Which should you choose?, ...when?, ...and why?
'No-one ever got fired for buying IBM'. A perennial risk-management mantra. The other side of this coin is the implication that you'll be obtaining the very best mediocrity that money can buy. You'll be pleasantly surprised if you receive excellence but you're not really expecting it.
There are Pro's and Con's – and the choice depends on the fit you need.
When you buy big, you're basing your purchase on reputation. You are tapping into an organization with large resources that will be able to deliver. You are engaging an organization that can offer you a service that they have done many times before, and they know just what to do to 'crank the handle' to churn it out. The level of comfort this provides is certainty.
When you buy boutique, you're going to be engaging a specialist. Someone with a penchant for a particular technology, and/or someone with significant experience in a single vertical market segment. You're engaging someone with more intensive knowledge in who is going to produce the right results, quickly and effectively. They are not going to apply the one size fits all solution to your business problems.
More to the point they are a specialist. With the larger corporates you are likely to have the actual work undertaken by a more junior person. The senior partners are more often doing the sales work, engaging the client and overseeing the account rather than using their extensive expertise to deliver the results. The extra distance between the specialist and the coal-face means that insights that they might have detected may be obscured through the inexperience of the practitioner doing the work combined with the routinized approach to the analysis.
The boutique specialist will likely understand your industry already and you aren't going to be paying the consultant top hourly rates for you to educate them! They will know what questions to ask, and they come with a point of view. A boutique consultant should tell the client exactly what the problem is, without sugar-coating, or worrying about the egos of the people involved. You're paying to have the problem fixed, not massaged out of view.
Where a consultant discovers that part of the problem domain is outside of their expertise, a good consultant will engage others to augment the knowledge gap. The difference here is that a boutique consultant will engage another specialist whereas a corporate entity is more likely to look in-house for those skills and find the closest match.
People engage consultants for a variety of reasons, but the most common are:
- They lack the expertise to undertake the work
- They lack the resources to do the work
- They require external assistance to make a tough decision
Before you engage a consultant, whether that be big or boutique:
- Decide whether you are committed to fixing the problem
- Don't set overtight deadlines if you don't really need them
If you know the answer you want already, but you want to instruct an 'independent' company to make the recommendation, then buy big. No one is going to argue with their reputation, but more importantly boutique companies aren't there to rubber stamp solutions, particularly if the solution doesn't match their point of view. Boutique companies stand and fall on their integrity and they are unlikely to take you on as a customer.
Often companies seeking the services of consultants set very tight timeframes, both to respond to proposals and to undertake the work. The tight timeframes are usually related to meeting internal KPIs only. Big consultancies are geared up to meet these tight timeframes and boutique ones will struggle for such a timely response. The reality is, that once a recommendation is delivered the customer rarely acts on it promptly. Setting tight timeframes might tick your boxes and keep your boss happy, but if your goal is to get to the root of the problem and generate custom solutions in areas where specialist expertise is an essential component, then give yourself and your preferred consultant time to generate the best outcomes for you.