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Business Consulting Firm Growth Guide

Our New Business Consulting iTunes Channel

Our new Business Consulting channel is about the mechanics or the business of running and growing a consulting firm. Business Consulting channel does not cover items covered in our other podcast channels such as the Strategy Skills podcast, which deep dives into real engagements and teaches how to structure, breakdown, and prioritize studies.

We also have the Case Interviews & Management Consulting podcast that prepares mostly students but also experienced hires for case interviews at major firms such as McKinsey, the Boston Consulting Group, Bain as well as Deloitte, and so on. These podcasts not only teach skills needed to pass a case interviews, but also the foundational skills to understand strategy. For example, if you need to complete a decision tree on an actual strategy engagement, the tools will teach you on how to build together decision trees, how to apply judgment, and how to do estimations.

We call these foundational skills. We teach these in the Case Interviews & Management Consulting podcast channel as well as in the case interview material as part of our membership programs.

Growing a Business Consulting Firm

In the Business Consulting podcast, we are not going to discuss foundational strategy skills a.k.a. how to join a McKinsey, BCG, or Bain. We are going to leave that for the Case Interview & Management Consulting podcast channel. Here, we are going to focus only on the business of running and growing a consulting firm and the issues that you would face largely due to generating sales but also building out capabilities, generating new intellectual property, and so on, which is a difficult task. We also have a video version of episodes from Business Consulting channel which are published on our YouTube channel.

Content Scope is not Exclusively Focused on Large Consulting Firms

I want to point out that this program is not going to be exclusively focused on strategy boutiques, or strategy practices at large firms. This program is applicable to any type of consulting whether it is operations, technology, digital, implementation, organizational, human resources, and even other types of consulting that may not fit within the traditional management consulting sphere. If you are consulting, irrespective of it being a food consulting business or any other business, all our teachings are going to apply because the principles are roughly the same.

But, of course, I will be using examples from the traditional consulting sphere because that is where I grew up as a Partner at one of the major firms and later running a very large boutique firm. So I will be drawing all of that together as a starting point.

business consulting

Acknowledging That Launching A Consulting Firm Is Hard and A Remarkable Thing

As a starting point, I want you to take some time here to acknowledge what a remarkable thing you are doing by either launching your own consulting firm or even running the office or a practice of a firm. Let us say you are running the office of KPMG in some smaller location or smaller country, it is as if you are running your own firm because you are far away from the traditional support structures that those firms have. The same is true for McKinsey, BCG, Bain, and Deloitte, and so on.

So, whether you are working at one of these big firms in a tiny office or launching your own business consutling firm or have launched your own business consulting firm, it is important to pause for a second, go to your refrigerator, take out a nice bottle of wine, maybe a nice red. Pop it open and have a drink and celebrate the fact that you are doing something that is pretty hard to do.

And, oftentimes when you read about support for consulting firms, people do not take the time to acknowledge how hard it is and what a great achievement it is to start on this journey. Now, of course, if you are driving, I would not suggest you to be having a glass of red or white and maybe leave that for when you park your car in the garage, get out and are nowhere near a steering wheel. But the gist here is that what you are doing is impressive.

I have been in consulting my whole life. I was a partner at one of the major international firms, then at a boutique firm which I led through a turnaround. And I have been advising many consulting firms of all sizes since I left. It is a unique industry to be in. You do not get enough support.

It is not a regulated industry, so a lot of people are doing it. But it is almost as if you are alone 99% of the time, even though you know other people are doing it. Even if you get together with them and talk to them about the challenges you are facing, it is still a lonely journey.

What I am hoping through this new program is that, although I may not be able to remove all of the loneliness you will face, and I wish I could do that. But I want you to know that there is somewhere you can go where there is a dedicated support on the business or launching and growing a business consulting firm or any consulting firm.

Support on Launching or Growing a Consulting Business

So, there is dedicated support needed for launching and growing a management consulting or any other consulting business. And while I talk about celebrating and not feeling down about things, it is important to remember this quote from Theodore Roosevelt. It is a great quote. You can read it below.

business consulting firm

But what I want to say here is that, whenever you launch a consulting business, it is a scary proposition. You are going to go to someone, and usually someone you don’t know, because it’s unlikely your contacts of a network will be so broad that you are going to know everyone you are going to serve in advance.

So, you are largely going to go to someone you do not know, and you are going to ask them to give you money so that you can advise them. You are like a therapist, a counselor to business people. And for better or for worse, it is an industry that is looked down upon.

A business consultant is looked down upon, unless you are working at one of the big gigantic international firms. If you are a consultant by yourself or part of a smaller collective, you are treated as if you are trying to break into something revered but haven’t made that transition yet.

If you try to explain to people that you are a consultant, they assume that you may not have been as successful in industry, which is why you are consulting. They feel you are trading some outdated knowledge for fees.

The bottom line is that you do not get the support you want. In fact, you are criticized. People treat you as if you have not made it, which is why you are consulting.

Do Not Worry about People Who Do Not Matter

When I was at a Partner of the major firm, I went to events whereby you meet boutique consultants and some of them are very confident. But there are others who are almost embarrassed to say they are a consultant. It is almost as if they failed.

