Once, early in my career, I was a project manager on a billable project. One Monday, I got a call from the partner in charge of my project asking why I had billed only 36 hours the previous week instead of the minimum 40 hours to the project.
Using non-billable hours
I explained to him that I had three consultants outside of the project who reported to me and that I had spent four hours working on their performance evaluations.
He informed me that non-billable work like that was to be done on my own time and that I was expected to have at least 40 client billable hours every week, unless it was approved by him.
“What’s sold is gold” he told me. All other work takes a back seat.
Internal projects are lower priority
I learned that lesson on another occasion when I was between projects. I was ‘on the bench’ as we consultants like to call it. There are many activities a consultant can do while on the bench. Firms may have proposals for which they need assistance. This is a good opportunity, because if the proposal translates into a project, your familiarity with the project and the proposal team may get you a billable assignment on the project.
Many firms have internal projects which are meant to develop systems that can be used internally. These projects provide a training ground for new consultants and even for more experienced ones that need to hone up on new procedures or technologies. They also provide busy work for all of the unassigned consultants.
Every once in a while, we’d get an internal project that was interesting. We would get a team of bench mates that meshed and didn’t feel like the island of misfit toys.
We had an internal project that was making some momentum and getting some actual work done. But working on a project on the bench is like managing a triple-A baseball team. Right when you get a team playing well together, they come and yank your best players for the big show.
I had a team of four that was making great strides getting an internal invoicing application completed. Then one Friday, a partner notified me that two of my people were going to be placed on a new project the following Monday.
“How could he do that?” I thought. These guys are assigned to me and we’re not done with our project. I went over to his office and protested, as politely as I could, that I needed these guys at least for a few more weeks to finish our invoicing system.
Billable hours – What’s sold is gold
Although the partner’s face said “What the hell are you talking about?” His words were a little more polite. He explained to me that the internal invoicing project was only a filler project for guys to work on while they’re unassigned. If a billable project comes along, it takes priority over just about anything we do that’s not billable.
Those words came back to me…What’s sold is gold. If we have the chance to place our people on a project with billable hours, that trumps just about everything else.
There are exceptions
There are internal projects that a firm may think is so important, they’ll make a strategic decision to forgo assigning their people to a billable project in order to get it done. Consulting firms also need to make sure their consultants are up on the latest technologies and industry trends. They usually try to schedule training and other non-billable hours during a consultant’s bench time, but it’s not always possible.
The bottom line is that, as important as training and internal projects are, non-billable activities generally take a back seat to billable work. A forward thinking firm balances it well and makes exceptions when it makes sense.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.