Working with large versus small consulting firms

When clients seek to hiring a consulting firm, one of the first questions they have to answer is: which consulting firm is most fit-for purpose? This includes assessing the offerings and track record of a consultancy, the team of consultants that will be staffed, the culture of the firms, as well as the type of firm.

On the latter point, clients can choose to work with several different types of consulting firms, such as large consulting firms, small consultancies, boutique and niche players, network consulting firms or even digital marketplaces that offer teams of consultants.

Across the globe, the consulting industry is dominated by a handful of names. These large consulting firms include the Big Four such as Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC, the strategic consultancies of McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company and Boston Consulting Group, and multi-faceted technology-heritage firms such as Accenture, Atos and Capgemini, among many others.

A group of leading smaller, nice and boutique consulting firms have traditionally been able to punch above their weight, particularly on the back of their specialized focus on industries or functions, and increasingly a new generation of digital-savvy challengers are eating into the market share of the traditional powerhouses, winning work from clients of various shapes, sizes and industries.

For clients, the size of a consulting firm comes with its pros and cons. A roundup of the main considerations:

Large consulting firms

Picking one of the world’s largest consultancies can be extremely advantageous. These firms have demonstrated expertise in a wide variety of fields, and work with thousands of clients across the globe every year to solve various business problems and drive growth. As a result, consultants within these firms are familiar with the state of each sector, and can leverage knowledge and experience to help your firm.

Given their size and scope of activities, these firms also often have a diverse and multidisciplinary talent pool that can be leveraged to solve problems creatively. The global reach and network of these firms can also be advantageous to implementing growth strategies if, for instance, your business is planning entry into a new market. It is likely that these firms already have operations in several markets, and are in a good position to support this growth.

Some of the largest consulting firms in the world have operations spanning 100 countries. Consultants from these firms have reach in the global market, with vast client networks in a variety of geographies and business domains, all of whom can potentially offer support. This can be a major boost to businesses scaling up across industries, borders or markets.

Sometimes, the reputation and prestige of these consulting firms in itself can be beneficial to build trust amongst employees, management and shareholders.

However, it has to be considered that this prestige and resource pool comes at a hefty price, and size or prestige might not necessarily translate into success. At the same time, due to the standardisation of services offered by large firms, clients may find that the solutions such consultants produce feel ‘one-size-fits-all’, and lack a level of tailoring that could prove a major boost to their operations.

Small consulting firms

While larger firms have a finger in every pie, smaller firms come in a variety of interesting combinations. Some might pride themselves on their experience, for instance, having been founded by a handful of senior consultants who previously worked at large firms. Others might have a small scope of specific expertise, which gives them a more focused approach.

Hiring a consulting firm from the first category, for instance, might be particularly beneficial as it will ensure that a team of experienced senior consultants is focused on solving your problem, something that might not be a possibility with a large firm. Similarly, hiring a niche consulting firm can ensure that the scope of support can remain restricted to the problem. An example of this is the appointment of a cyber-security consultancy to develop a cyber-security framework, rather than a large firm with a cyber-security department.

In both these cases, while smaller firms do not come with a vast talent pool to solve problems, they are relatively agile and flexible and can therefore adjust and adapt to different situations more easily. These firms are generally more cost-effective, but on the other hand might not have the scale and capacity to tap into the wider perspective of your specific problem.

Smaller firms will also rarely command the same resources as large consultancies. This can mean that boutiques can struggle to recruit top experts compared to bigger firms, while there being less money to invest in training means graduates and school leavers might typically look to consulting’s top table for their first role in the industry – while top talent therefore gravitates toward the largest firms.