So, what I want you to get comfortable with is that do not worry about what people say about you. The Dr. Seuss line goes something along the lines of Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.

I want you to not worry about why you are doing consulting or what people think about you or how your friends are reacting to it. You are doing something quite important. You are helping businesses become better. You are helping them become more efficient, more profitable. As they become more profitable, they pay more taxes. Those taxes get recycled into the economy and everyone benefits.

So, it is an important role. It is a difficult role. I am not going to take that away from you. And I know that many of you listening to this have been through difficult times whereby you had to cut expenses. You had to maybe not take your family on a vacation. You maybe had to not buy clothing for a few years because being a management consultant especially an independent one, even within a smaller firm, is difficult.

When I was a partner I helped some offices turn themselves around. I have helped start up new offices within the firm. It is difficult to do that. Even if you have the backing of a multi-billion-dollar international consulting firm behind you. I can only imagine how hard it must be if you are by yourself with just one or two or three people.

So, as you go through this process and you are going to be criticized and people are going to say, “why do you work at this tiny firm” or “you are not like McKinsey or you’re not like Deloitte,” or “you’re not like Accenture”. Whatever the criticism you are going to get, remember you are doing it and that is what matters. So, expect the criticism but do not take it personally.

And, even though it is easy for me to say, “don’t take it personally”, I know you are going to take it personally. But if you feel someone is criticizing you, post a comment for this episode on youtube and I will respond to it through a future episode teaching you how to manage things.

But the point is you are not alone here.

Trying To Build A Consulting Firm Is A Daunting Challenge, But Through This Channel You Will Not Be Alone

The process of growing a consulting firm is daunting. Trying to build business consulting firm or any consulting firm that is sustainable is very hard.

I have put together a rough overview of what is involved.

business consulting firm

New Ideas and Capabilities

So, let us start with new ideas and capabilities. As consultants, we sell an idea that we believe is going to help the client fix a problem, avoid a problem, or push a problem into the future. There is nothing wrong with pushing a problem in the future if you are not able to fix it now. The point is we have some ideas, some capabilities. Even in implementation, we are selling the idea that we can implement it to get results better than if the client did it alone. So, we do research, we write up previous work that we have done, and we market it.

Marketing the Ideas and Capabilities

Marketing is developing new ideas and capabilities by taking an idea to a client and getting their feedback you adjust the capabilities you have. So the capability maybe you know how to reduce costs in a supply chain. You may have a new unique way of developing corporate strategy and so on.

Client discussions and marketing go hand in hand. As you speak to clients, you find new things they want to do or problems they want to solve. As you take ideas to clients, they obviously respond, and you figure out new ways of doing things. You then take all of that and integrate it into your work and package it as a service you want to sell to a client.

You then need to make sure clients know you have this capability and they understand the value that sits behind that capability. So, you do not necessarily need to have a website, but we can talk about that later. You may have one, but you do not need to have articles, videos and audio programming, describing the work you have done at clients, discussing issues. You may have to have an office but you do not need an office.

Having an office is a bit overrated. I can talk about it more later but as an example, when we were setting up offices, we did not always have a physical office. Sometimes when a Partner goes into a new country, they work out of the apartment, which is very common, until they set up things. You may publish books, again, not necessarily but sometimes they can help. You sometimes email clients, you have social media, business cards, and so on. Now all of this is marketing to pursue a client.

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FIRMSconsulting Insider – Access to Detailed Steps on Sales and Delivery

If you are an FC Insider and want to understand how to go about picking the clients, prioritizing the clients, if there is a scorecard for you to follow and so on, then you should follow the new program we have called growing a consulting business. This program has very detailed steps in terms of how to go about developing, for lack of a better word, “sales relationship” or developing a relationship that leads to a situation where a client will give you money.

That leads to sales which has multiple processes of preparation. You need to prepare for a sale, you have multiple meetings with the client, you have to build some proposals, and there will be some negotiation.

Then you need to prepare for delivery of the project. You will need to use some type of technology, whether it is a laptop and so on. Technology is an important part here. You need to prepare for the delivery. You need to onboard the client, prepare them for what is going to come.

You need to run the engagement itself. You need to develop a benefits case, which is the value of doing the study. If there is no value from having done the study, why are you there?

You need to sell on, which means that you need to get new work at the client.

Once all that is done, you need to do post-delivery work, which means that all of the work that you have done so far at the client, you will need to write up that study so that you can explain it to other clients, your colleagues and future employees.

You need to create templates. For example, if you have developed some new techniques for the client, you need to convert them into templates that you can use in other studies. You need to extract data from this previous engagement so you can build databases.

If you develop new concepts, you must write it up. You must use this to generate new sales. You need to populate your content library. And, of course, training and recruiting, which are very painful.

Prioritizing Work Through Moving from Variable Cost Model to Fixed Cost Model

You must do this to build a consulting firm. Whether you do all of this at the same time or you are a younger firm and you do not do all of this. The point is you must take a decision on if you are going to do this.

If you are generating sales, are you going to do it the way most firms do, which is based on a time and material, for lack of a better word. Even McKinsey and BCG largely have time and material.

You can also follow a model whereby you are charging a client for recurring sales, which is now the holy grail. Even McKinsey and Deloitte are going down that path. They are not very good at it, but we will talk more about it more later.

