Consultancy vs. Agency: What’s the Difference?

May 1, 2011

Recently I made the decision to come back to Crux Collaborative after a two-year hiatus. There were a lot of factors that influenced my decision, but one of the major reasons was (finally) accepting that I am a consultant and that I am not “agency material.” I even tweeted about it:


What was interesting about the responses to the tweet, in addition to the many notes of congratulations, was that many people assumed this meant I was now an “independent consultant”– not a member of a team at a consultancy like Crux Collaborative.

User Experience Consulting. It’s our tagline. It’s what we do. It also sets us apart from other companies.

When I describe what we do at Crux Collaborative, I’m often asked the following questions:

  1. “So you’re not a digital agency?”
  2. “Does it really make a difference?”
  3. “What’s the difference between an agency and a consultancy?”

For the record the answers to the above questions, are:

  1. No.
  2. Yes.
  3. Let me tell you!

The differences between a consultancy and an agency are numerous, but the following five statements highlight the most important distinctions:

1. We offer our clients what they need, when they need it

User experience consulting is Crux Collaborative’s area of focus and specialty. We don’t believe that we can do everything, we don’t want to do everything, nor is our growth plan based on growing the “account” so that you eventually rely primarily on our services. As a result, we listen to your objectives and propose solutions that will help accomplish them. We strive to make recommendations that can be implemented and validated immediately – as well as over the long term. Is the organizational readiness there? Are there business processes in place? Is there a content strategy to ensure that the experience stays relevant, timely, and accurate? These are the questions we’re asking. Noticeably absent: Who’s doing your branding? How about your media buying? Wouldn’t it be more effective if we took over all of this for you?

2. We work well with your internal staff and your other partners

Because Crux Collaborative has a single area of focus, we’re not operating through the lens of increasing our scope of work to subsume the work of existing staff, vendors, and partners. Our success at a project level, and our growth as a company, have always been based on effectively and collaboratively working with internal client teams and other partners to improve user experiences. We understand that if we deliver our work in a way that is difficult for your internal team (and/or your other vendors and partners) to understand and implement, it will ultimately be our failure. We understand that our ongoing success comes from our proven track record of improving experiences. To continue our success, we will stay focused on our area of expertise.

3. We work well with our own staff

This may seem like a no-brainer, but most agencies would be hesitant (or downright unwilling) to admit the amount of time and energy their staff spends navigating interdepartmental politics. Competition/cooperation, or “coopetition”—especially between UX and Creative—is a waste of resources, period. Because Crux Collaborative is a user experience consultancy, our collective intelligence is focused on meeting a single objective: designing and improving user experiences. We work as a team to meet your objectives; we don’t spend time discussing why a visible label hampers the storytelling ability of the creative director.

4. Our services are based on the premise that you know your business, we know user experience

We don’t claim to be experts in financial services, or healthcare, or medical devices, or consumer packaged goods, or any of the other areas of specialties our clients focus on. We’re experts in creating and optimizing interactive user experiences that need to contribute to a business’ bottom line (drive ROI). We’ve been helping clients meet their business objectives online since the very first “web pages” were being designed and built. We help you identify your goals, and then develop a plan that will meet your online needs. We don’t employ “account directors” whose job it is to learn your business and act as advisors. We couldn’t possibly learn your business in a matter of months, so we keep our focus to our area of expertise and trust and respect your expertise as we work with you.

5. Our focus is on meeting your goals, not on highlighting our vision

As a user experience consultancy, the success of our services is inversely proportional to the user’s awareness of our presence and participation in their experience. Crux Collaborative’s focus is on enabling your business goals to be met online, and facilitating a smooth and enjoyable experience for your users. Our focus has never been, and will never be, to stamp our own voice or style or your website. Our success is rooted in the increased user satisfaction of your clients, and improved ROI for your business—not from creating a portfolio that reflects our own style or voice. In the end, if no one but our clients knows that we participated in the design or optimization of an experience, we’re ok with that.

Agency or Consultancy. Two words, one letter apart in the alphabet—but worlds apart in approach.

These distinctions encapsulate what makes me a consultant and what makes Crux Collaborative the right fit for me. They also explain why Crux Collaborative has never needed to employ a business development rep or sales person, and why 100% of our business for 10 years has been referral and repeat clients. We are effective, collaborative, and efficient; we work well with clients, their partners, and vendors; we focus on our area of expertise and recognize the expertise of others—these are the things that make us who we are—user experience consultants.

By Mahtab Rezai
Principal & CEO

Mahtab has spent nearly two decades as a user experience designer, researcher, strategist, leader, and mentor. She has designed user experiences for companies ranging from startups to the Fortune 50.

View Mahtab's Bio

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