Inside the Costs of a Consulting Firm

In this episode of the Smart Consulting Sourcing podcast, your host, Helene, dives into a topic that’s essential but often misunderstood in the world of consulting: the cost of revenue. Think of it like the Cost of Goods Sold in other industries, but instead of physical products, we’re talking about the brainpower, time, and expertise of consultants. So, the cost of revenue covers everything it takes to get those brilliant minds working on your project.

We’re delving into what exactly makes consulting firms financially tick. Is the cost structure as straightforward as it seems? What’s the formula for profitability here? And most importantly, what’s truly crucial in negotiations—is it focusing on the consultants’ margin, or is it the measurable value you get from their expertise?

Understanding these inner workings can give you a real edge in negotiating consulting fees effectively. Don’t miss out on this insightful discussion!

Key Takeaways

  • The Cost of Revenue in Consulting spans everything needed to harness consultants’ brainpower, time, and expertise, akin to the Cost of Goods Sold in manufacturing.
  • Within consulting firms, the bulk of expenses are channeled into the diverse workforce, ranging from fresh talents to seasoned partners, each with their unique roles and compensation structures.
  • Technological advancements and operational optimizations are reshaping consulting dynamics, driving the integration of in-house teams for tasks like data analysis and market research, safeguarding proprietary methodologies and client data in the process.
  • This blend of consultants and non-consultants optimizes project execution, ensuring a balance between cost-effectiveness and quality, while offshore consultants amplify capabilities, albeit with a need for nuanced deployment based on task requirements.
  • Overheads, covering salaries of non-client-facing staff, office rent, and marketing, are indispensable for sustaining operations and bolstering competitiveness, necessitating astute management to navigate the costs and benefits.
  • As the business landscape evolves, the allure of prestigious office locations is being reevaluated by consulting firms, prompting considerations of strategic benefits in alternative locales.
  • In the fiercely competitive consulting market, robust marketing strategies, exemplified by industry giants like McKinsey, are indispensable for visibility and client acquisition, with thought leadership and digital presence being pivotal in shaping brand credibility and engagement.


Hey everyone, Helene here, back at Smart Consulting Sourcing – your one-stop shop for navigating the wild world of procurement for consultants.  Forget fancy suits and briefcases for a sec, because today we’re getting down and dirty with the real nitty-gritty: what exactly makes consulting firms tick… financially speaking?

We’re tackling a subject that’s crucial for anyone looking to negotiate consulting fees effectively. We’ve talked about fee structures, value-based pricing, and the various factors that influence those numbers. But there’s a piece of the puzzle that’s often overlooked, yet fundamentally shapes the negotiation landscape: the cost structure of consulting firms.

But just to remind everyone before we jump into the nitty-gritty of consulting firm costs, let’s circle back to last week’s episode on value-based pricing.

As we discussed, value-sharing isn’t a magic bullet. It might not be the perfect fit for every project or client, and there can be some tricky spots where consultants and clients might disagree. But here’s the key takeaway: for value-sharing to work, both sides need to be open and honest.

If your main goal is just the cheapest price tag, value-sharing might not be your best bet.  Remember, it’s often a trade-off. Consultants take a lower upfront fee in exchange for a chance at a bigger reward if they deliver big results.  This model means sharing the risk – the client puts in some money upfront, but the potential payoff can be much higher later. It’s all about building a true partnership with shared goals, not just a way to squeeze consultants for the lowest price.

Now, getting back to today’s topic, you might think, “Huh, ‘Cost structure?’ How much can there really be to it?” Oh, but there’s a lot under the surface, and understanding it can be your ace in the hole during negotiations. The real kicker? Not all consulting firms are built the same. The cost structure of a blue-chip behemoth is a world apart from that of a nimble, smaller firm.

When you work with service companies, such as consulting firms, understanding their financial structure offers a window into how they operate and price their services. At the heart of this structure are two critical components: the cost of revenue and overheads. Both play pivotal roles in shaping the firm’s offerings and, ultimately, the fees charged to clients.