Are changes required?

Do you continue working the way you always have, if you are the senior partner in your firm. Because at a certain point as you start bringing in clients, you must move to a fixed cost model whereby as a person bringing in sales, you are not generating income for every hour you work. Instead you have leverage whereby if you were working eight hours a day, one year ago and you only had one sale per month, now you are working eight hours a day but you need something like three sales per month. That is known as a fixed cost model because the number of hours you work are fixed but you are producing more output.

Your team on the other hand, almost always is going to be on a variable cost model whereby they get paid as they work. But you need to introduce efficiencies for that. Of course, you could break that by switching to a recurring revenue model. We will talk about that possibly in future episodes.

Now, if you want to see examples of how all of this is done along with some examples of best practices and how to generate insights, for limited time only, we have advanced preview episoded of some of our best content. So, only for a limited time, if you go to firmsconsulting.com/promo and opt in, we will send you a series of emails with complimentary episodes from our FC Insider program. So, you can see how this is done at the highest level of operations as done by some of the most elite firms in the world.

This is the overall process. As we go through this channel, are we going to zoom in on different parts of it. Obviously, there are many things I could cover but I don’t want to just cover things that I know that are useful but may not be useful to you at this point in time. So, if you have a question regarding wanting a particular portion covered, my recommendation is to post a question in the comments on Youtube. We will use the comments as input for future episodes.

Maintaining the Overall Model Is Difficult But Not Impossible

So, this is your overall model. It is a model that is very difficult to maintain. I have lots of friends who are ex McKinsey, ex BCG partners. Some of them are very senior partners. But I can tell you that every single one of them, these are very senior guys, who launched a consulting business, they will not tell you it failed because they do not want to use that language. But they have stopped being consultants. Their little boutiques all closed up shop.

I do not know of anyone who successfully set up a boutique business consulting firm and made it sustainable. If you speak to them, they will always tell you, “I got a better offer” and so on. But obviously, if they had a better offer in corporate to return to, that means that the boutique was making less money or had potential to make less money or was less attractive than the corporate role they had.

And, for a lot of them, they did not even have an attractive role in corporate. They just retired. So even with that firepower, even being a McKinsey partner, this is hard to do.

Does it mean it is impossible to do? Obviously not. When you leave a firm like McKinsey and BCG, you are used to certain things running in a certain way. You forget just how much support the firm is giving you. When you go out by yourself all the support the firm was giving you disappeared. You need to recreate that support mechanism which is hard to do. But not impossible. And, in fact, a lot of the things that the big firms do, you should not do as part of a small firm. And that is what we are going to also cover as part of this series.

business consulting company

This Series Will Be Based on My Experience and That of Our Clients

Obviously, this is going to be based on my experience. If you have listened to the case interview podcast series or our strategy skills podcast series, if you have read our books or if you have been to strategytraining.com, strategytv.com, firmsconsulting.com, if you followed programs like Growing a Consulting Firm, Partnership. Memoir, Rebuilding a Consulting Practice, the very famous Andrew program, a typical McKinsey, BCG engagement, you will understand on what we are drawing the lessons in this podcast channel.

But we are not repeating what is in those programs because I want to introduce new content. Every time we put out material, we want to build our asset base in terms of intellectual property.

So, I am drawing out the things from the Andrew Program that are relevant to you. For example, The Andrew Program is a program whereby we help a senior manager at a major professional services firms, some of the biggest in the tax practice, leave the tax practice because it wasn’t a sustainable career path for him and become an equity partner within three years by building the innovation division.

Whether or not you work at a large firm, whether or not you are interested in innovation or in management consulting, that program is worth following because you can follow the steps we took to help them figure out what to do, how to convince people to back him and so on. Those are useful no matter what industry you are in.

So, if you want to do this in a right way, you are going to learn the underlying skills that were applied and we are going to be picking out all of the useful things and drawing it into this program.

I put together a little bit of a self-assessment here to give you a sense of where you should lie.

Self-Assessment: Compare Your Own Performance/Planning on Where You Should Be

Now I put together a self-assessment. This not an exact science, this is an approximation. If you look at anything in life, it follows a normal distribution, also known as a curve distribution, a gaussian curve. This is what the average firm should be doing.

business consulting self assessment

You may be an outlier and that is fine. But approximately the first two years or the first three years of your firm, you are only going to be focusing on deliveries and sales largely. And what happens after delivery, which is preparing for the sale.

So, when I meet people who are running boutique firms and they are talking about selling, recruiting and training people, and they are just one or two or three years old, I think is that they are doing the wrong thing.

The first thing, one or two years goes so rapidly, it is so stressful, it is so nerve-racking, and so unstable. Why would you want to hire people and what are you going to get them to do when you hire them?

To hire someone means that not only will you have to earn enough billings to pay for your fees and cost, you have to earn enough to pay for someone else’s fees and costs.

I have once spoken to a boutique firm founder who told me that he is not going to take a salary. He is going to work for very little, if anything, and he is going to hire someone to do the work. And I am thinking to myself, “Why would you do that?” Because if you hire someone else you need to pay them roughly a market rate. They are not going to work for free. But if it is yourself, you do not have to pay yourself a market rate because it is your business. You can invest all of it back into the business.

