understand what % of people of your level/role in the office are currently staffed. I suspect that b/c your office is small and growing, there may not be a lot of projects (or consistent flow of projects), which means not a lot of consistent ways to get your billable hours
- Understand what is their performance/promotion evaluation criteria. Is it up or out? What % of people are paid out at target bonus? What impacts bonus payouts? what is the range of bonus payouts? What is the retention/promotion rates at your level/role? When people leave, what types of roles/companies do they go on to?
- How long are the projects? How often are there repeat projects with the same clients? This is important b/c the "stress" of consulting comes from going from one client to the next & always having to rapidly ramp up, while looking exceedingly competent b/c the client is paying you $$$$$. Are you personally comfortable pretending you are smarter and more knowledgable than you are? Are you okay with saying yes a lot and as a consequence taking on work that pushes you into late nights/weekends? It's nice to work with one "good" client for a long time, on multiple or the same projects, with a good "partner" who knows that client really well and is already trusted to do excellent work.
- What is their staffing model? 1 project at a time? Multiple projects at a time? Clients pay consulting firms $$$$, and want to be the #1 priority in whomever is consulting for them. Who determines what project you're on?
- Who will be your manager? Who writes your reviews? What is role of the project leader/partner in your review? What type of training programs are available? Consulting is notorious for tossing you on a project where you actually have no prior expertise and expecting you to figure it out on the job with little guidance/standardized training.

I was in consulting/professional services for many years. Global tech consulting is not a "tech company" in the sense it makes money with technology that scales and is super profitable. It is professional services. Professional services is a low margin gig, where the expense is people. Companies that pay for professional services may not be the most tech savvy themselves... otherwise, they would just um, do it themselves, so something to keep in mind that you may not work with the coolest tech companies doing cool tech stuff, b/c they hire full time employees to do that.

So partners who get shares of profits generally try to minimize their cost, which is people, which means at worst: 1) understaffed, oversold projects, 2) expectation that people will also take on activities that a normal company would pay actual experts to do -- e.g., recruiting, training, 3) little to no training, 4) nickle and diming you on "billable hours" -- as each hour you bill, reduces the profit of the project, which makes the partner who sold it look bad, but if you're goaled on hitting X billable hours, you WANT to bill it, but you'll get a lot of pressure to NOT do it, because if you're viewed as difficult, no one would want to staff you, and thus, you wouldn't get more billable hours, etc.

I managed to stay in as long as I did b/c I worked with great partners who kept selling well priced interesting cases where I could learn a lot to good clients and who staffed me consistently on their projects so I could get billable hours. If I didn't have that going, I would have just stayed 2 years for the broad experience, learning, resume-building, and then moved onto a real tech company, ideally working for someone who had left the firm earlier than I did.
posted by ellerhodes at 8:18 AM on December 4, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: In direct answer to your question:
What are the expectations around consistency between consultants in how you approach client work? Are you supposed to be interchangeable parts, or are your personal strengths and skills capitalized on?

What are relationships among the consultants like? Are they true resources for each other, frenemies, or something else?

How are they structured, i.e., management levels and responsibilities? Is it a matrix of an internal hierarchy versus client team management?

How is your time allocated between on-site work at clients versus time in the office? Does the billing rate reflect where you are?

How are client assignments made, and who makes the decision?

What are the expectations around client relationships? Are you expected to socialize with them? How are you expected to act when you run into a client at, say, the grocery store or a bar?

Given that this is an informational interview, I would focus on how the consulting role would differ from the internal roles you've had in the past. It is perfectly fine for you to confess your lack of familiarity with consulting, and invite them to talk about those differences. That way you can determine whether a consulting role even appeals to you.
posted by DrGail at 10:06 AM on December 4, 2021

Best answer: The line between true consulting (you are hired because you have business knowledge which the client company does not have in-house) and temporary staffing (you are hired because they need another body) can be vague because even in the latter case, you may have considerable knowledge and experience.

As a programmer for hire, I found the big frustration was that my employer was able to charge twice as much for my services as I would have been able to on my own, and I only got half of it, maybe less. OTOH, my employer gave me a path to health insurance.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:53 AM on December 5, 2021

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