At a panel discussion with Brilliant Hunch, 2020 Delivery, CIL and Advancy, these boutique consultancies explained how they hire, whether they use freelancers, their approach to training, and the competitive advantages of boutiques v. other consultancies.
As part of a new focus on events, we ran the first evening on boutique consulting on 27th April 2017. We heard fascinating perspectives on the unique features that make boutiques attract talented consultants when big consulting firms don’t. We heard astute questions from the audience, and insightful responses from Brilliant Hunch, CIL, 2020 Delivery and Advancy. Below, you’ll find a summary of the evenings Q&A on boutiques.
Lee Pickavance, Partner at Hunch; James De La Salle, Associate Director at CIL Management Consultants; Katie Metselaar, Senior Consultant at 2020 Delivery; and Stepan Wildt, Partner at Advancy.
Q1: CIL works mostly with Private Equity funds. Private Equity is a cyclical industry – how does a boutique cope with the uncertainty?
James: It is definitely difficult. But consulting itself is a cyclical industry, and CIL as a boutique manages this issue in a similar way to big consulting firms; by working with growth businesses to back the UK economy’s ability to fund these, and by managing internally to make sure the cost base is never too high. CIL also works with freelance consultants during times of high demand, instead of having to let long-term employees go when business is slower.
Q2: Aside from CIL, how many of the boutiques present use freelance consultants?
Stepan: Advancy doesn’t really use them for two reasons. First, when the team meets good people, however many, they try to recruit them permanently instead of hiring them on a freelance basis. Secondly, Advancy’s HQ is in France, where the freelance consulting space is not as well-developed as it is in the UK, so it’s harder to find the same level of skill there.
Katy: 2020 Delivery does nearly the opposite because of the nature of its work in healthcare. It is very hard to achieve anything in that space without some internal support, so many of 2020’s associates are senior clinicians. The firm also relies on associate companies for skills such as modelling, while strategy is the internal focus.
Lee: As a young, small company Hunch regularly needs freelancers to be able to flex as business fluctuates, but it also uses expert networks and core teams of “safe hands”. The freelance consultants used are highly talented people who can quickly understand the ‘Hunch way’, so the quality of freelance available is a big factor.
Q3: What is a boutique consulting firm’s approach to training and development?
Stepan: For good training go to the big firms – if by ‘good training’ we mean structured, clearly defined and regular programmes, not on-the-job learning. In a boutique, training is provided internally and when there is time. But, surely, the kind of skills you pick up when speaking to a CEO are much more valuable than being told how to talk to a CEO by someone in a classroom?
Katie: 2020 Delivery’s training programme is actually very structured – and so fairly good – because it is essential for the company’s USP: a big part of 2020’s work is capability-building in healthcare so that change can be sustainable. So it’s really important to put all consultants through training that gives them the skills for this. Admittedly, training is slower than what it can be in a big firm, but it is good. And because a boutique is smaller and people’s strengths and weaknesses are known to the trainers, it is possible to flex training to individual needs in a way that is impossible in a McKinsey, Bain or BCG.
James: CIL also provides very structured training, partly because it often hires graduates who have to be up-skilled (the best way to teach Excel, for instance, is in a class room, not on the job). Consistent training also ensures that CIL can maintain consistent product and quality. Finally, giving all new hires strong training reduces churn, which is essential for a smaller firm that can’t handle attrition the same way a large consultancy can.
Lee: Training? At Hunch we just don’t do it. There isn’t enough time for it, which is why it’s so important to bring in freelancers who have already got the basic consulting training. The partners spend more time with good people they want to retain, so their personal development needs are met.
Q4: What are the competitive advantages of boutiques vs. the big consulting firms?
Lee: Approach, methodology, and how the company communicates these is what differentiates a boutique from a big firm. And because boutiques are different, they tend to land different kinds of clients. But aside from that, consulting is a relationship business, and boutiques rely on referrals as much as the big firms.
James: CIL is a market leader in Private Equity, and the weight and case study of expertise wins work. As a boutique, you can’t trade on brand so you absolutely must have sector expertise.
Katie: Sector expertise is hugely important. 2020 Delivery doesn’t outsource hiring so that the current team can ensure that every new hire meets company values and has what it takes for developing sector expertise.
Stepan: On top of all of the above, boutiques also carry out real, individual assessments of client needs. Because they can’t trade on brand, they must have a humbler approach, and also a clearer focus on what the client wants. This is often an advantage compared to big firm’s pitches that are based on having already worked on a similar problem in the past, not on the specifics of the problem at hand.
Q5: How much does under-delivery (or even failure to deliver) affect brand in a boutique?
Stepan: Under-delivery is simply not an option – every member of a boutique needs to over-deliver.
Lee: If you under-deliver your heart probably isn’t in your work, so you just won’t last, as much because of the strain and demands of the work as because of the importance of delivering. It’s that simple.
Q6: Big firm v. small consultancy – how does that affect the skill-set and personality needed?
Lee: In a small consultancy the right mix of skills and people is key. Trying to make sure that right mix is there is why Hunch relies on freelance consultants so much.
James: In a boutique this can be really tricky. A bad hire will hurt a small firm a lot – it will suck in a lot of management time, for one thing. And you need real diversity to really understand client needs, which is why CIL is moving towards blind hiring.
Stepan: A boutique can find it hard to recruit people from outside of consulting. Because there isn’t time to train people from scratch, the risk would simply be too high. Big firms, on the other hand, can hire people just out of university or from different industries and give them training from the basics.
Katie: On top of the above, a small consultancy can also struggle to reach out to non-consultants. This is an issue, because small firms lose the diversity that is so important when they hire people from similar backgrounds. 2020 Delivery overhauled its recruitment processes last year to address this issue, introducing blind hiring as well.
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