Why Value-Based Fees Rarely Work in Consulting

Every consulting firm talks about value-based fees and they usually want to price themselves in this way since the value-based fees model offers a very high margin. Sometimes they succeed. Yet, they usually fail.

This post and related podcast address why value-based fees are widely misunderstood and rarely work in consulting. The key insight is about the forces of supply and demand.

Value-based fees can only work if certain supply and demand conditions in the market are met, or if your client is naïve. If a firm understands this concept, they have a higher probability of securing higher-margin value-based fees.

What are value-based fees

So let me explain what value-based fees are. Let’s assume you go to a client and you tell them, “We believe we can generate a hundred million dollars of savings for you. Will you be interested in considering this engagement? In terms of pricing, we believe value-based fees will be appropriate here, given the enormous value we can deliver. How about fees in the amount of 10% of the value we deliver?

Now, think about this for a second. Some of you may say, “Hey, hold on a second! That makes sense. We are going to generate $100 million of value for this client, so we should get paid 5% or 10%. That seems reasonable.”

And that is what value-based fees are. You get paid for the value you create.

Increasing profit, of course, is only one example of delivering value. As another example, you could find a way to create 200 million dollars worth of new revenue for a client and that is how you can try to justify value-based fees. You could go to the client and say, “We believe we can create 200 million dollars worth of additional revenue. If you are interested in considering this engagement we believe value-based fees will be appropriate, given a significant return to you. How about fees in the amount of 10% of the value we deliver?

Why value-based concept rarely works

Those who think that type of thinking makes sense misunderstand or are not familiar with a core concept of economics.

Let’s look at another example to illustrate why this logic does not work. Assume you have a friend named Sara who has solid skills in software engineering and she works at a company like Adobe or Facebook, or one of the other major tech companies. And because she has these amazing skills she goes to her boss and says, ”I have these great skills that company truly needs and because of these outstanding skills I think I deserve a 20% increase. Are you open to discussing this?

The problem with Sara’s logic here is this is not how economics works when it comes to markets. Open markets anyway.

In economics, you are worth what the market says you are worth. So, for example, if there is another person out there in the market who has the same skills as Sara, or worse for Sara, if there are a lot of other people with similar skill-set as Sara, her worth will not be judged by her skills, it will be judged by the availability of those skills in the market.

And if there are a lot of people in the market, Sara’s boss will likely say something along the following lines, “Sara, we appreciate your work and understand you want to be rewarded. However, to stay competitive we can’t afford to pay you 20% more. I hope you will stay with us but if you choose to leave we will just have to hire someone else with a similar skill-set, maybe even at a lower level of compensation.”

So the insight here is that Sara’s salary is not exactly determined by her skills but by the availability of those skills in the market. This is a very important insight, which many people don’t realize.

When multiple people can offer a similar skill-set the leverage lies with the buyer. The only way to charge higher rates is to have a skill or some capability or combination of the skills that the rest of the market doesn’t have and which the buyer needs.

Why value-based fees rarely work in consulting

Now how is this linked to the use of value-based fees in consulting?

Many consulting firms think about value-based fees without realizing they have to ask themselves, “Is there anyone else who could do this?” And when I say “do this” I mean to conduct a specific engagement the consulting firm is considering to undertake, such as generating the hundred million dollars of cost savings or 200 million dollars of additional revenue examples we mentioned earlier.

This question is crucial to ask because if there are other consulting firms that could do this, then value-based fees will not work unless the client is naive. Value-based fees will not work in such a situation because there is someone else in the market who can do this work and who could probably do it at a lower fee.

When people think why value-based fees don’t work in consulting, they often think its because the value consulting firms create is insufficient or too uncertain to justify value-based fees. This is not the reason. It’s about the value you create but its also whether you are the only one who could create that value.

If a client believes your consulting firm is the only one who could create that value then you could go with the value-based fees model. If a client believes many other consulting firms could create that value then they put out a tender, they allow many consulting firms to bid, and they generally will go with the firm that has the best price versus value.

value based fees management consulting quoteAnd when the firm hires McKinsey or BCG, a client usually does that because they believe that McKinsey or BCG has something other companies don’t have, which justifies higher fees. The client usually believes that the skills McKinsey or BCG will bring to an engagement are not common in the market.

So when you are working with a client, and you want to use the value-based fees approach, it’s important you convince the client that you have an ability to do what the rest of the market cannot do and that this work is something the client needs.

This is the insight. It’s not enough that you can generate 200 million dollars of additional revenue for a client. It is the fact that the way you will generate 200 million dollars worth of additional revenue is unique and is unique in a way that is beneficial to a client. Basic economics is at play here.

It is common to misunderstand value-based fees concept. People often think the skills they have is what determines how much they get paid. It is actually the scarcity of those skills that determines how much they get paid.

The same with a consulting firm. Value-based fees are not based on whether a consulting firm can generate value. Its whether the consulting firm is the only one able to generate that value.

You can see these supply and demand forces at play all the time in consulting work that becomes commoditized.

Think of something like business process reengineering, which is highly commoditized work. When firms put out a tender they usually go for the lowest-cost provider. Alternatively, think about outsourcing centers. It is a significant way to cut costs but have you ever heard of someone winning an outsourcing tender because they were the best at it? Most likely your answer is no. It’s a combination of price vs value that usually determines which firm will win such a type of engagement. And the power usually lies on the lower end of that scale, meaning price usually plays a bigger role in awarding contracts compared to value when commoditized work is being awarded.