First 1 To 2 Years

So for the first one or two years you need to just focus on sales and delivery and accumulating cash, building the systems and processes that you need. But, in most cases, you should not be doing any marketing, new ideas and capabilities, recruiting and training, mainly because most people setting up consulting firms come from some consulting firm. So, they bring some intellectual property with them. The half-life, the value, the relevance of intellectual property decreases very rapidly. So, within one or two years, maybe at the most three years, whatever intellectual property, methodologies, and frameworks that you took from your previous firm, is going to become less and less relevant until they are irrelevant. But at least for the first one to two to three years, you can build a business out of that.

So, when people say they are developing new ideas and capabilities, you need to do it but you don’t have to start with that unless this is new to you and you have tried and failed and you need something new.

If you want to see how to develop new techniques and frameworks, you can go into StrategyTraining.com. A specific program to watch would be “How to develop deep insights” in Insider because that teaches you how to develop a new methodology every time you are faced with daunting odds at a client.

First 1 To 3 Years

Now if your firm is 1 to 3 years old, even then you should not be recruiting. I know it may be counterintuitive, but it is hard to build a business around it. I have been involved in several offices being launched, several offices being turned around with the firm in Latin America and Asia and so on and I have also led a boutique firm with 150 plus people with multiple offices and it is difficult to recruit people.

So, after one to three years, you usually burn out your existing relationships. I don’t mean that they do not want to see you again, although that may be the case in some situations. But usually that you have mined them or you have done as much as you can for those few clients. Even though you can do more, sometimes clients just do not want to give the same work to the same consultant because they want to introduce fresh ideas.

For example, if you have done the same type of operations work at one client, after about two or three years they may just want fresh blood and there is nothing wrong with that. Clients want new thinking. The executive you knew may leave. You may make mistakes. You may suffer from burnout.

You need to find new clients, which is where the marketing comes in and you need new ideas and capabilities. The new ideas and capabilities is interesting and I will talk more about that later but basically, even if your idea is useful, what is going to happen is that after one to two years of speaking about that idea, you are going to become fatigued about speaking about it. So even if a client is interested in it, you are going to approach it like, “Well, I’ve said this a million times before. So I am just going to skim through it” and it becomes a process. It loses the enthusiasm.

Everyone says that is not true, but I have seen it so many times. I have got friends who are consulting partners at McKinsey and so on and I always ask, “Why are you speaking to the client like they understand the basics of how to solve a problem” and they look at me and say, “Well, it is obviously so easy”. Yeah, it is easy to you because you have discussed it for twenty years but for everyone else, it is not easy.

But what has happened is that that partner has become fatigued about speaking about something that he has always been speaking about. So, to him he starts moving the goalposts and starts making a concept more and more complicated, not realizing it is not what the client wants.

So, this is going to happen with you as well, and rather than making an existing useful concept more complicated, my advice is if you want to refresh a concept, make it simpler or introduce new concepts.

As you get to a firm being more than three years old, maybe four or five, then you need to consider recruiting and hiring. But who you recruit and hire depends on the business model you take.

Last Thoughts on Building and Growing A Consulting Firm

In the insider program I talk a lot about the concept of billing for time and billing on recurring revenue. It is basically the way consulting is going in the future.

So as a good ending point for today’s episode, what I want you to think about is the challenges you face as someone running the office of a major consulting firm in a far-off isolated new geography or as someone starting a new consulting firm.

It is difficult. I have clients who are partners for consulting firms, audit firms and even the boutique firms in new regions that are such small economies that the London, the New York or the Chicago office does not really support them.

If you have faced challenges, I would like to hear about it. If you are a boutique firm somewhere in Michigan or Chicago or anywhere in the world, think about the challenges you face. Think about what is stopping you from having a good month, a good year and if you have those questions, post in comments on our YouTube channel and I will be very happy to build that into the program.

Take care I will see you in the next episode.

If you want to see samples of our advanced training materials go to FIRMSconsulting.com/promo and sign up for free to receive sample materials.

Related content:

RECOMMENDED BOOKS:

McKinsey PEI McKinsey interviewWhen people think about the business strategy we often think about the field of strategy consulting/management consulting and firms like McKinsey, BCG, et al. If you are interested in learning how to conduct a management consulting engagement, you will likely enjoy this book. Succeeding as a Management Consultant is a book set in the Brazilian interior. This book follows an engagement team as they assist Goldy, a large Brazilian gold miner, in diagnosing and fixing deep and persistent organizational issues. This book follows an engagement team over an 8-week assignment and explains how they successfully navigate a challenging client environment, develop hypotheses, build the analyses, and provide the final recommendations. It is written so the reader may understand, follow, and replicate the process. It is the only book laying out a consulting assignment step-by-step. 

McKinsey PEI McKinsey interview Marketing saves the worldMarketing Saves the World, Bill Matassoni’s Memoir 

Bill Matassoni’s (Ex-McKinsey and Ex-BCG Senior Partner) Marketing Saves The World is a truly unique book. Never before has a McKinsey partner published his memoir publicly. This book is a rare opportunity – a true exclusive – to see what shapes the thought process of a partner and learn about marketing and strategy. The memoir essentially lays out McKinsey’s competitive advantage and explains how it can be neutralized. 

