An explosion in the “Boutique” consulting industry, being defined by either the size of the organization or by a specialization in verticals, technologies, or processes, started in the early 2000’s and then accelerated even more during the recession of 2008.  Demand for specialized service offerings, regulatory & market pressures, and changing client expectations are just some of the drivers that resulted in many new professional services accepting that label.

There have been several articles written about which path, Big Firm or Boutique consulting, someone should choose for their career.  The tables below outline some generally accepted advantages and disadvantages of each path.Big4vsBoutique_Table_1

Systems Evolution (SEI) has been around since 1992, doing their own brand of “Boutique” consulting long before the term was popular.  SEI definitely fits the bill with regards to the advantages listed above, but we have also developed a simple formula to address many of the noted disadvantages normally associated with Boutique consulting.  No surprise that it primarily revolves around hiring.  How have we accomplished this?

Disadvantage: Less Prestige & Reputation?

One of the listed advantages of the Big Firms is the reputation and prestige that is associated with them.  Career Intelligence firm “Vault” has an interesting spin on their rating methodology that highlights this point.

“…when you compare responses of employees from large firms and those who work for boutiques, one major factor stands out: big firm consultants are much more likely to value the prestige of their organization than those who work for boutiques…the remaining factors that motivate employees at the two groups of firms are almost identical and, when prestige is excluded, are also weighted almost identically”

On the surface, if you’re looking for prestige and a better reputation then Big Firm consulting is for you, right? However, if you peel away the layers around prestige & reputation, you begin to uncover the “all politics is local” aspect of consulting.  A firm’s reputation may get you on the phone.  A team’s reputation may get you in the conference room, but it’s really your reputation that will result in longer extensions, larger projects, bigger accounts, and the long-term value relationships that firms and clients both are seeking.

Our long-term value proposition is a focus on hiring experienced individuals who take charge of their own reputation. As a result, reputation becomes a natural by-product of the excellent work we engage in.  It only takes 1 or 2 bad experiences to damage a firm’s name, so focusing on quality hiring is the first step towards guarding your company against a bad reputation.

Disadvantage: Limited Engagements?

Another common thread heard about Boutique firms is that they only specialize in specific verticals (healthcare, retail), processes (Operations, Six Sigma), technologies (SAP, CRM), or particular strategies (M&A, Emerging Markets) and aren’t offered the more strategic problems within an organization.  The stated downside of this specialization is that the consultants aren’t exposed to a broad set of engagements and thereby limited in their experience.  The company is also more susceptible to the ebbs and flows of their particular market segments and client budget constraints, causing job & income insecurity.

So can a smaller consulting firm succeed as a generalist practice?  It can if it foregoes hiring only based on a specific set of experiences/skillsets/checklists and rather looks for the right profile.  We are always looking to hire experienced practitioners from any industry; those who are willing to leverage their experiences, both business and technical, to help solve a multitude of problems.  Focusing on the ability to apply experiences to unknown problems is more critical than the experiences themselves in many instances.  The result is our strong network of experts from various backgrounds that can drive opportunities across industries and practice areas.

Disadvantage: Less Exit Opportunities

One of the advantages most heavily marketed by the Big Firms is the resume-builder opportunities they provide or their ability to leverage this network or that MBA program. We can’t really argue the fact that due to sheer size and reputation there are a lot more exit opportunities available at the Big Firms.

So what does a Boutique firm do to compete? exit How about offering a business model and environment where people don’t want to head for the exits at all?  By being upfront during the hiring process about who we are, who we’re looking to hire, and identifying people who align with your corporate values and want to finish their professional career with you.  We were founded with the belief that if you can build an organization that truly values the loyalty and commitment of its consultants; consequently, the term “exit opportunities” doesn’t mean very much.

So if you want to own your reputation alongside a bunch of other well regarded and reputable consultants, if you want the chance to build on your experiences and take on new challenges, and if you’re interested in finding a company you want to retire at, we’re hiring.



Michael Shugarman

About Michael Shugarman