Most people can probably guess what ‘the bench’ refers to. Almost all sports have a similar concept by the same name – and we’ve all been on the bench at some point. No one ever really wants to be on the bench because they’d rather be in the game than watching from the sideline. But the fact is that all teams need a bench full of players to call upon – the same is true for consulting (and many other industries, for that matter).
You do what? Spend time on the bench
The bench refers to being ‘between projects’ and spending some time not working directly for a client. This happens from time to time, for several reasons. In simplistic terms, it’s just a question of supply and demand: If there’s oversupply of consultants or a decline in client demand, then some of us find ourselves on the bench.
During the first few weeks after graduates join the firm (usually September/October), you’ll often find a fair number of them on the bench, waiting for their first project. This is because when around 300 new people join the firm, there isn’t always an open space on a project for all of them. I was lucky when I first joined and I started working on an engagement straight away – this was down to the fact that I had met a manager who needed help and I expressed an interest. It’s safe to say that’s when I learnt the importance of networking.
There are also times when us consultants don’t have much work to do, for example in the run up to Christmas. This doesn’t always happen, but there can be a slow-down in the market due to decisions not being made at client companies – often when key people are away on holiday or budgets are under scrutiny at the start or end of the financial year.
So what do we do on the bench? The answer is not ‘nothing’. Often, we end up supporting other engagements silently in the background (pulling together various materials or photocopying and printing). We also help out with internal initiatives. These don’t bring in revenue for the firm but are still a productive use of time if there’s no revenue to be earned. This sort of work often involves organising materials that we re-use for work, designing and delivering training internally or attending training ourselves.
However, by far the most common activity undertaken when on the bench, is business development (BD). This is how consultants win new work, and is one of the most vital activities that keeps our business alive. I’m going to dedicate a post to BD but in short, it involves:
- Receiving a request from a client to perform some work
- Pulling together a presentation or brochure of how we would perform the work (including why we’re better than other consultants!)
- Pitching this material to the client in an interview/presentation setting
- Finding out if we’ve won!
What all this really means is a frantic rush to make picture-perfect slides before a strict submission deadline. It can mean late nights and heinous amounts of rework and tweaks. Also, a cost model must often be constructed, which quotes the price of the work to the client and is designed carefully such as not to put-off the client nor undersell our services – a gentle balance.
The main problem with the bench, for us consultants, is that it makes it a little more challenging to fill in your time sheets at the end of the week… (another post on timesheets to come next week).