Types of Consulting Services: Forked Roads and Parallel Paths [Part 3 of 3]

October 31, 2019 Emily Slayton

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« Previously: Types of Consulting Firms
« Previously: Types of Consultants

Business Talent Group’s series on independent consulting has already examined where independents and big firms diverge in terms of people and problem solving frameworks. To wrap things up, we’re going to look at the types of consulting services that each resource can provide—and what projects are better suited to independent consultants vs. their big-firm counterparts.

Engaging Independents: Types of Consulting Services

Here are four different scenarios that outline the criteria that should drive your selection.

Scenario 1: When you need a big name to get buy-in

Though more and more Fortune 500 companies are tapping the high-end gig economy for consulting support, some organizations still struggle to secure C-suite buy-in. Meanwhile, others have yet to develop the internal infrastructure they need to successfully manage independent talent. Freelance consulting talent platforms can help with the latter, but getting buy-in can be quite a challenge for large, complex organizations.

This is particularly true when it comes to high-risk projects or complicated problems. Fear of failure is a strong motive for sticking to what’s tried and true. As the well-worn adage goes, “No one ever got fired for hiring McKinsey.” A big name can help bolster confidence in big decisions.

When the problem is risky but well-defined, the broad frameworks developed by the Big 3 can be applied with great success. Unfortunately, they also tend to come at great expense. That’s one reason the high-end independent consulting market has grown so significantly over the last decade: it offers name-brand expertise without name-brand consulting costs.

Still, few consulting projects can succeed without broad organizational buy-in. So if your board is apprehensive, go ahead and hire a Big 3 firm.

Scenario 2: When you’re hit by a sudden salvo of work

Some businesses are cyclical; others have periodic growth spurts. In either case, there comes a time when, suddenly, support runs short. Accounting firms can plan for this, as they know their peak time is going to be centered around the early spring. In other industries, however, sudden directives, looming deadlines, and fleeting opportunities can spur an urgent and immediate need for highly targeted strategic expertise.

According to Sandra Pinnavaia, BTG’s EVP and Chief Knowledge Officer, there are two ways this support shortage manifests in the corporate world: the need for more of the experts you already have, and the need for more of those you don’t.

“If you’re in corporate development and all of the sudden the market turns or you get a directive from the board that it’s time to pursue acquisitions, you need a real surge effort to get things launched or completed,” Pinnavaia said. “You need clones of the kind of people already on your team—and what independent consultants offer, at that point, is a way do that.”

Of course, many companies have already established internal consulting groups, but the members of these groups have their own day-to-day directives and priorities. It’s dangerous to assume that there’s enough room on anyone’s plate for a third or fourth—let alone 18th or 19th—helping of time-critical strategy work.

Plus, while your internal strategists are proficient in existing areas of the business, they might lack experience with other markets or technologies. In that case, it’s overkill to bring in a big firm; most of the work is already being addressed, and what’s needed is deeply knowledgeable support in a specific area of expertise.

“Maybe there’s somebody on the team that came out of consumer goods consulting, and maybe there’s somebody who’s really good at supply chain issues,” Pinnavaia said. “But what if there’s no one on the team who understands digital service pricing? The company may simply need someone with that very particular set of skills to get through a specific project.”

Scenario 3: When specific expertise is advantageous

Both big consulting firms and high-end independent marketplaces can deliver talented professionals with impressive credentials and deep familiarity with traditional problem-solving frameworks. In a traditional firm, however, senior consultants move progressively further away from applying that expertise, whereas independent consultants prefer to stay right in the thick of things.

“The independent professional world is full of people who love to actually do the work, and who have followed career paths that combine executive experience in an industry with time at a consulting firm. They’re especially oriented to be doers,” Pinnavaia explained. “In traditional consulting firms, the higher up you go inside a firm, the less you’re actually doing. Big firm consultants know a ton about the industry—there’s no question that they’re experts—but they’re only experts as consultants.”

Pinnavaia also emphasized that independent talent work is more clear-cut and focused. Independents are there to do the job they were hired to do, not scope out additional work or gather insights for other projects.

“Independent consultants are not compensated based on how much business they drive,” Pinnavaia said. “We hear a lot of clients say that they are overserved by the big firms. They are suspicious that they’re not just working but hunting for insights that will help them either develop other clients or to sell new projects to the same company.”

The independent professional world is full of people who love to actually do the work, and who have followed career paths that combine executive experience in an industry with time at a consulting firm. They’re especially oriented to be doers.

Scenario 4: When you want a more hands-off approach

There are times when big firms lend consultants to their clients for specific chunks of work. These consultants might integrate with the in-house consulting team; occasionally, they’ll even become full-time employees of the company. Some firms are more successful with this model than others. According to Pinnavaia, however, the majority of the arrangements are closest to hands-off outsourcing.

“The big firms would say that they are going to work in a very close way, but the reality is, you’re outsourcing the work to a firm that has a brand and a set of methodologies,” Pinnavaia said. “They’re going to do the work, you’re going to get progress reviews, and you can try to keep your teams integrated, but you’re really outsourcing almost everything.”

For some companies, and some projects, this hands-off approach might make sense. In cases where the work is critical to a company’s daily services and operations, blending internal teams with consulting talent delivers greater ROI.

“What an independent talent marketplace like BTG does with this full-time model is sort of white-label people into the company,” Pinnavaia said. “That way, they are positioned more as a temporary member of the team, as opposed to a traditional consultant who’s there to do it for you. That has quite a different feel to it—and BTG can do it very quickly. You get on-demand talent instead of just borrowing a McKinsey guy.”

Ultimately, if you’ve got a well-defined, high-risk problem and a conservative company culture, then a traditional firm might be the right fit. If, however, your support needs will fluctuate throughout the project, or if you have expertise gaps but want your team embedded in the process so they can help manage the outcome, independent consultants can do more—for a whole lot less.


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About the Author

Emily Slayton

Emily is an award-winning writer who specializes in B2B marketing. She has been helping global brands reach targeted audiences to drive sales and awareness for more than 15 years. As a small business owner herself (skeletonkeybrewery.com), she understands what it's like to source a team that can scale with sudden growth.

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