MicroConsulting as a MegaCareer
It’s not a new idea to deliver consulting support in bite-sized pieces, at exactly the time that advice and guidance is most needed by the client firm. Brain brokers like GLG and BTG have built empires on the basis of a deep bench of talent, marshalled for pin point precision of delivery, a sort of just-in-time process for expertise transfer. But what is the career path for the people on that bench? Are these ad hoc conversations with desperate people in distant places destined always to be a side hustle, or could they become the mainstay of a full-time consulting career? I have very good reasons for wanting to find out.
Maybe it’s no more than a sign of advancing years, but I’ve finally and absolutely lost my tolerance for commuting. Dedicating three hours of the day to making myself more irritable and working in a place with fewer home comforts than, well… my home, and sometimes poorer technology too, seems a bad deal, compared to being at my laptop-and-phone-based office, coffee in hand by 8am. And, if I’m honest, there aren’t too many occasions when physical presence in front of clients or colleagues is really necessary, when email, phone, Slack channels and Hangouts are so readily available. Perhaps pitching for new business needs that suit to be worn one more time. But continuing to support clients who have known me for years can be done much more efficiently, as experience has shown.
I have worked in some of the larger consultancies, Price Waterhouse (before the Coopers addition) and Grant Thornton, and know both their sweet spots and Achilles’ heels. I don’t need to reheat them here, as I haven’t met any senior manager in UK financial services who doesn’t hold essentially the same view on the value for money provided by these firms. If you need to bodyshop in an army of qualified staff for a remediation project, or you need a formal report to present to the regulator, going Big 5 is often your only option. But if you have a specific knotty problem to solve, and a tight deadline in which to solve it, the larger firms might not be able to mobilise the required expertise in time at reasonable cost.
Which was what led to my first venture into one-man-band consulting. Transaction Reporting Limited was set up simply because I had noticed how every Compliance Department I audited was suffering from the same problem of understanding and applying the regulatory reporting rules of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (MiFID). Since I could guarantee a recommendation on this topic in every audit report, I thought why not help the firms avoid such comments and the red flag they raise to regulators?
That wasn’t the preamble for a complete career history. Suffice it to say that the idea met with an enthusiastic reception and for the next three years I worked a standalone version of traditional consulting, with most of the delivery being done face to face on client premises. This began to change only when I agreed to be swallowed up by an Approved Reporting Mechanism (ARM) responsible for routing client reports to the regulator. Their clients needed practical advice on which rules applied to them (and what to put in field 23), and as Director of Professional Services I could directly help them with that. But with 200 clients now, instead of two dozen, time was at a premium. Particularly in the maelstrom of subsequent reporting implementations (EMIR and MiFIR/MiFID 2), it became impractical to arrange a physical meeting at individual client premises for routine queries. The professional services team (still essentially just me) had to man the phones and email at all hours of the day and night to help clients get ready for the reporting deadlines. Which, curiously, gave rise to the service most appreciated by those clients.
When I moved on from the ARM to a new career (and wasn’t directly replaced) I heard from a number of former clients that what they most missed was the ability to fling tiny ad hoc queries my way and have them answered almost in real-time. When you are facing repeated rejections on a transaction report submission and find yourself approaching a midnight deadline, you need someone to call. And it won’t be the partner of a Big 5 consultancy.
While working (briefly) in a different sector of financial services, I have continued to answer queries from former clients on an unpaid basis. But the frequency of such queries shows no sign of abating, and provided I can find the correct way to commercialise this service, this would seem to point the way to a new career structure.
Pay-per-question has some superficial appeal, especially if the friction involved in contract agreement and billing cycles could be reduced. But it doesn’t smack of a professional service to have card payments linked from the consultancy website. It is also likely to lead to a “feast or famine” experience on the part of the consultant to have him or her depend on day to day client demand, and this would certainly not help in meeting monthly costs which are more fixed in nature.
A better approach (for the consultant) seems to be a subscription arrangement, where clients agree to pay a monthly retainer for the ability to fire ad hoc questions via phone and email each time they come across an issue within the consultant’s remit. There seem to be three sticking points with this approach:
- Reaching initial agreement on the correct price point for the monthly support
- The risk that the client feels underserved with hindsight (didn’t get value for money)
- The risk that the consultant feels exploited with hindsight (delivered too much value for money)
It seems that all of the above could be addressed by the mechanism of a short contract period, perhaps on a rolling monthly basis, where cancellation from either side (or renegotiation of the terms) could happen at any time, without a frustrating lock-in period.
So… that’s what I plan to try out, and I’ll document the success of the approach at my new business website — https://www.regulatoryadvice.co.uk
Whatever the outcome, I’m very pleased to be here on Medium, which is already feeling like my spiritual home— this will always stand as my first post, but it has already given me the inspiration for the next one:
“Writing, The Itch I Had To Scratch” …coming soon.