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The 8 Objections to Small Consulting Firms (and How to Respond to Each)

Last week, we highlighted the downsides clients face when working with large consulting firms. That was fun. But if we’re honest, we know clients also harbor legitimate concerns about working with independent consultants like us.

Some gurus suggest a clever turn of phrase and bravado will overcome your prospect’s worries. Good luck with that.

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I suggest you take a more thoughtful, deliberate approach. A bit of well-focused effort will mitigate many concerns and make you a more attractive consultant.

8 Common Objections Small Consultants Hear
(and Responses to Each)

Lack of Cachet

There is no denying that most small consulting firms do not have the prestige associated with “brand name” consultancies.

Questionable Consistency/Reliability

Like McDonalds, big firms may not deliver the tastiest fare, but clients can count on a consistent product. Small firms appear much riskier.

Response: Create case studies and other proof that you have a history of completing similar projects. At some new business meetings, I’ve plunked down a table full of binders illustrating past projects. The impression created is extraordinary depth accumulated over many years and projects.

Second-Rate Horsepower/Expertise

Big firms make a show of staffing with elite B-school graduates and extremely seasoned executives. Does that matter? You bet it does. Credentials bolster confidence.

Response: Hire an outsider to polish your creds to a fine luster. (Outsiders aren’t constrained by your modesty.) Then make your credentials easy to find in your marketing, materials, website and proposals. Maybe you didn’t attend Oxford, but you have your own assets. Don’t be shy about dressing up what you’ve got.

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Missing Project Management Expertise

Boutique consulting firms and solo shops frequently lack strong, project management skills.

Response: Foreshadow your project management chops with a buttoned-up new business process. That means pre-developed templates for key documents and rapid response times from start to finish.

Additional Response: Subcontract project management to an expert (and let the client know you have that facility in-house). It’s a minor expense and you’ll be amazed at what a trained professional can do for your efficiency and the quality of your output.

Limited Capacity and Footprint (Part 1)

Clients understandably question a small firm’s ability to carry a massive, international project.

Response: If the prospect truly needs an army of boots on the ground, decline the project. Know what projects are not a good match for your firm. Creating loose, international networks of colleagues rarely works well in practice.


Limited Capacity and Footprint (Part 2)

Even on smaller projects, clients worry a small consulting firm with few resources will be less attentive if the consultant takes on additional clients.

Response: Reassure clients by knocking their socks off with responsiveness and by never missing a deadline. Ever.

Weak Processes/Lack of Training

Big firms invest heavily to develop robust, impressive approaches. Compared to that level of sophistication, small firms can look Mickey Mouse.

Response: Embrace the hard work of ensuring your approaches are solid and robust too. Learn how big firms tackle the problems you solve, and stay abreast of the emerging best practices in your field.

Additional Response: Reframe; i.e., replace traditional thinking with an exciting, new perspective. To be adept at reframing you must develop your own, compelling models and know them inside out.

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Difficult to Manage

The same personality traits that inspire us to be independent can make us a challenge for clients.

Response: Be easy to do business with (ETDBW). Read more about ETDBW in this article.

Limited Capabilities

A large firm that boasts broad capabilities is easier to find than multiple specialists and, in theory, can respond more easily to changes in scope.

Response: Push back on the client’s decision to go with the easiest solution rather than the best. One-stop-shops are never best at everything and they’re naturally biased toward their own capabilities. If skill sets beyond your own are required, consider supplementing your team with subcontractors.

What other responses have you used to assuage prospects’ concerns about you being a small firm?


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8 Comments
  1. Lacey
    December 9, 2015 at 8:21 am Reply

    My go-to selling point when engaging in this kind of discussion with a prospect is for them not to be so quick to look up the biggest name they can find. Proof of my proficiency is always available to them while positioning my content marketing services as an investment, not an expense.

    Besides, the greener grass they’re certain only a big brand can deliver could be just beautifully-packaged AstroTurf.

    Thanks for another excellent post, David. These are important vantage points to consider.

    • David A. Fields
      December 9, 2015 at 8:37 am Reply

      The greener grass is “beautifully packaged AstroTurf.” I love that. Focusing on the results and how you can deliver them is always a good approach. Thank you for contributing your thoughts, Lacey.

