They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but that didn’t seem to be the case for consultants in the depths of the COVID pandemic. In late 2020, one year on from its first outbreak in Wuhan, clients were less positive than before about what it’s like to work with consulting firms: Just 65% spoke positively about a range of attributes that we ask about. On top of that, they were less positive about every aspect we asked about, with the greatest downturn in perceptions of firms’ culture, innovation, and breadth of services on offer.
So, it was somewhat surprising to see a major reversal in our most recent survey. Now, clients are more positive than ever—on average, 81% of clients describe firms in positive terms on the same metrics. It’s the sort of swing that breaks the swing-o-meter on election night and leaves forecasting agencies with red faces.
What on earth has caused such a shift in opinion? Just as the pandemic accelerated underlying trends elsewhere, it’s perhaps done the same in the consulting industry. Pre-pandemic, clients had long complained that firms could either give them world-class expertise, or flexible, more generalist resources—but not both. Consulting firms simply weren’t agile enough to deliver in this way.
The pandemic has forced firms to rethink how they work with clients, and it seems that mandated remote (and now hybrid) working has accelerated firms’ moves towards more agile delivery. It’s taken until now for firms to get it right—like most businesses in 2020, they were simply reacting as best they could in the face of such huge uncertainty—but now firms have hit their stride with it, and clients really like the results.
Clients are more positive about all attributes, but it stands out that some of the most improved are related to firms’ expertise and clients’ access to it. Clients are 18 and 17 points more positive about sector knowledge and subject matter expertise respectively. Alongside them, clients say firms’ ability to match people to projects and the breadth of services available are much, much better—both are also up 18 and 17 points on last year, respectively.
It makes huge amounts of sense. In the past, a firm may have had the world’s leading expert in AI-enabled widget manufacturing, but the chances were that they’d either be deployed already on a project or in another part of the world. When you think about it, the odds of all the stars aligning and the top expert in a firm’s talent pool being available in exactly the right place at exactly the right time were fairly slim. Remote working has changed all that. Now, an expert doesn’t need to clock up air miles to be with clients—they can simply join a video conference. Similarly, they don’t need to be free of other client responsibilities—it’s much easier to create a spare hour or half-day to drop in on a critical client conversation around existing project commitments when they’re dialling in to Microsoft Teams. In the past, they may have needed to take several days out of one client engagement to travel to just one meeting with another client.
While clients are certainly very happy, there are two things firms need to watch out for in 2022. First, they need to keep up with clients’ raised expectations around agility as we transition back to more in-person working, which is likely to be easier said than done. Second is that while clients are very happy, consultants are exhausted: Our survey of early-years consultants in July 2021 showed that 31% say COVID has made them more likely to leave the sector. Of them, 53% say that their work-life balance has become worse as a result of the pandemic. Physical absence may have made the heart grow fonder, but clients won’t be so enamoured if the best and brightest leave because firms can’t find a sustainable solution.