Beware (Big Five) consultants bearing gifts

There are no two ways about it, the Big Five are in trouble. Where once upon a time business was generated between the accounting...

There are no two ways about it, the Big Five are in trouble. Where once upon a time business was generated between the accounting and consultancy arms in a cosily symbiotic relationship, firms now have to generate their own fresh leads. That is on top of a market slump. And as for customers, they are less than amenable to loosening those purse strings.

We are seeing a transformation of the top tier consultancy services. In fact, we are still riding the wave of mergers, acquisitions and consolidation characterising the market. The Big Five could soon be The Big Four. Or The Big Two and a Half. Who can say what is around the corner?

Of course, this is all good news for the customer, right? Consultancy services are now at rock bottom prices. There are bargains to be had - two Accenture consultants for the price of one.

But if it all looks too good to be true, then that is usually because it is.

For a start, remember the money still has to come from somewhere, and that applies to Big Five consultants too. So even if they offer what on the surface looks like a good deal, beware of the sting in the tail - costs that come in via the back door.

Therefore be clear about exactly what you are signing yourself up for and stick to what was agreed. You would be surprised at the number of businesses that later agree to pay for what was once offered free.

Second, think about what you are really getting.

Despite redundancies being made across the board, there are still consultants effectively sitting on benches. Hence the current sweeteners - more projects, more services, more consultancy. But are you really getting the talent and experience that your organisation deserves?

For example, you may already have 50 consultants on retainer. You are offered 20 more. Great. But on closer inspection, you realise they are junior members of staff. More importantly, they might not have either the experience or expertise required.

Third, be aware of "consortiums". This is when a project becomes too big or complicated for the one outsourcer. Instead, it requires a consortium of different companies, organisations and agencies led by the one consultancy.

On the one hand, these have their advantages - one company looks after myriad projects, taking away the management headache. On the other hand, they can be a way to retain more of the business.

Therefore, when the idea of a consortium is suggested, do not be afraid to ask questions. Be clear about who is doing what, why, and for how much. Set clear parameters, reporting structures and service level agreements. And the bottom line - make sure you get added value.

Ultimately, if you are to get more bang for your consultancy buck, you have to think about what you are really getting.

Someone once quipped, "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM." Hiring one of the Big Five is often seen in the same light.

However, the Big Five label is no guarantee that they will be right for your particular business needs. And, once the economy picks up, there is a real possibility that your company will be buried by other, bigger pieces of business, thus bringing to an end a beautiful, but short-lived relationship.

This genuinely is not an attempt to disparage the Big Five for the sake of it. They have a lot of talent and attract some of the brightest minds in the industry. But they have also been hit by the recession, and their attempts to lure business can seem all too tempting initially.

Therefore, if they offer bargains, check the small print. If they offer more staff, check that they are experienced and understand both technical and commercial requirements.

If they offer a better rate, ask whether it really represents a good deal.

If you remember nothing else, just remember one thing. Keep your business perspective, despite the temptations on offer. In other words, beware consultants bearing gifts.

Neil Malpas is operations director at IT services company Parity

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