Dial-an-expert: Is this the future of consulting?

About 20 years ago, I asked a senior executive at Accenture what he thought might disrupt the consulting industry. His answer was video conferencing: “If only we could put a high-quality screen and fast internet connection in all our consultants’ homes and clients’ offices.” he said. “Think of the money that could be saved, and the levels of stress reduced.” Of course it takes two to tango, or,  in this case, have a videoconference. And while some suppliers were prepared in theory to make the significant investment required, most clients weren’t; at least not on the scale needed for behaviour to change. 

Only last summer, we saw how little attitudes had changed. When we asked 100 very senior executives and big buyers of consulting services in the US whether they were concerned about the environmental impact of consultants’ air travel, 83% described themselves as “concerned”, 52% as “very concerned”. But 96% still said it was important for their consultants to be on site with them, primarily because it helped ensure a good working relationship, and the exchange of information and ideas. 

How the world has changed.

Faced with this unprecedented crisis, consulting firms switched overnight to remote working and, in most cases, they were able to take their clients with them. Many HR & change-related projects and much operational work that depended on the close observation of existing physical practices didn’t survive the transition; and clients didn’t necessarily feel comfortable engaging in the kinds of difficult conversations that characterise strategy projects, but most client work continued. 

Now, a few weeks into the crisis and with an increasing likelihood that disruption will continue for many months, the advantages of tele-consulting are becoming increasingly clear. The quality of a firm’s people remains the bedrock of its success, but—our research suggests—it’s also something that clients take increasingly for granted. Typically, about 70% of clients think that the quality of work done by the major consulting firms is either “good” or “very good”, but the perceived difference between the quality of work done by the top-rated and bottom-rated firms is a meagre nine percentage points. What really blows clients away is having a world expert on their team—and that’s hard to deliver. There are only so many world experts to go around and getting their input to projects across the globe is expensive and inefficient. Such valuable time needs to be spent talking to clients, not on planes; but it’s been difficult to change because so many clients, especially in regions of the world where facetime still means meeting someone, have insisted on physical meetings. Now that clients have no choice, they’re starting to discover that experts can add value even when they’re not in the room and—even better—that it’s easier to time with experts because they’re not travelling. Suddenly a depth of expertise is now available to clients everywhere that couldn’t have been imagined a few months ago. Sure, this won’t work for everyone or on every occasion, but the longer the crisis lasts, the more accepted this way of working is going to be.