Let’s face it, many reasons we say a client should hire us instead of a large consulting firm don’t hold water.
We’re smart; they’re smart too. We’re responsive; their project teams are responsive. We’re experienced; they’re experienced. We sing Christmas carols in the shower; they sing Christmas carols in the shower, in harmony. Maybe. I’m not sure about that last one.
Are there any legitimate reasons a client should eschew large consultancies? Yes.
Before I start whaling on big firms, let me say that I have tremendous admiration and respect for the consultants in giant, brand-name organizations. Seriously. They are smart, dedicated, well-trained and generally well-intentioned. And more of them should leave the nest and become cool, independents like us.
Okay, let the whupping begin.
When your clients and prospects are leaning toward hiring a large consulting firm instead of yours, it’s your duty to ensure they consider the following issues:
Economies of Snails
In a production economy, “economies of scale” were a key driver of success. In today’s knowledge economy bigger doesn’t mean better. Five hundred mediocre strategists do not have better ideas than a solo strategic genius. They just reach more people with their mediocre ideas.
Plus, large firms are slower to adopt new ideas and best practices than boutique consultancies. It takes far longer to migrate a killer, new approach or the learning from a project to 5,000 consultants than to five.
Brilliance Has Left the Building
The biggest names in innovative thinking regularly leave the confines of the large firms to form their own groups. Examples include Tom Peters and Clayton Christenson. Other gurus whose thinking has shaped the business environment never joined large consulting companies at all: Peter Drucker, Michael Hammer, and Stephen Covey, to name just a few.
A while ago I analyzed a year’s worth of Harvard Business Review articles to find out where thought leadership comes from. Over 70% of the contributors hailed from small, independent consulting firms. Only 18% of the contributors came from big name mega-consultancies.
Yeah, and Operators Were Important Too
Back in great-grandpa’s time folks depended on a telephone operator to dial for them. “Connect me to Burnsterberry 549 please.” Thanks to modern technology, we can call anyone, anywhere in the world with a few key presses (or by sitting on our phone). Operators would just be in the way.
Similarly, a few decades ago there was no easy way for a client to find the best consulting talent in the world for a particular problem, so they’d depend on a big firm to find brainiacs, train them and house them under one roof. Thanks to the internet, Google, and firms like Zintro, Elance and my own Ascendant Consortium, clients can find the ideal consultant anywhere in the world with a few key presses. Big firms aren’t a conduit to the best talent. They’re just in the way.
The Customer’s Always Right, But the Customer Ain’t Always You
Clients who hire independent consultants are generally working with an owner or partner at the consulting firm. The client’s opinion is the sole determinant of the consultant’s success on the project and it’s darn clear who the customer is: the client.
Clients who engage a team from a large firm are generally working with analysts, consultants, managers or maybe a vice president or junior partner. All of those people have bosses inside the consulting firm. Bosses who determine the consultant’s career trajectory and financial rewards. Bosses who need to be made happy. Hmm, who’s the customer now?
… add your “Defense” against large firms below.
The first four “defenses” were adapted from Chapter 6 of The Executive’s Guide to Consultants. (If you don’t have a copy yet, now’s a good time to pick one up!) But I want to hear yours.
What other issues should clients be aware of before they sign a contract with a large consulting firm?
Text and images are © 2022 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.