Specialist or Generalist – What’s right for your consulting business?

Consultants and consulting businesses owners often agonise over whether they should be a specialist or generalist consultancy. They worry that if they become a specialist – if they target a certain niche – that they’ll be missing out on lots of other opportunities.

But they’re getting it all wrong.

Being a specialist or generalist has little to do with the consulting that you perform, and everything to do with how you market your business. How you stand out from the crowd.

It’s only in your marketing that it matters whether you’re a specialist or a generalist

Being a generalist is a losing strategy. And in this article, I’m going to show you why you have no choice but to be a specialist. At the same time, I’m going to explain why you need to be a generalist too.

Confused? You won’t be.

Before I get into to detail, let me share with you my own experience when I started running my consulting business.

Back when I was an employed consultant, my early background was IT infrastructure. Over time, as the consulting landscape changed, I recognised that what I really needed to understand was more general business principles. That’s when I morphed into a management consultant.

Yet I always had this nagging doubt. This imposter syndrome. I never felt that I really understood the world of applications. I’d kind of leap-frogged from IT infrastructure to business consulting, skipping applications altogether. I didn’t feel like I deserved to be a management consultant.

In time I was fortunate that the right project opportunities came along, and I was able to close that knowledge gap. So when I decided to start my own firm, the very first question on my mind was:

What services shall I offer?

I made the mistake that most people do when they start a consulting business. I focused on what I knew, and what I’d done before.

I determined, therefore, that I would offer:

  • IT Strategy
  • IT Procurement
  • Implementation Management

I followed the advice of the “gurus” and spent countless hours coming up with the perfect elevator pitch. That was, until the next day when I’d decide to rewrite it all over again.

I’d go to networking events and practice my elevator pitch so that I could deliver it smoothly.

Back in the real-world – the one where I had to sell projects to make money, and to continue to convince my wife that starting my own consulting business was the right thing to do – I’d managed to land the following projects:

  1. Data centre strategy for a global investment bank
  2. Disaster recovery review for the marketing and trading arm of a Russian energy giant
  3. IT strategy for a small law firm
  4. Outsourcing of card payment services for a water utility
  5. Advising a mid-sized law firm on their tender response to a panel review from one of their most important clients

But what do these projects say about specialist or generalist?

I was working with small and large law firms, finance houses, banks, and a water utility. I was helping senior management teams with entirely non-IT related challenges, and I was using my IT skills to help with IT strategy related challenges.

Whilst I delivered all of the above projects successfully, and I continue to work with a number of those organisations to this day, I wasn’t an obvious specialist in any one particular subject.

So that’s good, right? A good generalist.

Well, no. It’s not good.

And here’s why: The number one task for any business is to make sales. If you don’t make sales, then no other activity in your business needs to exist. Period. Your business doesn’t exist without sales.

In order to make a sale, you need to market your business.

And to market your business, you need to have something to say about….well…something!


…and it’s a big UNLESS…

…You need to have something to say about something in order to market your business, UNLESS you choose to rely on referrals and repeat business as your only means of finding more work.

That’s not to say that you can’t sustain a consulting business solely on word of mouth and repeat business. But it’s hard. Very hard.

For one, it means that you need to get comfortable living life on the revenue rollercoaster – where one month revenue is up, the next it’s down.

Of course, most new consultancies start this way. By working for people that they already know, or have been referred in to. The problem is, most new consulting businesses fail within two years precisely for this reason.

Work with the initial clients dries up, and the business owners find they haven’t done enough to generate new leads. To market themselves. To market themselves around the particular problems they solve for their ideal clients.

Marketing starts not with the services that you offer, but with the problems that your target clients are challenged with, and that you can help them to resolve.

The easiest way to think of the difference between marketing and sales is this:

  • Marketing is one-to-many, where you’re trying to capture people’s ever limited attention and to stay top of mind.
  • Sales is one-to-one, where you have the attention, and now you need to convince the client that you can help.

If you have a long-term client, where you’ve performed a number of different engagements, you may be top of mind as someone who can tackle difficult challenges. In that case, there’s a good chance that, when a need arises, they’ll be in touch.

But how do you get the attention of someone that doesn’t know you?