McKinsey PEI McKinsey interview Turquoise eyesTurquoise Eyes: A Novel about Problem Solving & Critical Thinking

Turquoise Eyes started off the groundbreaking new genre developed by FIRMSconsulting that combines compelling narrative while teaching problem solving and critical thinking skills. Set after a bank begins implementing a new retail banking strategy, we follow Teresa García Ramírez de Arroyo, a director-general in the Mexican government, who has received some disturbing news. A whistleblower has emailed Teresa with troubling news about a mistake in the loan default calculations and reserve ratios. The numbers do not add up. The book loosely uses the logic and financial analyses in A Typical McKinsey Engagement, >270 videos. 

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Cheers, Kris

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Business Consulting Services: What is your point of differentiation?

Hi everyone, and welcome to the next episode of our management consulting iTunes channel where we discuss the business of running and growing a consulting firm. The title of this episode is, “Business Consulting Services: What is your point of differentiation?”

So, for those of you listening to this podcast channel, remember we have two other podcast channels. We have the Strategy Skills podcast channel, which dives into, usually, one particular study and explains the mechanics of how we develop the thinking. So that’s heavy on the analysis side of things. And we have the Case Interviews & Management Consulting podcast channel, which is about case interviews, where we help people develop the skills to secure employment at firms like McKinsey, BCG, Bain, and so on.

But that is very useful channel because we teach foundational skills like brainstorming, business judgment, hypothesis generation, and so on, which will be useful to anyone, whether you’re launching a boutique consulting firm or you are trying to do analyses. This channel is about the business of running and growing a consulting firm.

Your point of differentiation is the reason you think clients will hire you. This is the difference you continuously emphasize to clients as you market your business consulting services

Today I want to talk about your point of differentiation. So, for example, I’ve talked about what should be your strategy (How Should You Develop Your Strategy). Your strategy should be trying to figure out the process of how you’re going to get sales. The point of differentiation for your business consulting services is that reason you think clients will hire you.

Clients will agree to pay for your business consulting services because you are different from someone. If you are the same as someone else, they would just hire the other person, if they were cheaper. For example, if a client perceives you to be exactly the same as three other types of consultants, it will come down to things like pricing, ease of working with you, and so on.

If you Business Consulting Services have a point of differentiation, you need to emphasize it to clients

But if you have a point of differentiation, you need to emphasize that with clients. So, your point of differentiation is the difference that you continuously emphasize to clients, and (hopefully, I would say) organize yourself around. Because if you have a point of differentiation, but you don’t organize yourself around that to protect that point of differentiation, over time, your point of differentiation will erode your point of differentiation (perhaps without you even knowing) until you become a different type of firm, whereby you are differentiated in a different way.

When firms do not protect their point of differentiation

So, I have seen this with many, many organizations, whereby they have a point of differentiation but they don’t protect it. So that over time they lose it. An example of this is Tiffany & Co, American luxury jewelry and specialty retailer. They have a very strong reputation based on many movies done about them, the powerful branding, and so on. But if you’ve visited some of their flagship stores today, it’s a bit of a surreal experience. It’s not what many would expect!

I visited one of their flagship stores and it was run down, grimy. It was not a magical experience. And they’d built that image, that was their point of differentiation for a very long time. And they lost it because they didn’t protect it.

You see this with consulting firms as well. They are known for one thing, but in the quest for growth, they try to be known for many things. And at the end of the day, why are you hiring them? Well, that is not very clear but they are growing and that is what matters to the them. But what happens when things are not so good, when a recession comes through and so on?

Your point of differentiation is the thing you choose to keep during bad times

Here’s the rule. Your point of differentiation is the thing you choose to keep during bad times. So, no matter what firms say as they grow in times are good when things go bad and they’re forced to sell divisions, the part they keep is the part that they think differentiates them (and during recessions, companies always sell off). But consulting firms are notorious for that. They’ll sell off the entire consulting practice in a recession. They do it all the time. I mean, it’s like musical chairs going on there.

Different ways to differentiate your business consulting services

There are different ways to differentiate yourself. I want to talk about some of the major ways here and what I think you should be doing.

Business Consulting Services point of differentiation #1: Generate Deep Insights

The first is “we generate deep insights.” This is the one everyone goes with. When I say ‘everyone,’ I mean it in inverted commas. Obviously, not everyone, but the majority. If you go to the websites of most boutique firms — or most firms — they always talk about deep insights because they want to be like McKinsey and BCG.

They don’t say it; I’ve spoken to many people, whereby they’ll tell you they’re not like McKinsey and BCG… but they’re doing everything in their power to be like McKinsey and BCG. The word insights is so sexy, so magical… it’s like decadent chocolate mixed with a nice bottle of Barolo red wine (well, don’t mix them and drink them, but you know — eat the chocolate and drink the wine at the same time).

The point is that the assumption, invariably, is made that insights are valuable, clients will pay for insights, so if we brand ourselves as a firm that generates insights, we’re going to be different from everyone else. Although, if everyone is branding themselves as being a firm that generates insights, I don’t know how you’re actually different! But that’s for a different discussion, So that’s one way firms differentiate themselves. They call themselves organizations that generate insights.

