Why I Work With Independent Strategy Consultants: Western Union’s Eva Smith

October 8, 2019 Leah Hoffmann

Eva Smith is the Vice President of Corporate Strategy for Western Union. In our latest Expert Q&A, she speaks to us about why she works with independent strategy consultants—and how two of BTG’s consultants helped her team launch a roadside assistance business.

The process went very smoothly, and the consultants delivered exactly what we needed.
As Allstate’s VP of Strategy, you managed a team of in-house consultants that served the business on various initiatives.

I had a core team, but we always had more demand than we could fulfill. There’s a lot going on in the insurance industry, and insurance companies are facing significant disruption. If you’re a strategy consultant, it’s a great place to be, but it also creates a lot of work.

How did you handle the overload?

We would staff our project teams using my core consultants. Where we turned to after that depended on the scope and complexity of the engagement. On big corporate initiatives, we used traditional consulting firms, who came with a big team and a lot of resources. On smaller initiatives, we would fill in with resources from a business unit or a functional team like marketing or tax. But we still had capacity and expertise gaps, and that’s when I found out about Business Talent Group.

You engaged Business Talent Group for two different projects at Allstate. Can you describe them?

Both projects were tied to an internal start-up in the roadside assistance business. Historically, roadside assistance has relied on what we call traditional providers. If you have a flat tire, we’ll notify a company in our network, and they’ll come to help you out. But speed is critical, so the more providers you have, the greater the chances are that someone is close and can react quickly. With our start-up, we were trying to build a new network that relied on crowdsourced providers for repairs that didn’t require a tow truck. The idea was that, with proper training, even I could change a tire. And I might be able to stop and change a tire on my way to work or be on call for a couple of hours.

Using independent strategy consultants to build a business like that makes a lot of sense.

It does. When we were just getting going, we needed somebody with specific technical expertise in roadside assistance to help us prepare for launch. Business Talent Group identified three candidates who were all technically qualified, so we had the luxury of picking the one we thought would be the best fit for us culturally. The process went very smoothly, and the consultant delivered exactly what we needed for a successful launch.

Then, maybe a year later, we were in a number of different markets, and we trying to optimize the business’s performance. So we went back to BTG for a very different skill-set, namely someone with start-up experience who could help us think through distribution and so on. That, too, went very smoothly. I was impressed by how fast the process was, and I didn’t feel like we sacrificed quality at all.

Had it not been for BTG, would you have turned to a traditional consulting firm for this kind of work?

We had a big corporate parent behind us, but they were funding us like a start-up. And we didn’t need a big consulting team—we needed one person with very specific expertise for a specific amount of time. BTG’s model was a perfect fit.

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Eventually, you left Allstate and launched your own independent strategy consulting practice.

I had been commuting from Colorado to Illinois, where Allstate is located, for a number of years. Eventually, it was time for me to move on, and I started my own consulting company. I had a lot of direct referrals, but they were in different industries and scattered all over the country. BTG connected me with some local opportunities, and that led to an engagement with my current employer, Western Union. My intent was to stay independent, but you end up with some pretty interesting assignments through BTG, and this one just worked out.

We didn’t need a big consulting team—we needed one person with very specific expertise for a specific amount of time. BTG’s model was a perfect fit.
Did being a former client help you hone your positioning as an independent consultant?

When I worked with BTG as a client, I was very specific about my assignments and the capabilities that I needed to complete them. As a consultant, I knew I would get the best matches if I could be thoughtful, honest, and precise about my strengths. BTG’s onboarding process for new consultants facilitates that, and it was comforting to know that that was in everybody’s interest.

How does your ability to make an impact change when you’re working as an independent strategy consultant vs. as an in-house strategist?

One challenge of being an independent consultant is that you don’t have all the context. You might not know if the problem that the client is asking you to solve is the right one. There’s also a big learning curve, because you have to understand the culture in order to create an actionable strategy.

But what you bring as an independent consultant is a lot of objectivity. You can be honest in ways that are difficult to be as an internal consultant, and you can stay apart from some of the politics. Finally, you can draw upon a broader and more diverse set of experiences, versus just one company’s experience and way of doing things.

From the client side, how does engaging independent strategy consultants compare with engaging a traditional firm?

The flexibility of using independent consultants is always a great draw. You can buy exactly what you need, and you can choose who you want to work with. It’s fast. You get good quality. Traditional consulting firms have industry specialists, but they don’t always have access to the kinds of highly specialized skill sets clients need.

That said, there are a lot of reasons to engage a traditional consulting firm, whether it’s because you need a lot of resources or the C-suite credibility. But when those firms leave, there’s still lots of work to be done to execute what they’ve developed. In situations when you don’t have the skills or the capacity to do that work internally, the hybrid model of using independent consultants to help implement is a very good solution.


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About the Author

Leah Hoffmann

Leah Hoffmann is a former journalist who has worked for Forbes.com and The Economist. She is passionate about clear thinking, sharp writing, and strong points of view.

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