Like many industries, the consulting industry can be feast or famine. There can be more work than you have time to complete it. In those cases you have to decide which work to decline. It’s not easy to walk away from billable work.
At other times, you can’t find enough work to do to stay busy. (Hint: this is the famine part). The common term for this situation is that you are ‘on the bench’. Like a utility player on a sports team, you are sitting in reserve waiting until your skills are needed for another project.
A bored consultant on the bench
For me, this is the consulting version of Siberia; lost in a hopeless no-man’s land. You have very little to do and what you are assigned is often either busy-work or unfulfilling at best.
Most consulting firms have bonus and incentive systems based on utilization (billable hours) and sales. At the lower levels, it’s more focused on utilization. As you move up the ranks, the focal point shifts more to sales, but idle bench time doesn’t do anything to advance a consultant’s career.
What to do
Depending on whether you work for a consulting firm or are an independent consultant, there are various things to do until you get assigned to your next project.
Self-promotion: If you work for a firm, it is important to promote yourself within the firm. Make sure that the firm’s partners, executives and other decision makers know who you are, what your skills are and what type of projects you can be staffed on.
Larger firms usually have some form of bench report or database that tracks the consultants that are available along with their skill sets. Make sure that the database is up to date with your availability and most recent skills. If they have a placement manager, make sure to communicate with that person on a regular basis.
If you work for a medium to small firm, you probably are known well enough by those who staff projects, but it doesn’t hurt to verify that they know you are available.
Help out: It’s also useful to see if there are internal projects in progress. Firms often use their bench staff to develop internal applications like a new invoicing system or sales tracking reports. They may be looking for someone with your skills. They may also be working on sales proposals. This is an excellent way not only to demonstrate your skills to the powers that be, but if the proposal wins and becomes a project, it may improve your chances of getting staffed on that project.
Do some selling: If you are an independent consultant, this is a good time to drum up business. Contact previous clients to market your skills. Put your marketing hat on, network with your colleagues and let everyone know that you’re available to help them solve their business problems.
Get some training: Whether you work for a firm or are an independent consultant, between projects is a great time to get some training. Consultants are generally hired for their expertise and it’s important to stay up to date on the latest technologies and industry trends. Training can include a formal classroom environment, online webinars or just old-fashioned reading to catch up on things.
Take a vacation: While you’re unassigned, it’s a good time to plan a vacation. Some larger firms frown up on taking vacations during a project when you’re billable. They prefer that you plan your vacation time so that it coincides with your bench time. In a perfect world, that’s how it would always work. Unfortunately, many people need to work their vacation planning around their kids’ time off at school and their spouse’s work schedule. But if you’re able, planning your vacations between projects is most efficient.
What not to do on the bench. If you work for a firm and you’re on the bench, the worst thing you can do is lay low. Some leaner firms have limited office space and expect you to work out of your home when not assigned to a project. This makes it easy for you to hide under the radar waiting for them to contact you with a new project.
Consulting is not an industry to shy away from work. If you don’t love what you do, you may want to consider another line of work. The demands of consulting are far too great to do it for the money or to impress people with your title. On the other hand, if you’re passionate about helping clients solve business problems, after taking an appropriate break, you will look forward to the next opportunity to get on another project and do your consulting thing.
What have you done in the past to stay busy on the bench?
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.