Consultants: How Much Should You Specialize?
Finding a niche as a consultant is critical, but can being too specialized work against you? Many successful consultants report that they get hired because of their expertise in a particular area, but, for some clients, being able to understand “the big picture” is what really makes a consultant stand out.
This raises the question for consultants of how specialized they should present themselves. We spoke with several experts inside and outside of the Profi.io community of consultants. Most identified three key factors to consider in making this decision.
1. Be Flexible to Meet Client Needs
Consultants bring the most value when they solve a client’s problem or unlock an opportunity, as opposed to simply providing a functional service. Of course, these often overlap to the point where the distinction can be meaningless. For example, a company may hire a consultant to increase revenue from its sales team (the problem) while a consultant may think of their engagement as being to optimize salesforce processes (the functional service). In many cases, this is a distinction without a difference and both parties are happy.
Where consultants should most consider branching out to new services is where doing so allows them to better solve a client’s overall problem. In the example above, developing skills in hiring and retaining top sales talent would position a consultant to better solve the client’s problem, while becoming an expert in tax planning would not.
Devon Jones of Seven Tree Media explains this dynamic succinctly: consultants should ensure that before any broadening of service offering that they “make sure they can be specific with what outcomes they actually help people achieve.”
While opportunities to diversify in order to better meet client needs can occur in various different situations, they are particularly prevalent when industry dynamics are changing. As Justin Nabity, Founder and CEO of Physicians Thrive, explains,“it is important for consultants to remain a little flexible with their work and skills to cater to the client’s ever-changing needs.”
Don’t be afraid to combine services in a way that solves pain points in a new or unique way. Especially in times of change, your ideal potential client might not be aware of some of their needs or pain points. Being able to identify these and offering an integrated solution that you are uniquely capable of providing can be a powerful differentiator.
Also, consider providing productized services that are gaining popularity lately. Combining several services into one package can be a win-win option for you and your consulting clients.
On Profi, you can easily combine different services in a simple package and take one-time payments or offer a subscription.
2. Specificity Makes Sales. Get Focused
Most organizations are going to prefer a consultant who is a specialist in the problem they are trying to solve rather than a consultant who presents themself as a Jack (or Jill) of all trades. As such, Blake Bobit, Founder of Solution Scout, emphasizes that consultants need “clear vision, reviews, and goals, which can only be achieved when you’re completely focused on one, or few aspects of your business."
Or, as Vashali Nikhade, host of the podcast The Uncanny Link, puts it, “if you have a brain problem, you are likely going to see a brain surgeon as opposed to a general surgeon.”
Does this contradict the previous point in this article about being flexible and expanding services where necessary to solve clients’ problems? The answer is no, as Nikhade continues:
Once you have mastered brain surgery - AKA, going deep in your niche, you will likely come across a number of case studies and/or revelations that will move you into a parallel and related niche. You can then specialize in multiple things - but it always starts with going deep in one. Most of the time, it is a specific problem. Or a specific business challenge.
Once again, specificity and focus is key.
3. Channel Goldilocks and Don’t Specialize Yourself Out of the Market
There’s a lot to learn from Goldilocks, and not just about the dangers of breaking-and-entering. Often there is a “just right” balance between two extremes. So it is with consulting specialization; we’ve explored some of the issues with being too broad, above, but there are also risks in presenting one’s expertise too narrowly.
Sam Rexford, Head of Content at CHILLREPTILE, highlights one obvious risk of over-specialization when advising consultants to “do some research to make sure your niche represents a viable opportunity.” Rexford suggests that “if you can find enough businesses to be able to generate enough leads and put a valuable offer in front of them, then it could be a viable niche. Otherwise, reassess and refocus your niche on something that has long-term potential.”
There is a second, less obvious, danger that comes from overspecialization: shutting yourself off from potential sources of inspiration and insight that could otherwise give you a competitive edge, notes Alex Lopez, founder and CEO of Homeway Real Estate: “Having a specific niche you work in is great but having the outlook of other industries helps also. If he/she only works in real estate, for example, you become focused only on the things in your industry which could be missing the mark completely on tech, sales, etc.”
This kind of cross-industry expertise can pay significant dividends, according to Diane Gayeski, Professor of Strategic Communications at Ithaca College and founder of Gayeski Analytics, who explains this dynamic with reference to her own career experiences:
I have found that NOT restricting myself to a particular vertical has led to important insights that I can share with clients. My clients look for ‘out of the box’ thinking, and I’ve often used examples from restaurants to help solve problems in hospitals, and from banking to lend new ways to thinking about new issues in manufacturing.
As with many complicated decisions, the degree to which a consultant should be specialized doesn’t lend itself to a one-size-fits-all answer. It’s definitely possible to go to either extreme, to the detriment of your business model.
In general, it’s best to focus on your passions and what types of problems interest you and be open to broadening, but only in ways that enhance your ability to provide solutions to clients. Or, as Devon Jones put it, “always be expanding your expertise while going deep on the things that you really enjoy about your field of work.”
If you want to streamline your operations and client projects delivery, check out Profi software for consultants. It’s built and used by over 1000 consultants and other professionals saving them over 140 hours a year by helping automate most clerical tasks.