The Cost of Revenue in Consulting

First, let’s slice through the financial fog to spotlight something you’ve probably heard of but might not fully grasp in our world of consulting: the cost of revenue. Now, if we were talking about making widgets or brewing beer, we’d call this the Cost of Goods Sold, or COGS for the acronym aficionados out there. But, consulting? Well, that’s a different kettle of fish. Here, our ‘goods’ aren’t tangible items but the brainpower, time, and expertise of our consultants. So, the cost of revenue? It covers everything it takes to get those brilliant minds working on your projects.

The Consultants

At the core of any consulting firm, big or small, is its lifeblood: the consultants. This is a realm built not on the physical but on the cerebral—intellect, experience, and expertise are the currencies we trade in. Naturally, the lion’s share of a firm’s expenses is invested right here in the people power. But don’t think every person in a consulting firm is crafting strategies or analyzing data. The workforce mix can swing wildly—from boutique outfits where nearly everyone is client-facing to larger firms where the consultant crowd might make up about 70%, supplemented by a support and admin brigade.

Within the ranks of consultants, there’s a wide range of roles and compensation structures. On one end, imagine the eager beavers, fresh from academia or a few years in the game. These folks are on the front lines, earning their stripes (and a salary with a performance kicker), yet billed out at rates that might raise an eyebrow or two. It’s the industry standard, really, reflecting the hefty investment in nurturing and training these bright sparks.

Then, there’s the other end of the spectrum: the partners. These are the big guns, not just earning bonuses but also holding a direct stake in the projects they helm. Picture a partner bringing in a lucrative deal and pocketing a cool 20 to 30% of the revenue pie, even if they’re not in the trenches every day. This setup isn’t just about rewarding rainmaking; it’s about fueling the engine of business development and client relationships, crucial cogs in the consulting machinery.

The Non-consultants

Consulting firms are not just about strategy sessions and client meetings; there’s a significant shift happening behind the scenes. This shift is centered around technology and operational optimization, profoundly impacting the cost structure of consulting firms. Let’s unpack this a bit.

They are increasingly bringing key competencies in-house, particularly those related to data analysis, market research, and even slide making. Why, you ask? The digital revolution, spearheaded by AI and data analytics, is a big part of this story. These technologies aren’t just tools; they’re game-changers, enabling firms to offer more insightful, data-driven recommendations to their clients. As a result, the creation of robust in-house teams dedicated to these tasks has become a strategic priority.

This move towards in-house capabilities is twofold in its benefits. Firstly, it’s about cost management. By hiring talent in regions with lower labor costs, such as India, firms can maintain a competitive edge without compromising on quality. The added bonus? Time zone differences mean work can continue around the clock, ensuring faster delivery times in our fast-paced business world.

But it’s not just about being cost-effective or speedy. At its core, this strategic shift helps consulting firms protect their most valuable assets: their methodologies and their clients’ confidentiality. In an industry where proprietary approaches and sensitive data are the currency of trust, controlling these internally is paramount. It ensures that a firm’s innovative solutions remain secure and that client information is safeguarded, all while enhancing the firm’s ability to deliver tailored, high-quality consultancy services.

Lowering the Cost of Revenue

Let me explain the logic behind this organization. It’s not random; there’s a method to the madness, aimed squarely at delivering the best value possible. At the top, we have the partners the focus on two tasks: building and nurturing client relationships and driving sales.

So, what about the mountain of other tasks that are just as essential to providing stellar consulting services? Here’s where the rest of the team comes into play, forming the foundation of what makes these firms tick. This includes the junior consultants and the non-consultant production teams.

These junior consultants are the ones doing much of the heavy lifting, soaking up knowledge and experience like sponges while they contribute their growing expertise to the projects at hand. Then you’ve got the non-consultant employees handling everything from crunching numbers in data analysis to conducting market research and polishing up those final presentation slides.