Business Consulting Services point of differentiation #2: Trusting through Pedigree

Another way organizations (consulting firms) differentiate themselves is that they brand themselves on pedigree. You see this from alumni of all consulting firms, whether it’s Deloitte, Accenture, Ernst & Young, McKinsey, BCG, whatever big firm it is. If you were an alum of that firm, that is the way you have a pedigree in the market. You may make a big deal about the fact that you were an ex-McKinsey person, or an ex-Deloitte person, and so on. You also see graduates of elite schools do this. If you went to Harvard, Stanford, INSEAD, HEC, Richard Ivey in Canada. Every country has their own super-elite school. You’ll use that as a major point of differentiation.

Alumni of powerful brands within a sector do the same thing. For example, let’s assume that BP is the number-one refiner of oil in the world, and you have 15 years as senior executive vice president, running the refinery division. That’s going to be your calling card. That’s going to be your pedigree!

So, pedigree is not only the firm you worked at (if it’s a consulting firm), it can be the school you went to, it can be the (non-consulting) company you worked at. It could even be where you were born. In fact, I’ve seen in Switzerland, Germany, and the UK, even the high school you went to is a form of pedigree. High school! Can you imagine that high school can be a form of pedigree? I mean, there you are, a 65-year-old consultant and you start up a meeting by saying “Hey, jolly good old chap, remember the time we beat Oxford at…” (I don’t know what they’d beat Oxford at, but you get the point, right?) So, Oxford University and these guys were in high school together. They played the university. But I have actually seen consultants do that. I’ve seen partners do that!

business consulting services boutique consulting firm

Business Consulting Services point of differentiation #3: Bankable Value

There’s nothing wrong with any of these things. They are all wonderful ways to build points of differentiation. But, if you lack deep insights, and you lack pedigree, then I would go at bankable value.

It’s simply a better way of saying implementation but I like “bankable value.” It’s very uncommon, but when you talk about implementation, it doesn’t mean that you generated the results you promised as a result of implementation. It just means you implemented it. True implementation is, whereby if you said you’re going to generate 20 million dollars of savings at the end of the implementation, the client had 20 million dollars extra in their bank account.

If you get results, clients will not care about your pedigree and your insights. This is a very important thing to remember!

When clients hire you because you have a reputation for insights, the assumption is that, if they hire you, insights will lead to bankable value. But it may not. If clients hire you because of your pedigree, the thinking is that if they hire you because of your pedigree it will lead to bankable results.

Finally, if clients hire you for your implementation skills, the thinking is that the implementation will lead to bankable results. But if clients hire you due to your reputation for bankable results, there is no implication. You get bankable results.

You have to pick the point of differentiation that will work. Don’t pick the one that sounds glamorous! That’s what I always tell people. They always want to talk about insights and new ways of thinking, and being innovative… I say, if you can do what you promised for a client, they’ll hire you.

Think carefully whom you would hire below based on the principle way they differentiate their business consulting services

So let’s think about how this plays out.

If you generate deep insights, what you’re telling a client is “we produce deep insights, which allow us to find new ways to create value and beat the competitors.” But there are no guarantees here, implicit or explicit. If it’s because of your pedigree you are basically saying something along the lines of “with 20 years of combined experience at General Motors Plant Operations, we understand manufacturing and can help you rethink your positioning.” No promise, but it’s kind of implied when they say that, because they’ve done it at GM for 20 years, “if you hire us” (they can’t say it, but…)” you can expect the same results.”

But here’s the word about bankable value: “We have created two million dollars of average verified benefits for five clients, and the value we create is typically ten times the fee. So, we don’t take projects on unless those bankable savings (or the bankable benefitsm it may not be savings, it could be cost-avoided) is at least ten times our fees.”

Most consultants don’t want to do this, because it means you have to pay careful attention to what you are doing to make sure you generate the savings. And unfortunately, I hate to say this, but most consultants just want to get the sale and do as little as possible to deliver it (as long as they get paid).

But think if you are hiring someone, who would you hire of these three? The one who promises deep insights to beat competitors and create value but can’t stand behind it, the one who has deep experience — 20 years! —  but can’t stand by what value they create for you. Or the one who is only going to take this work, whereby if they think they can generate at least 10 times their fee, and this is the way they’ve always operated?

Bankable value always wins, all other things being equal. Now, all other things are not equal. If two guys went to Oxford together, or if the executive vice president of some company that you were trying to enter went to Stanford and only hired Stanford people, you’re going to lose (if you don’t have a Stanford degree).

Or, maybe your firm is new and they’re not really sure if you can do this. There might be people reading this who will want to put it into their point of differentiation but they but don’t really believe it. So they say it, but they do everything, body language and so on, to indicate that they don’t really believe it. If you are one of those people, people are not going to hire you.

Your positioning strategy should be that people who work with you get results. And if that’s your positioning strategy,  if people know that when you are brought in there’s always results they will always hire you.

Would you rather hire someone who implies they could create banked benefits or who only works on that condition?

