From leviathans to boutique specialists, what will clients be looking for from the consultancy market in 2013?

Richard Steer

Now that the tinsel is down and the Christmas tree has been carted away for recycling, it is interesting to reflect on the construction consultancy market going into 2013 and see what, if anything, we can learn from last year.

Outside the South-east it is likely that the market will stay flat, but that is not to say that things will stay still. Look at the high street and you will see it is littered with casualties that did not move forward: Woolworths, Comet, Borders, Coffee Republic and Jessops, to name but a few.

Now, more than ever, I see a fundamental transformation taking place in client relationships, the approach to gaining new business and the nature of managing change. Here, as everywhere, technology like Building Information Modelling will play an ever-growing and more significant role. In the thirties, after the last great crash, a US entrepreneur once said: “I am not a good salesman, therefore I need to make it easier for my client to buy.” This has never been truer than now.

It is not simply about schmoozing and boozing, or even about playing chicken with tenders. There has been a massive splintering of our market over the past few years and I predict that this will become more and more evident as we move into the new year. In 2013, the client is confronted with a bewildering array of different construction consultancy practices and faces some unenviable choices.

It is not simply about schmoozing, boozing, or even playing chicken with tenders. There has been a massive splintering of our market over the past few years

As the golden shackles have gradually disappeared, many of the partners and directors from the large QS and PM firms have left their leviathan-sized employers and set about creating boutique operations offering all sorts of goodies, from project management to employer’s agent, CDM advice and even sustainability consultancy.

The client is conflicted between wanting to work with an individual with whom they have built up a strong rapport and trust over the years and being scared that the individual does not have the security and backing of a big brand behind them.

That is not to say there is no room for the small operator with big aspirations and low overheads. If you have 30 years of experience in an industry, it does not disappear just because you have a new website and a business card with wet ink. However, it is one thing to work with the support and infrastructure of a big company behind you and another to set up and run a business on your own, as well as handling your client’s project all at the same time. It’s a juggling act that could be a risk for all parties.

Meanwhile, the new megaconsultancy shorn of some of its “traditional” talent is keen to retain the client relationship that may disappear with the departure of key partners or directors. They want the client to buy on the basis of a one-stop shop philosophy, and indeed there is some merit in promoting a global footprint where they can theoretically export talent from one market to another. The problem comes when the new talent has not got the client contact, rapport, or experience that makes our industry special.

If you have 30 years of experience in an industry it does not disappear just because you have a new website and a business card with wet ink

I would vouch that if you asked most practitioners what makes the construction sector different from other, less labour-intensive, arenas they would say “it’s all about the people”. Whether you’re an architect, consultant, contractor, tradesperson or client, this is as true in Shanghai as it is in Salford.

But it can be argued that the people who matter most in 2013 are the clients. They are still very nervous, with many still sitting on cash that they have been reticent to spend while the economy has been fragile. The national newspaper headlines are always grabbed by the housebuilders, for obvious reasons, but it is the commercial property developers, the investment in infrastructure and core sectors like retail that will decide the fortunes of most of us. They know that the clock is ticking and at some point construction costs will start to rise again.

So who to choose? If the clients can see a firm that is solvent, reliable, technologically adept and keen for work with a price that is competitive but realistic, then they will be more likely to spend and their bank will be more likely to support them. That firm has also got to have the background, heritage and experience, and this should not be seen as a bonus

If any of you reading this put yourself in that category, then perhaps 2013 could be the year for you.

Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide