What does a consultant do?

Working as a consultant is renowned for being challenging, diverse and rewarding; this, to a large extent, explains why the field belongs to one of the most popular sectors to work in, both among students and more experience professionals. Yet, before entering the consulting market it is, for aspiring consultants, crucial to understand what the daily life of a consultant looks like. So what does a consultant do? The activities of a consultant typically consist of two main domains: external activities on a project basis and activities that support internal operations.

Client related activities
Once a consultant is staffed on a project then the project member can (in a simplified view) be part of two different types of engagements – an advisory project (e.g. strategy development, corporate finance, HR strategy) or an implementation project (e.g. strategy execution, roll-out of new business processes, ERP implementation). Advisory projects typically last from a few weeks to a couple of months, while large implementation projects, such as a global roll-out, can easily last up to a few years.

An advisory project typically consists of a number of standard phases, irrespective of the functional nature of the issue or the industry it is in. The first phase is the preparation phase, where project members plan the project in terms of client agreements, staffing, budgeting, planning, project structure and governance. This phase is in the most cases managed by senior consultants, such as Managers, Directors or Partners.

The problem definition phase follows – here the project team analyses the client issue and, based on that, develops the requirement for the data gathering phase. Uncovering the real problem ('root cause') is in practice easier said than done, it often requires desk research, interviews and thorough analysis for it to surface. The data gathering phase subsequently ensures the required information is obtained, through, for instance, surveys, benchmarks, interviews, etc.

Once the data has been gathered the consultants proceed to the analysis phase. Data is placed under scrutiny, analysed, tested against hypotheses developed at the start of the project and checked with the client. Following the validation of data (often an iterative process), options and solutions are developed, which stand at the basis of the final recommendation. A final deliverable, often in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, is developed to inform the stakeholders involved.

Internal activities
Besides client related work, consultants are expected to contribute to internal objectives, which may vary, from following training to performing research for external publication or contributing to the organisation of an event. Typically as consultants climb up the ranks the importance of activities shift from client delivery to, for instance internal management (strategy setting, management), sales (proposal delivery, client management) and engagement management (coaching, Quality Assurance).

In addition to seniority, the balance of activities between client delivery vs internal matters also changes once a consultant is not chargeable, known as 'on the bench' in the industry. This could either be because a consultant is in between projects or, in the worst case, if there is no project available. In this case, a consultant's focus turns completely toward internal tasks and an increased contribution to, for instance, account management (sales), training development or other areas is expected.