Should I hire a consultant or an independent contractor?

The consulting industry is made up of firms of all shapes and sizes. When bringing on external support, businesses can decide whether they want to hire an independent expert or a professional attached to a larger consulting firm. The professional context in each scenario has a large part to play in the nature and quality of solutions on offer. Below is a run-down on how the two choices compare with each other.

Why clients should hire a consultant from a consulting firm

Consulting firms support organisations around the globe with solving problems, expanding their business and making key decisions. Key players in the industry include the Big Four accounting and advisory firms – Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC – as well as the three largest strategy consultancies of McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company and Boston Consulting Group. Other prominent players include Accenture, Alvarez & Marsal, Kearney, Roland Berger, Oliver Wyman, and many more.

This collection of firms only represents the tip of the iceberg. The global consulting market is made up of thousands of consulting firms of various sizes, either offering a broad array of services or specialising in a specific field. According to Consultancy.org analysis, the global consulting market was worth nearly $200 billion last year.

The size and scale shows the number of businesses across the globe who rely on consulting firms to serve key business functions. A consultant from a consulting firm doesn’t come alone. They are backed by an organisation that has a strong reputation and a vast pool of talent and resources, all of which can be accessed when a collaborative relationship is established.

Infrastructure: A consulting firm has an established infrastructure with an expansive reach, which can be leveraged to solve a specific business problem. By virtue of serving a wide array of clients in various sectors, these firms have holistic solutions and proven concepts in place that can be implemented with speed and efficiency. These firms also have the necessary resources to solve any additional or unforeseen hurdles that may appear, irrespective of the specific business area.

Hiring a team: When a consultant from a consulting firm comes on board, they most likely bring with them a team of professionals. This can be a consolidated team with a specific area of expertise, or a multifaceted team that can develop a more holistic solution, depending on the nature of the business problem. Large consulting firms often have a diverse workforce with mixed expertise, and can offer up a team of talented individuals with versatile abilities.

Scale: Consultants from a major consulting firm will often have experience working with large-scale enterprises. Some of the largest consulting firms in the world have operations that span more than 100 countries. Consultants from these firms have reach in the global market, and have the capacity to help a business scale up at a local, regional or global level.

Network: Closely related to scale is the vast network that consulting firms have in global markets. When helping a businesses solve their problems, consultants from these firms have ready access to a pool of business executives in a variety of geographies and business domains, all of whom can potentially offer insights, best practices and other services.

Reputation: Through years of experience supporting clients in a variety of fields, consulting firms can develop a reputation for offering quality service – one that they work hard to maintain. Choosing a consultant can become much easier if they come from a firm with a favourable reputation, as there is a minimum level of quality assurance. Often, the reputation of a consulting firm alone can boost a business’ profile, as other clients and customers will trust that the business is in good hands.

Why clients should hire an independent consultant

The label of ‘consultant’ doesn’t have the same legal protection as other titles such as ‘doctor’ or ‘lawyer,’ which require a minimum qualification. Due to this lack of chartered status, technically anyone can call themselves a consultant, which has led to the emergence of a substantial pool of independent consultants and contractors that are not attached to any firm in particular.

When seeking an independent consultant, businesses must ensure that their prospective consultants meets a minimum set of professional requirements, such as high standard qualification, previous experience and an established method for collaboration. Once these requirements are met, independent consultants can be the right choice for many businesses.

Consultancy.org analysis reveals that independent consulting is rapidly eating into the share of the global management consulting segment. To meet this growing demand, a number of networks and online marketplaces have emerged to match businesses with independent consultants.

Independent consultants often come highly specialised in a particular field of expertise. Provided that businesses can find the right consultant, independent consultants can be tremendously valuable for a business.

Cost: Independent consultants are often former business professionals with a wealth of expertise and experience. Some of them are even former employees at major consulting firms. As a result, a business can bring these consultants on board often at a fraction of the fee that a major firm would charge, while getting a similar level of skill and expertise.

Specialisation: Independent consultants often come equipped with a specific skill set, within which they have demonstrable clarity and a wealth of previous experience. As a result, businesses that require help only in a specific business segment can bring these consultants on board as a cost effective alternative to large consulting firms.

Flexibility: While specific in their expertise, independent consultants are often less set in their ways than consulting firms. Large consulting firms often have a pre-packaged set of solutions for a specific sector that are applied to each client with minor tweaks based on the individual business context. These firms also have fixed methods of delivery and timelines. Independent consultants, meanwhile, have more flexibility in their approach to work, and more time to tailor solutions to a specific business.

Commitment: By virtue of operating alone, independent consultants often handle one client at a time. As a result, their time is entirely devoted to delivering solutions for a single client, allowing for more focus, flexibility and commitment. Consulting firms, meanwhile, have other priorities to manage as well. Between managing internal business priorities and other clients, these firms spread themselves thin, devoting more resources and infrastructure but less time and flexibility to each client.

Ease of appointment: Unlike large consulting firms that often deal with several clients at a time, independent consultants are often in search of business and happy to take on clients. As a result, these consultants are often available to start immediately, and make the appointment process quick and easy.

Associations: As mentioned, independent consultants are often former members of teams at large consulting organisations, and may retain contacts from their professional career. They also work actively to cultivate professional contacts to build their network as they work alone. As a result, businesses that appoint these consultants can in some cases gain access to a high-quality network and wide-ranging infrastructure without having to bring an entire consulting firm on board.