Business Model: Professional Services

Professional Services

Professional Services: a group of expert or skilled consultants that deliver advice, expertise, and/or solutions.

Valuable to Customer

Benefits

Challenges

Key Performance Indicators

COMPANY PERSPECTIVE

Benefits

Challenges

Key Performance Indicators

When it Works Well

Organized around the type of problem to be solved

“The required shape of the organization (the relative mix of juniors, manager, and seniors) … should be determined by the skill requirements of its work,” -David Maister. A consultant for consultants, Maister describes the different shapes a professional services firm must take in order to deliver to different types of client needs.

“Brains” Firms: Clients that require creative and innovative approaches to new, unknown problems, with unknown solutions, tend to seek out “brains for hire.” Most boutique brand agencies and smaller specialty legal and strategy consulting firms fit this description. Clients expect senior staff who investigate a new question each time and deliver a customized, non-repeatable solution.

 

“Procedure” Firms: At the other end of the spectrum or clients that seek a procedure:  to solve for a well-recognized and familiar type of problem. For example: hiring Accenture to implement a business intelligence system, or Deloitte to implement an Electronic Health Records system digital transformation. Procedure firms excel if they deliver more quickly, efficiently, and with a high likelihood of project completion and uptake. “You never get fired for hiring IBM” as the saying goes.

Challenges to the Professional Services Model

Limits to growth

The first greatest challenge is scale and growth. Consultancies have inherent limits to growth. They cannot hire and train and grow at the exponential rates seen in internet services firms. Firms that grow too quickly tend to skimp on training and knowledge management, and firm expertise and client experience tend to suffer.

Also, the “up or out” model can be tough for new young associates at professional services firms, who are hired as “grinders” managed by “minders” who all report to the “finders” or partners that are responsible for rain-making. In well-run firms, staff development is a sophisticated endeavor and younger associates typically realize on their own that they will pursue a career outside of the firm.

 

The firm “counsels out” these employees and these staff then become potential clients. Yet the experience if not well managed can be a struggle for those that do not see a clear path to partnership, such as in “top-heavy” law firms that are still struggling to recover from pre-recession highs.

Technology transformation

Each wave of massive technology shifts has challenged the authority and cost-effectiveness of every type of professional services firm, from strategy consultants to lawyers to design consultancies.

For law firms and accounting firms, the technology-driven routinization of work at the bottom of the associate pyramid has challenged the high bill rates and cost structure that clients are willing to pay.

 

At the high end of professional services, clients question the technology prowess of consultancies. The sheer success of companies like Uber, Tesla, and Airbnb show that rapid innovation and high-scale revenue growth are more likely to occur inside a startup than within a professional services firm. High-growth Silicon Valley companies have built a world-class engineering and design teams in-house, also challenging the need for technology and design consultancies in the industry.

Trends in Professional Services

Combining licensing services with professional services

This is a long trend, initiated by IBM which branched into professional services to protect hardware and software licensing agreements. By becoming business consultants, they were able to define a business need for their proprietary technology.

Combining professional services with AI and SaaS

 

In a reverse trend, established consultancies are building their own software and Software-as-a-Service businesses.  to further entrench their businesses. With the rise of the promise of AI, data, IoT, and blockchain, Deloitte, Accenture, and KPMG have all invested in business intelligence solutions. It can be difficult for a practiced professional services firm to define procedures so that they can be self-administered (or. delivered through professional consultants to a client). Additionally, the price points for software licenses, subscription fees, or data-driven services may pale in comparison to the higher ticket project fees generated by consultants, slowing down their interest in pursuing these potentially faster growth models.

Using Professional Services to Initiate SaaS 

Startup enterprise SaaS companies may start with professional services in order to understand the customer landscape. By embedding themselves with customers, they can get closer to jobs-to-be-one and then start to design repeatable provisioned SaaS tools that resolve common high-frequency pain points. This can be a tricky strategy, as startup founders need discipline or separate organizational design to focus on product evolution without designing a tool that is everything for every customer. 

Before you Consider Professional Services

  • Do you have a well-differentiated value proposition distinct from the competition?
  • Can any of the solutions be routinized or automated, and what is your plan for incorporating or defending against displacement?
  • Are you sure you want to start a professional services firm, and not a product or software firm?
  • Define the long-range success of the firm: how will you hire and compensate loyal partners and employees?

Testing the Model

  • Is there a well-differentiated value proposition?
  • Is the customer segment consistent – are you anything to anybody or have you refined your expertise and solution to one job description?
  • Do you solve and market a problem for which your customer is searching for a solution?
  • Have you designed your services for renewal, and after your first engagement, how likely is the client to renew?
  • What is the likelihood that your customers will refer new customers to you?

Key Professional Services Mechanisms to Test

KPIs in professional services firms are fairly well known within the industry, and attempts to move away from these metrics and management method have faced resistance. Ultimately professional services firms attempt to break the billable hours x time model but are challenged to develop a new model outside of complete business model transformation.

More on Professional Services

Managing the Professional Services Firm by David Meister, 1997. (book)

The Trouble with Consulting, by Rita Hunter McGrath, 2019.

The Case For Professional Services in Enterprise SaaS, by Zachary Bookman, 8VC, 2021.

Rethinking Professional Services in an Age of Disruption, Economic Intelligence Unit, 2018.

Digital Transformation Initiative Professional Services Industry, World Economic Forum by Accenture, 2017.

The Two Simple Drivers of Law Firm Profitability, Business Law Blog, 2015.

Growing Your Design Business, Jason Blumer, a List Apart, 2013

How to build a consulting business, Scott Steinberg, Inc.com, 2012

‘Up or out’ is part of industry culture, by Charles Batchelor, FT.com, 2011. (limited access)