The conventional wisdom is that for companies that do business in multiple states or countries size matters when it comes legal representation, banking, tax and audit.  You want to hire an organization that has the physical reach to address your business needs.

sizeThere are cases, however, when subject matter expertise and experience trumps size, hence the success of many boutique firms that specialize in helping companies address specific challenges.

The real question is whether the size of the firm — one with global reach or the boutique specialist — guarantees you better service or better outcomes.  There is, of course, no fixed answer.

But the best answer is, it always comes down to the person who is doing the work — their experience and their record of accomplishment in dealing with the issues at hand.

Companies — law firms, accountancies, consultants and search firms — like to parade their top talent in front of the prospective customer in order to close the deal.  Unless the client is a critical customer or a whale (big fees), that may be the last time the customer sees the billboard talent, and they may never benefit, directly or indirectly, from that individual’s expertise.

Customers should ask these questions to ensure that the value in selecting a large firm, or the boutique specialist, is more than the fees.

  1. What role will the partner, or the star consultant selling the work, play in executing the deliverables?  Who will be on the team and what is their expertise on the specific assignment at hand?  (Degrees and credentials are important but you want to focus on their relevant accomplishments).
  2. Who will lead the team?  What is their expertise and record of accomplishment in similar types of engagements?
  3. How often will you see the partner-in-charge for progress reports and follow-up?
  4. What is the methodology that will be used to produce the work?  The recurring knock against big consulting firms is that the people with experience and accomplishment design project templates, and then send in junior, less experienced (lower costs) consultants to do the work. While the work of attorneys and auditors is usually different in approach and scope, it is still important to ask who will be doing the work, and their prior record of performance in the relevant area(s).
  5. Performance guarantees in the consulting industry are virtually non existent.  In the executive search business, another form of consulting,  the typical placement guarantee is one to 12 months.  There are a few firms that offer a much longer guarantee.  If a competitor matches the offer, it is reasonable to ask if this is a one off for this project or is it a routine part of their sales pitch.  If it is an exception, you should spend more time looking at the process and ask specifically if the person who conducted the due diligence of the client prior to the start of the search is the same person who will be making decisions regarding which candidates to submit.  Firms that consistently offer long-term guarantees do so because they have a robust process and rarely have to replace candidates.

The size of the firm you hire can make a difference but that is more an issue of the scope of your operations and geography. However, a large firm’s size does not guarantee the quality of the work product.  That same principle can and should be applied to boutique firms, smaller does not necessarily mean a better quality of work product or result.  It is the one doing the work, not selling the work, and how successful they have been in similar engagements, that should be the consideration, and, if they are willing to provide a value-added performance guarantee as a routine part of their deal, that probably means you will get what you pay for.