What are the different types of consultants?

There is no legal definition of the word ‘consultant,’ which makes it possible for virtually anyone to adopt the title. However, businesses looking for consulting support must seek out consultants that have a proven set of expertise, a defined set of professional practices and independence.

While this helps create a shortlist of legitimate consultants, this list will still be populated by a wide variety of consultants and consulting firms. Broadly speaking, consultants can be differentiated based on two factors:

  • Service area: What service does the consultant or consulting firm offer?
  • Professional context: Is the consultant an individual or an organisation?

Type of services

While the consulting market is rife with a variety of services, the industry is traditionally divided along six types of consulting services:

Strategy consultants
Among the more prestigious forms of consulting, this suite of services is aimed at the upper ranks of the organisation, all the way up to the boardroom. Strategy consultants are brought on board when a company is planning something significant, be it expansion through organic or inorganic means, or changing the business model, or entry into a new market.

Strategy consultants support senior leadership with the planning process. In the public sector, this support takes on the form of economic policy advice from experts. Prominent strategy consulting firms include McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Bain & Company, Oliver Wyman, Kearney, and the strategy consultancy arms of the Big Four: Monitor Deloitte, EY-Parthenon, KPMG Strategy and Strategy&.

Management consultants
Management consulting services are phoned in when the strategies described above are not going to plan, or overall business performance needs a fix. This type of consulting service is provided to the management ranks of a business, aimed at helping them overcome hurdles to improving organisational performance, revenue, profitability or at innovation. 

Given the broad array of advisory services that falls within this category, management consulting is the biggest segment of the consulting market. Key areas of management consultancy include organisation design, human resources, operations, supply chain and logistics, procurement and finance.

Operations consultants
Operations consulting services are provided to all functions of a business that contributes to the primary value chain, spanning sourcing, manufacturing, production, supply chain, logistics, and procurement. The focus of operations consultants is to improve established processes and ways of working, typically with the help of well-known methodologies such as agile, lean, continuous improvement and kanban.   

Financial consultants
This is a set of services that provides technical skills and expertise grounded in the domain of accounting, auditing, finance, taxation and regulations. Financial consultants can support with these key functions of your organisation, allowing you to manage various financial considerations while remaining within regulatory boundaries.

Financial consultants support their clients with finance transformation, defining and implementing risk management, compliance management, but also financial planning of projects, fiscal and tax related matters and the financial side of mergers & acquisitions, financing and debt restructuring. 

HR consultants
HR consultants provide services that pertain to a business’ workforce and can vary in sophistication. Consultants can be brought on board to manage HR activities such as recruitment and payrolling, but can also be called upon to strategise on how to improve productivity in the workforce.

A growing number of businesses have recently increased their focus on their people as drivers of growth, and are looking for ways to keep their workforce happy and engaged with the business and its objectives. HR consultants can help with this process.

IT and digital consultants
IT consultants are among the most sought after in the market today, as businesses across the globe are looking to digitalise their business. IT consultants help set up and maintain the IT infrastructure for your business, which supports nearly every function.

The advent of Industry 4.0 technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, data analytics, Internet of Things and a range of others has created a scenario where the quality of IT infrastructure in a business is critical to its success and competitiveness. Investment in digital tools can boost productivity, efficiency, accuracy and cost-effectiveness.

Much like HR consultants, IT consultants also vary in the degree of sophistication in their services. These can range from establishing and maintaining digital applications to helping design a digital investment strategy and implement it. The demand for IT consulting services has increased so much in recent years that most large consulting firms today have dedicated IT consulting arms.

The above list of categories is by no means exhaustive. Consulting firms have emerged to cover a variety of niches in today’s market. Examples of this include marketing & PR consultants, cyber security consultants, energy consultants, infrastructure consultants and a whole host of others. To find the right type of consultant, it is crucial to have a clear understanding of your own business and the type of support that you require.

Other services areas
According to research by Consultancy.org, there are over 200 different and distinct types of consultants. As consultants can work in any industry (or segment within) and any services area, explaining the high total number of types. Other well-known fields consultants work in include marketing, economics, litigation, forensics, mergers & acquisitions, corporate finance, public relations, design thinking, engineering, data science, restructuring, social media and more.

Types of consultants

Alongside the functional focus of consultants, there are also different types of consultants clients can work with:

Independent consultants versus employed consultants
Some experts choose not to offer their services through a consulting firm, but instead offer their advice on an independent basis. These consultants might still have expertise as well as an established set of professional practices and costs, but they operate individually.

Such independent consultants usually rely on a strong reputation or an impressive portfolio to win clients. They can offer both advisory and implementation services, although their capacity for implementation might be limited in its scale due to them not being backed by a firm infrastructure. Independent consultants also tend to be restricted to a highly specific field (strategy, corporate finance, marketing, finance, etc).

Consultants that are employed by a consulting firm can benefit from the infrastructure and reputation that their firm brings to the table. Firms can deliver consultant teams that can manage a variety of functions in the advisory and implementation phases, with the capacity to manage the latter at scale. While consulting firms can also come with a specific sphere of expertise (digital, marketing, HR), a number of consulting firms also have a mixed talent pool that allows them to offer consulting of various types.

Consultants in employment can work for different types of consulting firms, such as large consulting firms, mid-sized players or boutique firms. The latter group of firms are characterised by their smaller size, and the fact that they often provide a more specific or focused set of services.

Boutique consulting firms often have a small team and a small set of clients. As a result, the team often has more time to give, and the client has easier access to its senior members, who are often consultants with substantial experience. Boutique consulting firms also have the reputation of being more flexible in their approach, willing to spend time with the client to develop a unique approach that matches their specific needs.

Large firms, meanwhile, come with their own set of benefits. These firms have an established reputation, and a wide pool of versatile expertise, which allows them to solve problems and develop strategies with a multifaceted perspective. These firms can deploy resources at scale if required, and have a wealth of experience that allows them to administer solutions with speed and efficiency.

Internal consultants versus external consultants
Rather than appointing an external consultant, some businesses choose to build a team of consultants within the organisation that have a variety of expertise and can support different parts of the business. This approach has its pros and cons when compared to appointing an external consultant.

Internal consultants have the advantage of knowing the specific business well. They not only look at the specific problem/objective, but can place this in the broader context of the organisation, its culture and its processes. As a result, the support they offer is backed by a holistic set of considerations rather than a specific set of tasks.

Being part of the organisation also gives them a long term perspectives on solving issues. For instance, internal consultants are likely to be there for the full change lifecycle, starting from the ideation and strategy phase through to the implementation phase and even after, in case any problems arise at a later stage.

This is opposed to external consultants, who have a specific set of deliverables and are often only involved for the duration of the project. These consultants also lack the personal investment in the organisation, but this is not necessarily a disadvantage. External consultants can often benefit from the distance that they have from a client, which gives them a fresh perspective.

Their lack of involvement with company culture and politics also gives them a degree of objectivity in their work with a client. External consultants can also be more beneficial when considering the limited scope of their work with a client, given that they have a fixed set of desired outcomes and a clearly defined timeline for implementation. Given that internal consultants do not charge by the hour (as many external consultants do), the definition of the task and timeline for internal consultants runs the risk of being more relaxed and ambiguous.