  2. Susan Moore
    December 9, 2015 at 8:46 am Reply

    David,

    Thank you for yet another great post. I picked up your book, “An Executive’s Guide to Consultants,” after a recent posting and hope to read it over the holidays. I’ve remained a solo consultant for 25 years, shying away from building a larger consultancy after being burned out on managing people from my last real job as Director of Operations. A year ago I was still a solo practitioner, and now I have three subcontractors, with the attendant growing pains. Worked has basically dropped into my lap after all these years of building reputation and capability. I am taking on a project manager, but have no idea what the market rate for that skill is. Would anyone be able to assist with this? I’ve appreciated your posts and am trying to heed your advice with limited time and energy due to work as many hours as I’d like and need to. Your online tool recommendations were very helpful. Thanks for what you do (and those stick figures frequently bring a smile to my face).

    • David A. Fields
      December 9, 2015 at 10:31 am Reply

      Thank you for the kind words, Susan, and for picking up a copy of The Executive’s Guide to Consultants. (Everyone who’s reading take note: the book makes a great holiday gift. Please buy in blocks of 1,000.)

      Seriously, congratulations on the expansion of your firm and for solidly building your reputation over many years. That’s an accomplishment to be proud of. The market rate for project management varies, of course, on the skill and the project. I’ve paid $20k on some projects and much less on others. If you are getting a certified PMP (professional project manager) you’ll pay more. Some projects don’t warrant that.

      Let’s see whether any other readers can shed some light on the market rate for project managers. Also, please post your question on the Solo Consultants Network on LinkedIn.

  3. Mark Prus
    December 9, 2015 at 12:56 pm Reply

    Another terrific article David! As a single-person consulting shop, I run into these issues often. It is great to have a few more weapons in the toolkit. I especially liked the “say no” answer if the client asks for you to do something that goes way beyond your reach. I often say no and recommend another company (even a competitor) if the client wants something I cannot do. Better to pass than to disappoint.

    • David A. Fields
      December 9, 2015 at 3:41 pm Reply

      Mark, you go the extra step. Saying “No” when a gig isn’t appropriate for your firm and adding value by pointing them toward a better resource. You’re demonstrating integrity and that you have prospect’s interests at heart, both of which build Trust. I have no doubt that those excellent practices are rewarding you with many repeat clients. Thanks for posting and for the kind words.

  4. Lori Silverman
    December 17, 2015 at 2:00 pm Reply

    Hi David,
    None of these are what I hear. What I get is: “Our procurement procedures no longer allow us to work with a firm like yours due to IRS rulings. Thus, you need to go through one of our pre-certified brokers.” On one gig, the firm I subbed to had to go through the broker so there were three layers of complexity added to the mix. Now, you know, of course, the broker wants a significant cut of the action, merely for processing paperwork. A second thing I’m finding is companies are being forced by procurement policy to go directly to brokers with gigs so they don’t have to screen multiple candidates for engagements and can pay lower fees, even if they know someone like me personally!! These brokers call me a couple times a week, all offering very low hourly rates and no T&E (e.g., work FT for 6 months for $40/hour on a W2).I don’t think either of these scenarios are going away. It’s caused me to take a totally different tact toward gaining new clients.
    It’s a new world out there, Lori

    • David A. Fields
      December 18, 2015 at 11:04 am Reply

      Lori, the “IRS rulings” gambit is a new one on me. I’ve actually never encountered that in any client, from Fortune 10 to Local 1000. That may be worth a call to a tax professional, because I certainly haven’t heard of any IRS rulings that would preclude a client from working with an independent. Unless, of course, they are looking for full-time, outsourced labor, which can be tricky. That’s outsourcing, though, sneaking under the banner of consulting. They’re hiring arms & legs, not brains.

      Where I have seen brokers play the biggest role is on the IT side, and I don’t think that’s where you play. However, maybe the practice is spreading to other functions too and it just hasn’t hit my radar yet. Since the Ascendant Consortium is similar to brokers in many ways, I can’t say I’m averse to the idea; however, it would definitely be frustrating to most independent consultants to be squeezed out in this way.

      Thanks for adding this new wrinkle to the discussion.

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