INDUSTRY GUIDE: An Introduction to Consulting & Professional Services

1. Industry Overview

Those working within consultancy and professional services help organizations to solve issues, create value, maximize growth and improve business performance. They use their business skills to provide objective advice and expertise and help an organization to develop any specialist skills that it may be lacking.

Consulting and professional services play a huge part in the global economy. Firms within the sector have links with almost every other business industry and advise on;

  • Business strategy
  • Marketing
  • Financial and management controls
  • Human resources
  • Information Technology
  • e-Business
  • Supply-chain management

The industry is largely concerned with the strategy, structure, management and operations of an organization. They will identify options for the organization and suggest recommendations for change, as well as advising on additional resources to implement solutions.

Company types: What do they do? Who do they do it for? And why do they do it

The industry is dominated by a group of firms known as the ‘big four’, made up of KPMG, Deloitte, PwC and EY. These are the four largest international professional services networks, offering audit, assurance, tax, consulting, advisory, actuarial, corporate finance, and legal services. They handle the vast majority of audits for publicly traded companies as well as many private companies. It is reported that the Big Four audit 99% of the companies in the FTSE 100, and 96% of the companies in the FTSE 250 Index, an index of the leading mid-cap listing companies.

At the other end of the scale, smaller, niche firms provide specialist expertise and skills applicable only to certain industry areas. Often, niche consulting firms are founded by ex-partners at major firms that have developed a strong consulting practice in a particular area during their tenure there. Specialized firms have increased pressure on larger, more generalist consulting firms to increase their industry and geography-specific knowledge in order to compete for business.

2. The Job Market

Market outlook: Who's hiring?

Consulting firms are traditionally among the largest employers of university graduates in the US and UK. Top consulting firms continue to compete with investment banks and each other for the top candidates from universities and business school programs across the country, offering highly attractive compensation packages and career opportunities. At many top business schools, as many as 1/3 of the graduating class will sign with consulting firms upon graduation.

The top ten consulting firms in the world employ over 20,000 people in London, 50,000 people within New York and around 10,000 people inside the city of LA.

Roles, career paths, earnings and work-life balance: What can I do?

The day-to-day activities applicable to the industry are often complex and will vary depending on the client and type of project. You may work alone on some projects, while others will involve a large team and could be based in one location or across various sites.

Typical tasks may involve:

  • Carrying out research and data collection to understand an organization

  • Conducting business analysis to gather performance data

  • Interviewing a client’s employees, management team and other stakeholders

  • Running focus groups and facilitating workshops

  • Preparing business proposals and presentations

  • Identifying issues and forming hypotheses and solutions

  • Presenting findings and recommendations to clients

  • Implementing recommendations/solutions and ensuring the client receives the necessary assistance to carry out suggested changes

  • Liaising with the client to keep them informed of progress and to make relevant decision


Salaries can range from $55 - $100K+ depending on position, experience and specific company. The US National Average industry salary is $85k

A typical career path may look like so:

  • Analyst/Associate
  • Consultant
  • Senior Consultant
  • Manager
  • Partner

Work/life balance

Work/life balance: 2/5

Since you’ll likely be working in a client-facing capacity, this depends the demands that your clients place on you and seniority. You would expect work/life balance to improve as you move up the career ladder.

Academic, hard and soft skills: What do I need?

You will need to display:

  • The ability to work in a team
  • Interpersonal and communication (both oral and written) skills
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Problem-solving and strategic planning ability
  • Analytical skills
  • Flexibility
  • The ability to cope with pressure and challenges
  • Commercial awareness and understanding of business environments

3. Industry Knowledge: Things you should know

Terminology: What terms, phrases and concepts should I know?

  • Benchmarking - The process of gathering information about other companies in an industry to compare against your client’s performance.

  • Case - A consulting project, usually focused on answering a specific question for a client. Cases can be as short as one week or as long as six months.

  • Change management - A service provided by consulting firms to help with a period of major company change, such as an acquisition or a major shift in strategic priorities.

  • Core competency - What a company does best.

  • Due diligence - Comprehensive analysis of a business, including risks and market dependencies. Usually done for a private equity client considering buying a company.

  • Return on Investment - Return on Investment (ROI) is a measure of a company’s ability to use its assets to generate additional value for shareholders. It is calculated as Net Profit divided by Net Worth, and expressed as a percentage.

  • Strategic Inflection Point - Strategic inflection points occur when a company’s competitive position goes through a transition. It is the point at which the organization must alter the path it is on – adapting itself to the new situation – or risk going into decline.

Hot topics: What topical happenings should I be able to discuss?

The rise of technology (in conjunction with humans): Cutting edge machine learning and predictive analytics solutions now provide the business world with unparalleled insights. Currently, the largest consulting firms are choosing to use these resources in tandem with their best human consulting expertise. It seems that businesses still want a human touch when it comes to consulting, although for how long remains to be seen.

The rise of the freelancer and smaller firms: One aspect of consulting and professional services that technology has enhanced is the ability for individuals to navigate the marketplace. This has meant that many in the industry are choosing to work on their own terms.

The pursuit of specialized knowledge: The pursuit of specialized knowledge is rising rapidly. Firms are looking for consultants with very specific knowledge in areas like logistics management, big data, multimedia, and electronic commerce. Many large consulting firms also have practices targeted at rising industries such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and electric power, which each require specific technical qualifications.

4. Resume & Interview Preparation: Things you should do

Resume content: How can I make my skills, experiences and interests count?

  • Joining industry related clubs is an excellent way of showing that you are passionate about your chosen industry. Think about joining consulting and business societies or becoming a campus ambassador for one of the larger consulting firms; anything that shows you have an interest in the sector.

  • Sharing content and engaging in relevant debate on social media is not only a good way to keep up to date with industry happenings but also another avenue to publicly show that you are serious about your passions.

Interview preparation: What interview questions do I need to master?

  • Why do you want to work for this firm?

  • What do you think makes a good consultant?

  • Tell us about a company you admire.

  • Tell us about a business strategy that you admire.

  • Where do you see yourself in ten years?

  • Walk us through the last project that you managed from start to finish. What problems did you face and how did you overcome them?

Must read blogs and websites:

Consulting Success - Blogs, articles and videos on how to be successful in consulting, whatever stage of your career.

Accenture - Industry updates and career advice from one of the largest consulting firms in the world.

PwC- An extremely broad look at the professional services industry and its associated fields from a member of the ‘Big Four’ auditors.

Affinity Live- A blog aimed at industry professionals offering career tips and alternative views on current affairs.

Deltek- Regularly updated conversation around all things professional services. Simple but very effective.

Must watch:

The Insider (1999) - A research chemist comes under personal and professional attack when he decides to appear in a "60 Minutes" expose on Big Tobacco. Based on the true story of Jeffrey Wigand, a whistleblower in the tobacco industry.

Boiler Room (2000) - A look behind the scenes of a small investment firm that sells worthless or dubious stock with high-pressure telephone tactics, and the lucrative rewards that the young protagonists reap.

The Big Kahuna (1999) - Two veteran salesman and their young protégé argue over a proposed sales pitch to a particular client they have dubbed ‘the Big Kahuna’.