Final thoughts

So in anything you compete, it is not enough whether you are adding value to a client, ask yourself whether you are the only one who could do that. The odds are you are not the only one who could do that. Then the question becomes: can you do it in a way that is unique and can you get the client to understand that your value is unique.

And if you could do that then value-based fees will work. If you can’t do that, don’t try value-based fees because it will just put a strain on your relationship with your client. The client will likely consider you unreasonable for suggesting value-based fees in such a situation and you will likely get upset with the client when they don’t want to pay you what you think you are worth. And unfortunately, the sad reality is you are not worth value-based fees if your skill is available in surplus capacity in the market.

WHAT IS NEXT? Enter your email/name at the top of the home page to get access to episodes from our advanced training programs.

value based fees


PODCASTS: If you enjoy our podcasts, we will appreciate if you visit our Case Interviews podcast or Strategy Skills podcast on iTunes and leave a quick review. It helps more people find us.

COME HANG OUT WITH US: Facebook / Twitter / LinkedIn / Instagram

ENGAGE ON FC FACEBOOK GROUPS: Strategy Skills / Case Interviews

Image from Roman Boed under cc, cropped.


Training by ex-McK, BCG et al. Partners

Receive free exclusive episodes to advanced strategy and case interview training programs, plus a chapter from Bill Matassoni's Memoir. This is the ONLY way to sample FC Insider material.

Where else can you learn from ex-partners?

Sign up to receive exclusive FC Insider episodes. Start now:

Privacy Policy


4 responses to Why Value-Based Fees Rarely Work in Consulting

  1. I believe there is also a difference between strategy and execution. Many firms will claim significant value in their studies, but often fully realizing thise benefits is very difficult even for the strongest clients.

    We’ve been successful with hybrid value-based pricing where we work with the executives to develop the strategy, and then side-by-side we co-lead implementation with their teams.

    I can think of a couple reasons this works for us. First, it allows us to offer lower up front costs and instead be judged for our performance when competing with more prestigious firms. Secondly, a lot of our approach is built on preparing your people to do what we do, and in doing so we have more control over making certain the strategies are executed as designed. The value here *is* execution, and fees are structured as such.

    I have seen two recent cases presented by MBB where their “value” was a percentage of savings from layoffs. This is one I really struggle with, as you may be deliberately cutting roles that could be better used elsewhere and creating a conflict of interest with your mandate for operating model / org design design.

  2. Hi,
    Insightful Article. I just wanted to know how the value based fee works. Say for example, during the consulting assignment, the consultant helped them to increase their sales volume to 30%, ie 2Million dollar increases in a month. So the value based fee will X% of 2Million or we have to multiply to one year increase in sales? (X% of (12*2M)

  3. Hello Ashish,

    Thanks for the compliment and question. Since it takes so much effort to specialize and become an expert, one should always pick a very narrow area of expertise. If you pick a very broad area it takes too much effort to specialize across such a wide area.

    Now as you specialize in the area focus on problems in that core area that are hard to solve or cannot be solved, never stray from this point. Many, many people reach some level of competency in an area and then diversify. Do not diversify. Stick to that core.

    You can diversify from the product you produce, but never the need you serve.

    It is not true to say that MBAs from top 3 schools are value-based. Their degrees connote the halo of value but that very quickly can change if they actually add no value.

    So know the need/problem you are solving/serving in a narrow area and constantly serve/solve it better and better. For example, do not settle just because you wrote a book on a happy marriage – assuming that is the need you are serving. The book is one way to serve the need. Is there a better way? Maybe an interactive App would work better? Maybe a online talk show? So you can see here that you need to find better and better ways to serve the same need.

    Some people would say that since they wrote a book, started a talk show etc, they should diversify into something like grief counseling. They reason that since they have client trust, they can do more with it. Yet, the competencies are very, very different. It forces them to split time, cpaital and even skills. That is a major problem because there is always a better way to serve the happy marriage need and if you do not do it, someone else will. That is guaranteed. Diversification pulls away resources from your core. It opens you to attacks.

    I was with several Nokia executives at a conference in 1998 when they said there is nothing more that can be done for mobile phones – which is why they wanted to diversify. They should not have. Blackberry came along, then Apple to show them they were wrong.

    You need relentless focus on a core need. But change the way you serve the need. Like Faber Castell, who have been making mainly pencils for well over 300 years, you need focus.

    With focus comes specialization and with specialization you not only dominate a market but you grow the market.

    You can do that. Nowhere does it say you need an MBA from Harvard etc. to be focused and specialized. That is a personality trait. It is an attribute not conferred by a degree.

    I would read “Marketing Myopia” by Theodore Levitt. He explains what I said above much better. That is the most important article ever written on strategy.

    I hope that helps.


  4. HI Michael

    Thanks for this article.

    I have a query.

    How can MBAs from non- Ivy B- schools work towards becoming value-based individuals for the marketplace? For example, how would an MBA from a rank 30 B-school become as value-based as say someone from say an MBA from a rank 1/2/3 B-school for a consulting career?

    I know it is not a linear process. What I am trying to understand is how can one shape one’s career to become the ONLY one in their field of work?

    For example Firmsconsulting is the ONLY one in their space, there is no one else. How can an individual raise their game to such a level that he/she is the only one? Is this transition possible at any age? Even after 30?

    I know the query is too broad so Any general inputs would also be extremely useful.


Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.