And here’s a nugget of wisdom: this layered organizational setup isn’t just about hierarchy; it’s a strategic move that significantly impacts the firm’s cost of revenue. By blending the talents of both consultants and non-consultants within the workforce, consulting firms can obtain cost-effective project execution without sacrificing the quality that clients expect.

Now, let’s touch on the role of offshore consultants, a strategy that’s becoming more common by the day. By tapping into global talent pools in regions with lower labor costs, firms aren’t just saving pennies; they’re amplifying their capabilities and ensuring projects keep moving forward, day and night. But, and it’s a big but, not every task is suited for offshoring. While it’s a boon for areas like IT consulting, strategy consulting demands a more hands-on, locally nuanced approach.

Overheads in Consulting

Switching gears, let’s unpack a topic that might not grab headlines but is crucial to the heartbeat of any service company: overheads. Yes, those persistent costs that don’t directly contribute to the services delivered but are vital for keeping the lights on and the engines running. In the consulting world, overheads are a significant piece of the financial puzzle, encompassing everything from the salaries of non-client-facing staff to the rent for those glossy offices and, of course, the not-so-small matter of marketing budgets.

Non Client-facing Staff

Stepping into the backbone of any consulting firm, we find ourselves amidst the hustle and bustle of non-client-facing roles. From HR and Finance to Marketing, every consulting firm, big or small, relies on these critical support functions.

In small boutique firms, the landscape looks a bit different. Here, partners often wear multiple hats, seamlessly transitioning from sales pitches to project delivery, and then to internal management tasks, all before lunch. These extra responsibilities, including HR, finance, and marketing, are part and parcel of their day-to-day. It’s a juggling act that requires a blend of expertise, dedication, and no small amount of caffeine.

Contrast this with the scene in larger firms, where specialized departments take the helm. Here, HR isn’t just about hiring and firing; it’s a strategic function, embroiled in the global war for talent. These teams are on the front lines, crafting policies and benefits to not only attract the brightest minds but to keep them. In an industry sometimes critiqued for its long hours and lack of diversity, these efforts are vital. HR’s role in shaping inclusive and appealing workplace policies cannot be overstated, aiming to carve out a more balanced and diverse consulting world.

Another crucial cog in this machine is knowledge management. Consulting, at its core, is a profession built on expertise and insights. In a world where projects come and go, capturing and sharing this knowledge internally becomes paramount. It’s about ensuring that the wisdom gleaned from one project fuels the success of the next. Knowledge management teams work tirelessly to codify, store, and disseminate this valuable asset, making sure that every consultant, from rookies to veterans, has access to the firm’s collective brainpower.

The Fancy Offices

Rewind not too many years, and there was an unwritten rule in the consulting world: if you wanted to rub shoulders with the globe’s corporate giants, your business card better boast a fancy address. Yes, the allure of prestigious zip codes was not just about the view from the office or the restaurants nearby. It was a statement of credibility, a badge of honor indicating that you were in the same neighborhood as the world’s leading companies.

The hefty price tag of maintaining an office in the world’s most coveted districts was particularly burdensome for smaller consulting firms. Yet, the landscape of corporate locations is shifting. Take, for example, Engie, the energy powerhouse, which in 2010 moved its French Headquarters from the chic 8th arrondissement of Paris—a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe—to La Défense, Europe’s largest purpose-built business district. Similarly, in the U.S., HP bid farewell to San Jose, California, setting up shop in Houston, Texas. These moves are far from isolated incidents; they reflect a global trend where companies are reconsidering the strategic value of their locations.

So, if the giants of industry are finding new homes in suburbs or less traditional business hubs, it begs the question for consulting firms: What’s the real value of a prestigious address in today’s world?

The Marketing Budget

Last on my list, but certainly not taking the backseat in importance: marketing. The pulse of the consulting world today beats stronger with every marketing effort, and if you’re looking for a masterclass in marketing for consulting, turn your gaze to McKinsey. Their omnipresence isn’t by chance; it’s a meticulously crafted strategy. They’ve essentially ‘Netflixed’ the competition with their outstanding thought leadership, their prowess in social media, and their knack for community building. They’re everywhere, all the time, setting the gold standard for visibility and engagement.

Other firms, big and small, are now playing catch-up, recognizing the undeniable impact of robust marketing strategies. Boutique firms, once reliant on word-of-mouth and the strength of their networks, are now diving into the marketing fray, allocating significant budgets to carve out their space in the digital landscape. But let’s peel back the layers a bit—it’s not just about splashing your name across every possible platform.

Investing in thought leadership, for instance, serves a dual purpose. It’s not solely a marketing play; it’s an opportunity to sharpen your expertise, to dive deep into research and emerge with insights that not only attract attention but also build your firm’s intellectual capital.

Today, the consumption of free, high-quality content by thought leaders shapes the way brands are perceived. It’s how you stay top of mind, climb to the top of Google searches, and get discovered organically. What do you do when you hear about a new firm? You Google it, just like I do. And when their website greets you with insightful, compelling content, it’s almost as if you’ve found the solution you’ve been searching for.

Digital marketing, in this era, is more than just a tool; it’s the lifeline of your brand’s credibility and client acquisition strategy. It’s about striking that perfect balance between showcasing your expertise and drawing in potential clients, all while building a brand that resonates and engages. In the consulting world, where competition is fierce, and everyone’s vying for the spotlight, mastering digital marketing isn’t just beneficial—it’s essential.

Conclusion: Inside the Costs of a Consulting Firm

In the grand scheme of things, you might find that costs in consulting are refreshingly straightforward. Crafting my income statement each year is hardly rocket science—I don’t find myself wrestling with an overly complicated list of expenses. Really, when you boil it down, the consulting cost structure is pretty clear-cut. Fixed costs are neatly encapsulated within overheads and SG&A, but the lion’s share, the real heavyweight, is the wages of the consultants. The formula for profitability? It’s hardly a secret: keep your consultants busy enough to cover these essential costs, and any revenue that dances beyond this line contributes to the bonus pool, rewarding the partners and shareholders who steer the ship.

Sales prowess and strategic pricing pump energy into the top line, while the art of ‘right-sizing’ the firm ensures profitability doesn’t slip through the fingers. Lean too heavily on size, and you’ll find partners dividing a slimmer slice of the pie, as most of the incoming revenue is redirected to sustain the team. On the flip side, trim too aggressively, and the firm might just sidestep significant opportunities knocking at the door. It’s this delicate balance that’s nudging more firms towards embracing a flexible workforce and exploring the world of consulting marketplaces.

But let’s pause for a moment and consider: at the day’s end, what’s truly pivotal? Is it obsessing over the margin consultants carve out from your project, or is it the tangible, measurable value you extract from their expertise? Understanding the inner workings of consulting firms can certainly give you an edge in price negotiations, sure. Yet, it’s not the be-all and end-all. The crux of any negotiation, the real key, lies in the net value created.

Now, we’d love to hear your thoughts!  What are your biggest questions about saving money when it comes to consulting?

Did this episode spark some cost-cutting ideas? Share the knowledge! Tell your network, colleagues, or that one friend who’s always pinching pennies. Don’t forget to subscribe for the latest episodes to stay ahead of the curve.

Hungry for more? We’ve got workshops on the horizon designed to sharpen your skills in navigating the consulting maze and maximizing your savings. Interested? Shoot us an email and we’ll spill all the tea!

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome, so feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or drop an email at You know I am always game for a chat.

Until next time, stay safe and keep up the smart consulting sourcing game. Au revoir for now, and happy sourcing!

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Helene Laffitte

Hélène Laffitte is the CEO of Consulting Quest, a Global Performance-Driven Consulting Platform. With a blend of experience in Procurement and Consulting, Hélène is passionate about helping Companies create more value through Consulting. To find out more, visit the blog or contact her directly.

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