There’s a lot that can be unique about a given services firm, but there’s a lot that is, perhaps surprisingly, pretty much exactly the same.
Through my time working in services companies, watching others do so, and now running a services company, I’ve come to believe that every firm has the same five functions inside of their delivery team, though the permutations are unique depending on the specific firm.
One disclaimer worth mentioning: the larger your firm, the more spread out these functions get. When you’re small, there might be one person doing every function. As you grow, you’ll start hiring people to do just one of them. As you keep growing, you’ll often end up with hyperspecializations. This is totally normal.
Let’s dive into these five functions and get a better idea of how you might improve your services delivery.
Scoping is, on its face, pretty straightforward: you need to figure out what the project is, what it isn’t, what you’ll need to do, who you’ll need, how long it’ll take, etc. This is where you usually decide what you’ll be charging, as well.
A lot of software development and marketing firms spend shocking amounts of effort on scoping since getting it right is the difference between being profitable or not.
The more a firm divorces “time” from “price” the easier scoping gets, since mistakes in scoping no longer put you into the red. Likewise for productized (aka standardized) consulting offerings, which has the potential to make scoping a total nonissue.
Scoping is a team effort, unlike the rest of the functions listed below. Many firms get themselves into trouble by not involving those familiar with the work in the scoping phase. If you get scoping right, you can often avoid a problem in the other functions.
Account management is about the firm-to-client relationship. When an engagement is sold, an account manager becomes the client’s main point of contact.
The purpose of account management is to ensure the client is happy. This can be easy if you’re selling something everyone loves. This can be the hardest function in the company if you’re selling crap or otherwise-contentious stuff.
Generally, the more commoditized your services are, the harder account management will be. The more your services look like selling butts-in-seats, the harder account management will be.
On the flip side, the more specific and niche your services are, the easier it is to keep the client happy.
Whereas account management is client-facing, project management is internally-facing. This function ensures the project is making progress, blockers are swiftly removed, and the project completes on-time and on-budget.
I’ve found many delivery staff view project managers with at least some disdain. The role of the PM gets a bad rap, in my opinion. There’s a lot of mediocre ones and few truly great ones. There are a lot of reasons for that, which deserves its own article.
Great project management is not about pushing teams on constant death marches. Great project management is all about balance and ensuring there is enough slack in the entire system that any setbacks won’t cause the whole project to fail. It’s not an easy job, to be sure.
Excellent project management can avoid issues in account management later.
Account management manages the client. Project management manages the project. But, someone’s gotta manage the people.
A delivery team is full of wonderful humans. Those humans need care and feeding of various sorts. People managers ensure the humans are taken care, they are adequately skilled and trained in the problems they’re working on, and that they are not getting overworked. People managers also the delivery staff plot a course for their growth and help them get there.
A firm will eventually grow to a point where great people management is a necessity. I’ve started to believe that’s an inevitable thing, which means a firm ought to be planning for that eventuality through ensuring margins are capable of it (hello scoping!).
Lastly, there is the actual “do the thing”. This is entirely about the people doing the project and whether they have the desire, capacity, skills, etc to do the job set before them.
A wide range of things are involved in this function, such as how you recruit, the skills you hire for, how you train (or whether you train at all!), and more.
Most fledgling consulting firms put most of their focus here, rightly so. The delivery staff are the lifeblood of a consulting firm–without staff to deliver on an engagement, you really don’t have anything.
Common Failure Modes
There are lots of ways to structure a consulting firm. You can imagine different firms will focus on some functions over others, depending on their business model and personal skills and inclinations of its principals.
The Body Shop Firm
Perhaps one of the most common combinations is the “body shop”, where a firm specializes in putting lots of butts-in-seats of varying skill level, but generally churning through staff in a hurry. Such a firm tends to excel at account management (apologizing to customers!) and project management, but largely ignore the people and execution.
The “oh shit, too much work” Firm
Another failure mode I’ve seen commonly is with solo consultants who start hiring people to help with delivery of projects. The issue that commonly arises is totally rocking it at execution but ignoring basically everything else. Such a firm will struggle to scale up.
The “manage yourself” Firm
A lot of firms don’t have people managers at all. My firm, The Duckbill Group, for example, only recently started putting people managers in place at nearly three years in. That’s mainly because of the cost structures of consulting: people managers are expensive and a very direct cut on profits in a way that’s mostly invisible in the SaaS world. But make no mistake: people management is important for allowing both the principals and the delivery staff to scale.
Functions are not necessarily roles
As a parting thought, I’ve been describing each function as people or roles, but many of the functions are often consolidated into a small number of people. In a solo firm, you’re doing all of the roles, but they still exist nonetheless. As a firm grows, you begin to hire people to do only that one function. Larger firms will have entire teams dedicated to a given function.
This article inspired by a Twitter thread I did in October 2021.