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Professional Services – Procurement Has Failed

Unfortunately, procurement as a function has failed.  Not everywhere, not in every organisation, but across some huge and important markets, we have failed.

Reports last week in the Evening Standard – and elsewhere – lead to that unfortunate conclusion.

“UK partners at accountancy and consulting firm PwC were paid an average of more than £1 million for the first time last year. The London-based giant said consulting revenues were up by a third reflecting “exceptional clients demands to challenges and opportunities on multiple fronts”.

Group profits grew 24% to £1.4 billion in the year to end June and profit per partner averaged £920,000, up 12%. This was topped up by an average of £105,000 per partner in the firm of a distribution from the sale proceeds of PwC’s global mobility and immigration arm …”

And there are almost a thousand partners in the UK; 944 to be precise earning this huge amount. But they’re not entrepreneurs. They have not built a business, they don’t run a business and most of them are looking after relatively small teams, not the thousands of people many CEOs manage. They might create some value for clients, but I don’t think you can compare their work to being CEO of even a fairly small business, or being a business owner and entrepreneur trying to build a successful enterprise. Yet somehow, they are extracting a million each, every year, from the economy.

Fiona Czerniawska and I wrote “Buying Professional Services – How to get value from  consultants and other professional services providers” back in 2010. It remains I believe pretty much the only book focused on that specific area of procurement. Our focus was consultancy, audit and legal services, and we tried to lay out how buyers could achieve better value in these tricky markets. Procurement has a relatively short history in these spend areas – 30 years ago there was little procurement involvement in these categories even in the largest organisations. So you would hope that the more recent involvement of the profession would have helped make these markets more competitive and we would see better value for users.

But year after year, we see audit scandals, unsatisfactory consulting work, and yet the earnings of partners seems to just go up and up.  Surely, if procurement had really got to grips with these spend categories, we wouldn’t be seeing this? It is even more startling in the legal world, with Freshfields partners hitting the £2 million mark this year.

Clearly, there must be market issues here as well as questions of competence.  In the audit area, the greater regulation of that profession, put in place with good intent to raise quality, has succeeded in also raising the barriers to entry. So it has been very difficult for smaller firms to challenge the big four.

In the consulting and legal world, there are more complex factors at work. I believe that many CEOs and CFOs are happy to pay high fees and see partners earning so much, because it helps them justify their own salaries.  The executive remuneration consultants ( another highly questionable branch of the professional services world) can say to a Board, “if a PWC partner earns a million, you better pay your CEO at least that”.

Another problem is that procurement often comes up against the user of professional services who doesn’t want to see competition and just wants their favourite law or consulting firm, probably engaged on a day rate basis so the user doesn’t have to think too hard about outcomes or deliverables.   But we all know how important competition is to moderate costs; too often we still don’t see that in this world. And ongoing “contract management” of assignments is often dreadful or non-existent. How much of a partners’ earnings can be traced back to “land and expand” strategies, for instance, or projects that run on and on beyond their supposed delivery dates?

The hollowing out of businesses (and public sector bodies) over the years in the cause of efficiency is another factor. Downsizing and outsourcing has left organisations unable to resource new projects or anything out of the ordinary – so the consultants get called in.  For instance, PWC partners must be delighted to hear that the UK Tory government wants to cut civil service numbers by 25% – that will mean yet more lucrative work for them!  Which will no doubt be based on a Crown Commercial Services framework contract with consulting firms that when put in place made little attempt to drive real competition or push the firms into offering better value. 

The growing complexity of the business world is another driver, and we can’t blame the providers for that. Whether it is leading-edge technology or international patent law, organisations face more and more complexity and it is not surprising that external expertise has become more critical to success.

But even given that caveat, it seems clear that we have failed to get to grips with professional services procurement.

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