Through marketing. And if you market yourself as a generalist, it’s nigh on impossible to get someone’s attention.

However, if you market yourself as a specialist – a specialist who solves a particular challenge – then you can start to gain attention. To engage your prospect in conversation, and to enlighten them that you can help them with their problems.

Here are the most common approaches (in no particular order) for a consulting business to gain attention (aka marketing):

  • Referrals: Either internally in a client, or into new clients
  • Networking: In-person at events, typically aimed at meeting new clients
  • Exhibitions: Having a stand at either a general business exhibition (not recommended), or a targeted industry event (recommended if there is a good predicted return on investment)
  • Content marketing: Publishing content (blog articles, guides, white papers, magazine articles) with the aim of driving the prospect to join your mailing list and/or to get in touch
  • Social Media: Typically used to promote the created content, but may be used standalone, such as curating other people’s content on Twitter
  • Cold Calling: Hitting the phones (read about my experience cold calling)
  • Advertising: Traditional print advertorial, billboards, etc. (used more by the largest of consulting firms, such as Deloitte and Accenture)
  • Direct Mail: Sending sales letters, usually with the aim of a follow-up (cold) call
  • Email marketing: Communicating with prospects and clients via an opted-in mailing list with the aim of staying top of mind, and driving them to other content

Every single one of these methods can work. The secret to their success is little more than consistency. Put in the time and the effort, and you’ll reap the rewards. However, much like the secret to losing weight is simply to eat less food, it’s not all that easy. Especially if you’re a small or micro-sized consulting business with a limited team and budget.

In that scenario, marketing and sales efforts are frequently turned off, as efforts are redirected to project delivery. This approach guarantees a lifetime pass on the revenue rollercoaster!

The challenge, then, for the consulting business, is to decide which marketing approaches you feel are right for your business, and then to attack them with consistency. But, regardless of organisation size, it’s unlikely there is an open budget for marketing and sales. This means that you need to be focused to ensure maximum return on investment.

To get a good return on investment, you need to capture your prospect’s attention. And to do that, you need to focus on the prospect’s pain.

For the smaller firm, it’s not enough to just say, ‘You’re a specialist in IT Strategy, IT Procurement, and Implementation Management’. Mainly because you’re going to get drowned out, when you need to stand out.

You need to switch your marketing message from being about you (your services), to being about the client and their problems.

You need to market a specialism. But what about all those opportunities you’ll be missing out on if you become a specialist?

Enter the Specialist Generalist

The what?

The specialist generalist. You are a specialist in helping clients to resolve a specific challenge, or set of challenges. That’s how you market your capabilities, and that’s how you attract attention from your prospects.

But what happens if one of your existing clients, who recognises that you have a very valuable set of general consulting skills, comes up to you and asks you to help them with something else?

Something outside of your specialism.

That’s where the generalist consultant comes in.

I never said that because you’re a specialist for marketing purposes, that you couldn’t continue to be a generalist consultant for the purposes of project delivery.

You can help your clients with whatever you want!

But, should you help them?

When I’m faced with the decision to help a client in a different area, I ask myself the following questions:

  • Do I have the capabilities to do the work, and if I don’t, how much time and effort will it take to get up to speed?
  • Will the fees cover the time and effort required to get up to speed, or do I believe (and have researched to confirm) that there is sufficient profitable additional opportunity with other clients and prospects to justify the investment in time
  • Are there other advantages to my business, for example, it’s a complimentary skillset; or doing this piece of work for the client will open up other opportunities
  • Do we have the capacity to take on the work without compromising our current expertise?
  • Do I simply need the revenue?


In order to have a successful business, you need to be able to make sales.

In order to make sales, you have to market your business to capture attention.

In order to capture attention, you need to be relevant to your prospects.

In order to be relevant to your prospects, you need to be seen as an authority.

In order to be an authority, you need to have a specific problem, or set of problems, that you are an expert in solving.

An expert is a specialist in a specific problem.

You need to be a specialist to be able to cost effectively compete when marketing your business, and you can be a generalist when it comes to delivery of projects outside of your specialist area.

The opportunities that you fear you’ll miss by being a specialist, won’t even exist until you’ve got clients in the first place, which you now know you do by being a specialist.

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