My 5 Biggest Surprises from Consulting

Written by lewsauder

March 29, 2011

Surprises from Consulting

My Five Biggest Surprises from Consulting

I started as a Consultant right out of college.  I interviewed with several of the top firms but my grades weren’t good enough – and I probably interviewed horribly – so I never got past the screening interviews.  I ended up being hired by an excellent boutique firm and eventually got in to a top firm after getting a few years of good consulting experience under my belt.

The main reason I was attracted to consulting was for the variety.  I thought it sounded cool to go from client to client, never getting too tired of your surroundings before moving on to the next project.  I learned that consulting also gives you opportunities to solve problems and get involved in high-profile projects, but I still think the variety is one of the many great things about consulting.

My biggest surprises from consulting

There were a number of things that surprised me about consulting.  I was an IT major for my undergrad and expected to be writing programs for clients.  That was true for the most part, but the firms I worked for had additional expectations for me.  Here are the top 5 that surprised me:

  1. You are expected to sell.  In consulting, everyone is responsible for sales.  While your performance evaluation will have five or six areas on which you are measured, the major focus is really on two numbers – utilization & sales.  Utilization is the percentage of billable hours you provided to clients in relation to available hours.  Early in your consulting career, your most attention will be on utilization. You’ll want to get on a billable client project and stay on it to maximize your billable hours.  Most firms have new consultants target about 90-95% utilization, which allows you some training, vacation time and a couple of sick days throughout the year.  As you move up the ranks, your utilization target gets smaller and your sales target gets larger.  The additional time you are not spending on utilization is expected to be spent developing relationships, creating proposals and other sales efforts.  While at a client, you are supposed to keep your eyes and ears open for new opportunities.  If you spot a problem a client is having, notify your managers to suggest a solution.  It could result in a follow-on project.  You are also expected to begin developing relationships at your clients.  The theory is that as you develop relationships with your peers at the client, they will move up the ranks as you do and will be senior managers at their company when you are one at your firm.  The long-term relationship will hopefully result in more business.
  2. You are an outsider.  I thought I would be doing work to supplement the client’s existing staff and that was true in some respects.  But while I naively thought they would welcome this nice guy coming in to help, there were a fair number who resented my presence.  Consultants represent unwelcome change within an organization.  Whether a new software application is being implemented or some process improvement study is being conducted, change instills fear of the unknown with the company’s employees.  Will this mean layoffs?  Will they need my department any more?  What if they move me over by that creepy guy on the 3rd floor? Whatever their concerns, there was always a level of distrust with consultants.  I tried my best to endear myself with client employees.  That worked on some but there were always a few that I could never win over.  Assuming that as the default attitude at a new client helped me to tread lightly at the beginning.
  3. You can get called away at a moment’s notice.  I remember once on a Thursday night, sitting at home watching TV around 9:00 when the phone rang.  It was from a partner in our firm that I’d never heard of from the Phoenix office.  He saw in the database that I had a skill set that matched their need at a client and that I was on the bench (unassigned to a paying client).  He wanted me to drive three hours south to Springfield, IL the next day to help them out on a project that was in trouble.  He thought they would need me for 3-6 weeks.  I called my boss at home, waking him up.  He said he knew the partner and that I should go.  It was a long day-trip. I got up early and made it there by 8:30, worked until about 6:30 and then drove home.  I ended up working on that project for about 6 weeks, staying at a hotel during the week.  I could have just as easily been called to fly to Los Angeles or London the next day.  Saying no to a project is something you don’t want to get a reputation for in consulting.  If you’re already assigned to a project, your management may fight to keep you on, but you go where you’re told to go.  If you’re on the bench, you might be able to put in a request for a local project, but your skill set drives your placement more than where you happen to reside.  That’s why there’s so much travel involved in consulting.
  4. Expectations are higher for you than for the client’s employees.  As a programmer in my early days, I would be placed at a client working side-by-side with the client’s employees doing much the same thing.  We would each be assigned to develop a component of the custom software application.  It seemed to me that, despite my outsider status, we were equals on the project.  That was an incorrect assumption.  We each had deadlines.  For the client employee, it was more of a suggestion, while mine was a requirement.  When the project ran behind, my client-employee counterparts continued their 8:00-5:00 schedule, while my consulting buddies and I worked late evenings and weekends to finish our work and then take over the client’s work to get the project across the finish line. We also had to submit status reports and time sheets in our “spare time”.  We would be asked to facilitate meetings and participate in discussions to resolve project issues, while client employees casually went about their days.  At the time, I thought it was more than just a bit unfair.  But over time I realized that I was being compensated more for these higher expectations, and it was making me a more valuable employee over time.
  5. Learn how to get around in your city.  I grew up in a small central Illinois farm community.  When we went to the city to shop, it was to the mall in Peoria.  Public transportation meant car pooling with someone’s mom.  So moving to Chicago was a significant culture shock to me.  I had to learn the expressway system, the Metra Rail system and Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) system for busses and elevated trains.  There were times I would allow myself two hours for a 45-minute commute to allow for traffic, getting lost, stopping to pee and finding a place to park. For those of you who will accept a consulting position in the same metropolitan area where you grew up, this may not apply as much.  There are also schedules and routes on the internet and GPS systems that provide directions with traffic updates.  It is still good advice to know general information such as neighborhoods and relative locations of urban and suburban landmarks to have a familiarity with the area in which you live and work.

See my related post: 5 Things I Hate about Consulting

For those of you that have worked in consulting, what have been your biggest surprises?

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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