Types of Business Consultants: What They Do and Why You Might Need One

Business consultants almost never use the word "problem"; instead, they talk about opportunities to enhance value. Ask any consultant what they do, and they'll likely say "I'm in the solutions business." Despite criticism that's sometimes leveled at business consultants, they truly can add value to your middle market company, but you need to know when and why to use them. There is a huge range of business issues that consultants can provide solutions for, and different types of consultants bring different ideas to the table.

Consultants come in many forms. Most businesses are familiar with the "big four" audit firms: PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and KPMG. These big-name firms are most likely out of a midmarket business's price range, which will lead midsized companies to work with smaller boutique firms and even individual experts for hire.

Types of Consultants

Business consultants can generally add value in five major areas of your middle market business:

  1. Management and strategy. Qualified consultants should have a deep understanding of your particular market and bring the best practices from your industry (or even other industries) to your company. If you're looking to expand your markets geographically, extend your product portfolio, reorganize your middle market company to promote efficiency and cost-effectiveness, buy out a smaller competitor, or increase your overall capabilities, then hiring an experienced management/strategy consultant can make perfect sense. Firms such as McKinsey & Company are famous for helping clients develop and execute better strategies.
  2. Operations. Want to improve the quality and efficiency of your production processes? An operations consultant such as Accenture can help you create and implement a new way of doing just that. Some consultants specialize in business process re-engineering, meaning that they come in and map out your existing processes, analyze opportunities for reducing the number of steps in that process while maintaining quality, and re-engineer your processes in a way that reduces steps and costs. Other consultants are experts in quality control systems and can help you make changes that will reduce defects.
  3. IT. This is a fast-growing area for consulting, as the demands of new technology are impacting middle market companies every day. Whether you need to develop a new system or integrate your old systems so that they work together, an IT consultant can help. IT consultants such as IBM will enhance your capabilities and also make your IT more flexible in meeting the dynamic needs of internal and external customers.
  4. HR. Need to improve the overall satisfaction of your employees, recruit top talent, and retain your top performers? HR consultants such as Hay Group specialize in developing compensation strategies that align with your overall business goals, training, and developing your people in areas such as business communication and leadership. They can help you improve performance-related feedback and evaluation to your team, making your employees work smarter.
  5. Marketing. Whether you need a new logo for your company, a new market position for one of your brands, or a new social media strategy to interact with your customers, marketing consultants can help. Consultants such as The Boston Consulting Group can offer you a creative spark when your own people have run out of ideas, letting you see what other companies have done to attract more customers.

Reasons for Hiring a Consultant

Now that you know the major types of consultants, why would you need to hire one? Here are five common reasons:

  1. Rent a brain. You don't have the human resources you need because some internal person has quit or your head count has been slashed, so hiring a consultant for a project or on a temporary basis can fill the gap until a full-time internal person is found. You won't have to make a consultant a full-time employee, so breaking off the relationship is relatively easy and cost-effective.
  2. Manage change (and take the heat). Consultants are experts at fostering change in organizations, so if your midsized company is rife with internal squabbling concerning imminent changes, bringing in a consultant can break the logjam. Consultants know that they're often brought in for political cover and will shoulder blame for unpopular changes such as reducing head count and other cost-cutting measures.
  3. Teach and implement best practices. Consultants are often the leading experts in the fields they work in. They not only have academic and theoretical expertise, but they've also worked directly with leading companies to implement change. If you want best practices in areas such as IT and management, then consultants are the best source available. Why try to invent a best practice when consultants have already implemented some with multiple clients?
  4. Infuse creativity. Consultants have a fresh perspective on your business, so having an outsider come in and offer ideas can be tremendously helpful. Sometimes your in-house people are too close to your company and don't have the perspective to examine the bigger picture within your market, but consultants can share valuable insights that boost your internal creative thinking.
  5. Deliver training. You can hire a consultant to share knowledge about almost anything. Consultants are born trainers, so they're a natural choice to do a training course or day-long presentation for your company in almost any area. A good consultant blends theory and practice, and this can deliver high value to your midmarket company.

Consultants can obviously be expensive, and you need to carefully weigh the costs and benefits. Only you know the particular needs of your midsized firm, but chances are that a consultant can help turn those needs into highly beneficial solutions.

Where are some of the best places to search for and choose between similarly qualified consultants? Let us know what you think by commenting below.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is an NCMM contributor and a freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The Boston Globe and Harvard Gazette. He also trains Fortune 500 executives in business-communication skills as an instructor for EF Education. Circle him on Google+.


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