Four strategies to reducing bench time of consultants

13 February 2024 6 min. read

With billable utilization in the consulting industry under pressure, consulting leaders are keeping a closer pulse to their staffing processes – and ensuring that the bench time of their consultants is minimized. And when bench time is inevitable, ensuring that value added to the firm and individual is safeguarded.

For any consulting firm, utilization is one of the key KPIs to track. High billable rates not only contribute to project margins and firm profitability, they also uphold the morale of consultants who relish challenge and making an impact in their job.

When consultants are not assigned to billable work, they are on the so-called ‘bench’. While having people on the bench is to an extent normal as teams roll on and roll off engagements, minimizing bench time across the board is a key objective for maintaining efficiency and other goals.

Four strategies to reducing bench time of consultants

So how can consulting leaders minimize bench time? To find our more, we spoke with Mattias Loxi, co-founder of Cinode, a Swedish provider of solutions to the consulting industry. Cinode helps over 300 consultancies across the Europe with streamlining their company operations, with optimized staffing processes a main area of focus.

Knowing your clients and people

“It really starts with having insight in utilization, historically, now and in the future. Historically because it can provide insights on patterns and developments that can be factored into the now and future.”

The puzzle, says Loxi, is to have a single view of the entire project portfolio. “What projects are running? When do projects end? What is the impact on staffing requirements and what is the billable resourcing gap that should be addressed? Ideally this kind of information should be available in near real-time, to ensure a smooth process.”

This information is then channelled to partners, leaders with sales responsibilities, and dedicated business development teams. At the same time, a similar information crunch is needed at the level of resource planning. “It’s key to have in-depth information on the profiles and fee-earners, so that potential requests can be effectively – and quickly matched – with available consultants.”

Strategic utilization planning

“Filling the gap with available talent is common practice in consulting, but those with more mature staffing processes take their resource allocation a step further,” says Loxi. “Firms that put the demands of their clients at the core of their decision-making, will often find that consultants on a running engagement may be a better fit elsewhere. It’s crucial to be able to switch consultants across project effectively, without taking a hit on billable utilization.”

Doing so helps consulting firms carefully assemble teams to ensure that multi-disciplinary and expert skills are available to the benefit of their clients. Meanwhile, it also enhances the fit of individual consultants and boosts the morale of teams.

“This practice is known as strategic utilization planning. It centres around the notion that the availability and skills of consultants are tracked from different perspectives, typically the tridente of clients, firm, and people.”

The practice stretches to the recruitment domain as well. “In anticipation of large projects, consultancies should gain a head start in hiring the right profiles, and beyond that, continuously ensure that onboarding volumes are well on the radar of both sales and staffing processes.”

From demand to match

Within the sales funnel, a number of steps can have a large impact on billable utilization. Delaying the starting date of a project with five staff lined-up due to poor sales and procurement rigour can for instance cost thousands of euros in missed income.

“The key here is to have a solid demand planning process in place, and a professional sales funnel approach,” says Loxi. “With the insights that come out of the process, then being proactive in mitigation strategies is important.”

And when sales opportunities do convert into projects, turnaround times from signing to project kick-off should be optimized. “Quick response to clients across sales, staffing, legal, procurement and more are all key to ensure that the process is smooth. This includes matching the right profiles effectively and having them signed off by the client.”

In this process, having a comprehensive, digital-driven database of profiles is paramount. “It’s not unusual for a client to receive dozens of responses to their request. To stand a chance of winning the assignment, it is crucial to accurately show that your consultant is the most suited for the job.”

Beyond being able to rapidly identify the right profiles, there is always a need for some tailoring. “While speed is a top factor, impressive and matching CVs strongly benefit the likelihood of winning the client request.”

Learning from wins, and losses

Understanding why firms are winning and losing business should be an integral part of the sales and staffing cycle, asserts Loxi. “A Win-Loss analysis after each proposal can provide invaluable insights to improve the win rate going forward.”

Learnings can span several areas, from the need to enhance speed of sales delivery, to upscaling the quality of proposals, materials and artworks, through to pricing and fee models, or more strategic factors such as missing out on capabilities or tooling that rivals differentiate themselves with.”

More information? Want to know more about best practices how to minimize and optimize bench time? Download the guide ‘Effective Strategies for Reducing the Bench’ by Cinode.

Use bench time effectively

“In any consulting business, bench time will always be there,” says Loxi. Indeed, recent research from SPI on KPIs in the consulting industry shows that even top performing firms have an average billable utilization rate of around 80% (across all levels).

“With this given, consulting firms need to have a good governance in place for ensuring the bench time of their consultants is used effectively – for both parties.”

From a company perspective, activities that can be organized include contributing to internal projects focused on innovation, performance improvement, or capacity building. Consultants can also be asked to support thought leadership initiatives, or help sales team with business development work.

From the perspective of the consultant, skill development should be an important part of the mix when on the bench. “Consultants can expand their knowledge of their practice areas, renew or obtain new certifications, or invest in completely new areas of expertise. Being on the bench provides a great opportunity for firms to re-align the skills of their people to future project demand.”