“We generate deep insights” … again, this implies banked benefits but does not guarantee it. “Insights” sounds amazing, but here’s the thing: you can produce insights without any banked benefits. I’ve seen this in many situations, where an insight is produced — wonderful — but there’s no benefit to the client.

Pedigree also implies benefits, but does not guarantee it. The firm is implying that their experience will lead to great results, but they don’t talk about it. We create bankable results that can be measured. There are no implications. This is the goal. This is more powerful.

Examples of how this can be done across variety of projects

Now, if you want to see examples of how this can be done across variety of projects, you should go to firmsconsulting.com/promo. For a limited time only, if you opt in (it is free), we will give you exclusive previews of some of our content that is only available to FIRMSconsulting Insiders (members of our loyalty program).

So, you’ll get a series of emails once you opt in, over several weeks, giving you access to some of our most advanced content, to show you some of the work that can be done — some of the work that you could be doing — and introduce you to new, advanced concepts and thinking.

You must be explicit and get to the point of your value

The point is, you must be explicit and get to the point of your value. If you lack pedigree, stick with results. If you feel lack insights, stick with results. Generally speaking, stick with results!

Even if you have the right pedigree and skills you will find it really hard to set up a consulting firm if you pick the wrong path

And this not a hypothetical thing. Even if you got the right pedigree. We at Firmsconsulting work with consultants all over the world. What I point out to people is that, even if you have the right pedigree and skills, you’ll find it really hard to set up a consulting firm if you pick the wrong path.

An example of a non skill-market fit

So, let’s assume we have an ex-McKinsey engagement manager who launches a strategy boutique consulting firm in Boston. But here is a problem with the Boston market, it is saturated with ex-consultants. There are so many of them all over the place.

So the supply meets, and often exceeds, demand for strategy skills at the engagement manager level. So, if you’ve got a lot of McKinsey people launching boutique firms in the market, how are you different from them? If your point of differentiation is that you’ve worked at McKinsey, and can generate insights (you can substitute any firm, you worked at Deloitte and you have this kind of insight), you will first have to compete on price… or change your position.

Now if you stay in Boston, over time you’re going to notice that you’re going to have to drift towards a positioning that is easy to explain. This is because if you go out and meet clients and you just say, “Look, I worked at McKinsey (or Deloitte, or Accenture) for five years” which would make you a very slow progressing in EM, but that’s beside the point. But if I worked at McKinsey or Deloitte and I have these skills, why would people hire you? It’s going to become difficult, because there’s an excess of supply in the market.

So you’ll have to figure out very quickly that you need to make your work easy to explain. Now, what happens is that you start moving towards bite-size packages of work. A client understands a market-sizing piece of work, a client understands a market-entry analysis, a client understands a financial model. So, rather than saying, “I worked at McKinsey. I understand how to find issues and identify them” because the client doesn’t understand how to create a scope of work around that, but can understand a financial model — you start bidding for financial model work.

Now because you have McKinsey or Deloitte or whatever in your name, you can charge slightly more than the average person building a financial model. But the opportunity cost is still significant, because you could have been earning a lot more if you could position yourself as a generalist. But you can’t do that, because there are so many generalists in the market. Even if you did, there’s no reason why people would hire you because your point of differentiation is not that different.

Now what’s going to happen here is that, when you start bidding for financial modeling and so on, while you are differentiating yourself from other McKinsey people (and other Deloitte people, and other Accenture people) in the market, you are entering another market, whereby there’s a lot of people bidding for financial modeling work (and market entry analysis, and market sizing work).

You’ve actually entered a much toughermarket, and the only reason you’re winning in that market is because you have a strong name on your resume. You may be earning a premium relative to other people who are building financial models, but who don’t have your pedigree, name, and experience, yet you’re not earning that much.

So the fees are smaller, you have to do more work, and fatigue is going up. And after a while, even if you have McKinsey (or Deloitte, Accenture, Goldman Sachs, or wherever you worked) on your resume, if you keep doing financial modeling work for five years, you’re going to become a financial modeling consultant, and that will become your pedigree.

Lower level consulting work

Now, if you’re building financial models where the margins are generally lower, and you’re going out there and trying to meet clients to sell them the work clients generally don’t want to meet you to do financial modeling work. No executive wants to meet anyone to award financial modeling project.

They’ll ask some of their junior people to award it. So, what’s going to happen is that you take time, you prep for meetings, you spend money to go out and meet an executive (it costs a lot!). But even if he awards you a financial modeling project, which he most likely will not, the amount of revenue you’re getting is so small that you ask yourself, why do all this work for a financial modeling project that isn’t earning that much?

Even if you earn a lot of money for the first financial modeling project, you will very quickly notice that the client organization is going to say, “You know what? We paid this McKinsey guy a hundred thousand dollars to build this model, and Bertie O’Malley from XYZ Financial Services, who has started his own consulting firm, can do it for twenty thousand dollars, and the models look exactly the same! So, why did we give it to this McKinsey (or Deloitte, or Accenture, or whatever the firm you worked at is) guy?” So, very quickly, even if you succeed the first time, your second time becomes harder, and harder, and harder.

