Six things the smartest consulting firms will be thinking about in 2019

By Fiona Czerniawska.

Growing East: When we crunch all the data for 2018, we expect to find that demand for consulting services has been patchy. Some sectors and services, in some geographies, will have performed exceptionally well, but other large and well-established markets will have been distinctly bearish. Underlying willingness to use consultants is strong, but that won’t stop clients looking constantly over their shoulder out of fear of a potential downturn. Firms that want to accelerate their growth will be looking to the East: Growth rates in China, Japan, and South East Asia all look particularly positive.

Agility: In a skittish market, it pays to think ahead. If the economic winds do change direction, you’ll need to react quickly, reconfiguring your existing services and capabilities to suit the new conditions. If you look back at the weaker markets over the last five years—energy & resources being a good example—the most successful firms barely missed a beat, adapting their message for clients who found their margins under sudden and intense pressure.

Multidisciplinary: All the high-growth markets in consulting—transformation, analytics, cybersecurity—are ones that cut across traditional service boundaries, so firms that are organised around discrete service lines (aka silos) are bound to struggle. Finding ways to break down internal barriers and ensure that people with very different skills and perspectives can work seamlessly together will be critical. Two plus two will need to equal five.

Innovation: Although it’s what most clients are looking for, most consulting firms are failing to deliver it. Consultants, we suspect, feel paralysed at the prospect of having to come up with the business equivalent of quantum theory, but that’s to misunderstand what clients are asking for. “We want tried-and-tested innovation” is one of my favourite client quotes of 2018, and I expect to hear it repeated throughout next year as clients become increasingly vociferous in their hunt for consulting firms that can combine creative thinking with pragmatism and flexibility.

New service design: We still haven’t found the right phrase to describe the next generation of “managed services” clients tell us they’d like to see. A million miles away from the your-mess-for-less approach, this way of working will replace conventional advice with clearly defined propositions that combine smart software and proprietary data with deep consulting expertise. Our research this year suggests that approximately three-quarters of clients in the US think this is the way forward for the consulting industry as a whole, and we’ll be watching how firms respond to this opportunity (aka challenge) in 2019 with interest.

Results: Against a growing sense of uncertainty, it’s going to be essential that consultants add—and are seen to add—value. Demand for digital transformation work may have vastly outpaced the rest of the market when it comes to the rate of growth, but clients will become more reluctant to spend in this space without hard evidence of what can be achieved. Projects aimed at changing people’s behaviour will play a key role here: You can’t transform an organisation without transforming its people.

No consulting firm can get everything right all of the time, but keeping these six things front of mind in 2019 will help.