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Published: March 18, 2024

Why Variation in Consulting Does Not Sell


I had a surprising call recently with a (very) tired consulting leader. To provide a bit of context, the chat was about the focus and expertise of his boutique consultancy. I challenged him on his firm’s (lack of) focus. An extract of the discussion…

Me: Do you admire other experts?

Consulting Leader: Yes, I do. Many.

Me: Why do you love other experts, but you seem to glide on the surface of everything and get pushed around by everybody?

CL: I understand why you challenge me, but I love the variety in consulting, George.

Me: I’ve repeatedly seen that keeping all the options open will ultimately lead to shrinking returns and reduced quality of life. It’s like Facebook fatigue.

CL: I always feel that fatigue.

Me: Wow, really? Always?

CL: Yes, always.  I’ve had variations of this conversation on more than one occasion. In fact, I have such conversations constantly. With tired, drained and overstretched consulting leaders. They work long hours trying to figure out how to keep their firm afloat. One thing these firms have in common? They love the variation in the work of their firms. Though, I believe that it comes not as much from a place of love as a place of fear – the fear that reducing horizontal variation will result in fewer business opportunities.

Most consultants tend to operate from a fear-based mindset, which causes them to take almost any work that pays and keeps their options open so they don't miss out on potential income or revenue. This reactive thinking actually strengthens the risk of remaining in mediocrity.

That’s what I’d like to discuss in this article – variation in consulting and why it stagnates, as opposed to boosts, business growth.

Variation in consulting breeds open-options fatigue

All consulting leaders I’ve spoken to over the years want to be recognized as experts. Makes sense – that’s a matter of reputation, being known for the type of knowledge that very few other people or firms can compete against.  They admire, maybe even envy other experts. Yet most consulting leaders keep all options open, reject focus, and never become experts. And neither do their consulting firms.  How come? As mentioned at the beginning of this article, it stems from fear. They fear losing opportunities, and they are scared to make the jump to deep expertise. For many, it’s a matter of ego. Their ego tells them not to narrow because they believe they can crush everything.  So, in their heads, they are stuck. That’s terribly tiring. I’ve been there. With burnout as a result. Heck. I call it the open-options fatigue – being tired of accepting all sorts of work yet refusing to narrow down the focus, with the end result of business growth either being too slow or not present at all. It’s being frustrated by the day-to-day pressure of bidding for new projects and trying to figure out how to deliver on them. It’s being stuck in the execution/implementation work, most likely at lower fees.

I deeply enjoyed missing out for almost a decade. I said no to everything outside my focus because those non-ideal clients would eat my precious time. Too many consultants enjoy the variety at the expense of the craft. And it burns them out in the long run.

Recommended reading: (Case Study) How This Consultancy Cut Back 30% of Its Services Yet Improved Profitability

Variation in consulting is exciting only in the beginning

Variation is exciting at first. I get that. But to be honest, it’s wearing off over time. Then, fatigue hits the road. The excitement of new projects, new types of clients, and acquiring new skills eventually loses ground to the frustration and stress of not having a reliable pipeline of work.  Why does that business growth stall? Because a superficial level of expertise doesn’t pay as much. Because it doesn’t encourage referrals and repeat business. Because firms that offer variation spread their marketing and business development efforts thin, targeting too wide of an audience. So many reasons. A narrow focus, on the other hand, is maybe boring at first but becomes more exciting over time.  People start inviting the expert – the industry leader who knows (almost) everything, has the most compelling data, can spot intriguing patterns, explain fascinating solutions, gets admired for thought-provoking ideas, and doesn’t need to sell or convince.  These experts tend to lead their consulting firms in much the same way – encouraging continuous learning to deepen the knowledge and adamantly saying no to irrelevant, non-fit opportunities.  The more such true experts stay the course of deepening their knowledge, the more opportunities they see open up to them. This is exciting and rewarding. And, of course, the more unique and relevant one’s knowledge is, the higher the fees, the fewer sleepless nights and fatigue.

Specialization drives consulting efficiency and decreases fatigue

Repetition leads to efficiency. It’s as simple as that. The more you practice a skill, the easier and faster the process gets.

If you can learn to focus and embrace repetition in your projects, you'll be well on your way to learning the deeper patterns, challenges, risks, and improvement methodologies that 99% of your competition will never know because they weren’t willing to put in the work and the narrow focus.

Here are some of the many reasons why repetition and specialization in a consulting firm pays off:

  • By narrowing down the focus, a consulting firm engages in repetitive processes that it can optimize and perfect over time, developing own specialized tools and methodologies. This enables the firm to leverage technology and automation to further streamline its processes and improve efficiency.
  • The deeper the level of expertise, the more clear it becomes how to solve foundational problems for clients. It also means that this consultancy is able to offer more effective and efficient solutions.
  • Consultancies that build their work on deep expertise and repetition are perfectly positioned to leverage their previous experiences and lessons learned along the way. As I always say: focus reduces variability of outcomes. And that’s a huge competitive differentiation driver. Clients are looking for outcome certainty and the better you can plan/predict, the stronger the pitch and the business case.
  • The stronger the focus, the easier it is to develop vertical service extensions. As opposed to creating entirely new services (meaning having to pitch a new audience and lacking sufficient depth to compete against firms specialized in these fields), consultancies with deep expertise can develop new and deeper components of already existing consulting services. Examples of vertical services: a discovery service, retainer-based implementation advisory support, supporting clients in capability building, etc.
  • Marketing and business development efforts deliver significantly higher ROI because they are targeted. They don’t try to appeal to a wide audience. Every piece of marketing collateral, every business pitch, every communication with a prospect is aligned with the business strategy of delivering high-value services to a niche audience.
  • Repetition and deep expertise enable firms to set up efficient knowledge transfer procedures. Whether it comes to internal recruiting and bringing new consultants up to the level of expertise that’s expected or helping clients build an in-house team, firms with deep expertise can transfer knowledge in a more organized and effective manner.
  • Deep expertise leads to happier clients and stronger referral work. When a consulting firm is able to provide its clients with massive value this client is more likely to return and to recommend the consultancy to the network.

Recommended reading: Furiously Successful Consultancies Put All Their Eggs in One Basket.

Specialization is the utmost variation

When I talk to real experts in consulting – consulting leaders who have gone deep in their focus and specialization – they no longer feel the pressure of choosing between variation in the work or specialization. Specialization, they keep telling me, is their utmost variation. Yes. Specialists are on a continuous learning journey – new approaches to old problems, the impact of upcoming trends on the pain points of their clients, new tools and software that make processes even more efficient, and so on.

In working with consultancies week after week, I am realizing more and more that the extraordinary success of some of those consultancies is directly determined by how narrow they were able to make their focus.

The more consulting leaders zoom in on a problem and study it inside-out, the more they are able to place it in a larger context and identify patterns, predict outcomes, and achieve measurable results. That’s the type of variation that doesn’t hinder business growth. Quite the opposite. It allows consulting leaders to grow: grow their business, recognition for expertise, fees, and appeal to the target audience.

In conclusion

Consulting leaders often believe they will miss out on the next big opportunity if they narrow their focus and deepen their expertise.  But they really miss out on the joy of being an expert. And getting recognized for it. Getting invited consistently as a result. They miss out on the opportunity to cut inefficiencies from their processes, to increase revenue-per-project, and to deliver superior value to clients. And ultimately, many consulting leaders, sooner or later, will get exhausted from the lack of depth in their consulting approach, of taking a shallow approach to all thing's expertise.  Expertise is a superpower. And it's never exhausting.

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George Bowman

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