Drifting towards commoditized work

What’s eventually going to happen is that you’ll realize that the effort to sell is going to become so difficult that you’ll need to reduce your cost of selling… which is why these online platforms have been created whereby the derogatory term ‘McKinsey Mom’ has been created, whereby a woman who worked at McKinsey, who went on a maternity leave, wanting to take care of the kids, can build financial models and do market analysis on these platforms, whereby people can go in, put up a project, and people bid for work. But the point is, I don’t think some McKinsey Mom is pleased for a $10,000 market entry analysis! But that is what is going to happen to you. You going to drift towards commoditized work.

You’re only valuable relative to the scarcity of a skill you have

So, the lesson here, you’re only valuable relative to the scarcity of a valuable skill you have. A skill is not valuable if it’s not scarce. Economics 101. I’m not teaching anything new!

If you’re in a market where everyone is pitching themselves as insightful strategists, it is hard to stand out. It takes work. If you have phenomenal skills, but there’s no scarcity of that skill, it is not valuable. That’s economics 101.

So it doesn’t matter what your pedigree is. It’s about the relative pedigree of the market, right?

Doing the same work but positioning yourself in a different way

Now, you have a couple of options. You can be doing the same work, but position it in a different way. Now, if you want to know how to do that you’ve got to listen to The Bill Matassoni Show, where he talks about how he repositioned McKinsey away from being a “strategy firm,” or you can read Bill Matassoni’s memoir, which is on Amazon).

Or, you can stay in the same space but take on increasingly commoditized work just to earn a living… which you don’t want to do, right? And this happens to many consultants who start their own consulting firms. I know many partners who started consulting firms. I think all of them shut it down, because the market very quickly values you (mark-to-market size, as they call it).

Skill, positioning, and market

The combination of skill, positioning, and market that you pick is more important than any of the three alone.

Here’s the thing. When most of us start, we just look at the skill gap. We don’t care about the positioning and the market. The positioning is how you explain the skill in the market. Do you position yourself as being the same as everyone else, or different? The market is where you want to operate. Are there enough buyers? Positioning is how you distinguish yourself from other sellers. It’s that combination.

A weak skill, well-positioned in a strong market is going to work. A powerful skill, poorly positioned in a strong market may work. A powerful skill, poorly positioned in an average market, will not work. But too many of us are just worried about the skill.

Self-Assessment: Compare your own performance/planning to where you should be

So, what you need to ask yourself is. Well, don’t ask yourself, state it out. “My point of differentiation is…” And remember, your point of differentiation is not your skill. It’s the way you going to position your skill in the market. The way McKinsey does not position itself as a strategy firm but as a leadership firm. We see this with multiple companies. They position themselves in different ways.

Your client pays attention to your point of differentiation

Your point of differentiation is important to your client. Don’t just pick a point of differentiation that is not important to your client.

How will you lower resistance from the client?

When I worked as an Associate at a major firm, the partner would send me to work for free for a senior executive over Christmas time. “Here’s a guy. A smart guy, hopefully. You’ll find out, anyway, in a week. What do you need him to do for a week?” I’d work there for a week, and come up with some business case, and some idea for the firm to do work. That’s what I used to do. I would avoid doing long presentations. Resist desire to do long presentations to prove your point.

As always, for any comments, remember that we would be happy to read them. Please post them on youtube under related video (above).

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Recommended books:

Business Consulting ServicesWhen people think about the business strategy we often think about the field of strategy consulting/management consulting and firms like McKinsey, BCG, et al. If you are interested in learning how to conduct a management consulting engagement, you will likely enjoy this book. Succeeding as a Management Consultant is a book set in the Brazilian interior. This book follows an engagement team as they assist Goldy, a large Brazilian gold miner, in diagnosing and fixing deep and persistent organizational issues. This book follows an engagement team over an 8-week assignment and explains how they successfully navigate a challenging client environment, develop hypotheses, build the analyses, and provide the final recommendations. It is written so the reader may understand, follow, and replicate the process. It is the only book laying out a consulting assignment step-by-step. A great book to read if you are offering business consulting services.

Business Consulting Services Marketing saves the worldMarketing Saves the World, Bill Matassoni’s Memoir 

Bill Matassoni’s (Ex-McKinsey and Ex-BCG Senior Partner) Marketing Saves The World is a truly unique book. Never before has a McKinsey partner published his memoir publicly. This book is a rare opportunity – a true exclusive – to see what shapes the thought process of a partner and learn about marketing and strategy. The memoir essentially lays out McKinsey’s competitive advantage and explains how it can be neutralized. This is a great book if you want to learn more about how to market business consulting services successfully (example of how McKinsey got ahead over BCG).

Business Consulting Services Turquoise eyesTurquoise Eyes: A Novel about Problem Solving & Critical Thinking

Turquoise Eyes started off the groundbreaking new genre developed by FIRMSconsulting that combines compelling narrative while teaching problem solving and critical thinking skills. Set after a bank begins implementing a new retail banking strategy, we follow Teresa García Ramírez de Arroyo, a director-general in the Mexican government, who has received some disturbing news. A whistleblower has emailed Teresa with troubling news about a mistake in the loan default calculations and reserve ratios. The numbers do not add up. The book loosely uses the logic and financial analyses in A Typical McKinsey Engagement, >270 videos. 

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Cheers, Kris

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