When to Hire a Consulting Firm and when to Hire an Agency

February 3, 2014

One of the most common questions I’m asked when I describe what we do at Crux Collaborative is: “What makes you different from a digital agency?” followed closely by “So, when should we hire you rather than an agency?” This is a topic that I’ve touched on previously in our Point of View newsletter—and one that garners a lot of interest. But it’s one that comes up often enough that it’s worth continuing to discuss.

Generalist vs. Specialist

In answering the question of what makes us different from a digital agency, I use the analogy of medical professionals. I describe digital agencies as generalists—like your family practice doctor and consulting firms as specialists, like cardiothoracic surgeons (Yes, I did just compare myself to Christina Yang). This analogy works with prospective clients because I’m able to break it down into specific components.

At its core, the decision about whether to hire an agency or a consulting firm can be addressed by answering four questions:

  • Is the service you are seeking standardized or specialized?
  • Are your needs broad and generalized, or specific and specialized?
  • What are the risks if the project doesn’t go well?
  • Does success or innovation matter more when measuring the outcome?

Are you seeking standardized or specialized services?

Q: Is the service you are looking for fairly standard and somewhat commoditized?

Or, using our analogy: Do you need to get a physical or preventive care checkup?

A: Find a good family practice doctor.
A digital agency is going to be a better fit for you than a consulting firm if your needs are fairly standard or not complicated. They typically offer a wide variety of services across an entire spectrum of needs and if they have great account people in place, they may be able to offer you a high-level, generalized, holistic view to serve your needs.

Rationale: When the service you need is a standard part of the training and practice of most professionals in that specific field, the predominant determining factors for making your decisions are weighted differently. You weigh factors such as proximity, parking, availability of appointments, price charged for standard tests, etc. In this case, you have a good point of comparison and many more comparable alternatives. The request, and therefore the questions you can ask, are fairly standardized to help you differentiate between the candidate set of choices to find the best fit, engagement model, and pricing.

Are your needs broad and general, or specific?

Q: Do you have a well-defined set of objectives you are looking to address?

Or using our analogy: Do you have a specific health issue or concern?

A: You need a specialist.
When your heart valve (yep, cardiothoracic surgery again) needs to be replaced, you find the best specialist you can afford. Similarly, if you identify a complex, highly regulated, specific objective or issue with your site or application, it’s time to find a specialist.

Rationale: Specialists don’t do it all. They focus on, and get really great at one thing. A specialized surgeon isn’t going to start where a family practice doctor does. They don’t ask questions like how you’ve been sleeping, if you’ve gained weight recently, and if you have any general concerns or issues you’d like to address today. A specialist is going to ask to see your labs, run specific tests pertaining to your issue, and begin discussing a specialized treatment plan with you as soon as possible.

Similarly, a consulting firm isn’t going to start by asking you about your overall brand voice and objectives. They are going to ask if a specific problem has been identified and immediately begin working with you to better define, assess, and address the objective(s) at hand.

A good family practice doctor will know when to refer you to a specialist, as will a good agency. We work with several agencies that know when it’s time to partner with us on highly transactional user experiences, highly regulated industries or targeted user research.

What are the risks?

Q: Is there a high amount of risk involved?

Or using our analogy: Will you experience significant side effects if you don’t receive the right treatment?

A: Find a specialist.
When there is risk involved, expertise in a specific area matters.

Rationale: In certain scenarios, deep expertise makes all the difference between success and regret. Sure, an ER resident could probably stitch up a cut on your child’s face, but do you want to risk a scar or wait for a plastic surgeon? There are times when working with a specialist with deep expertise is worth the added effort and expense it may take. There are user experiences that talk about products and there are user experiences that are the product. Working with the right team to match the objective at hand is critical.

Does innovation matter more than guaranteed success?

Q: Is guaranteed success or innovation more important?

Or, using our analogy: Is it about resolving a health issue/risk or experiencing a lifestyle change?

A: If you need to guarantee success, go with a specialist.
If you need to know your primary objective will be met successfully within specific parameters, then hire a consulting firm. If you are more interested in looking at an overall new approach or process, a generalist or agency is often the right choice.

Rationale: It would be rare for you to hear (or want to hear) a surgeon say “I am going to perform your heart surgery in a new and exploratory way that will be unique to you and has never been done before. After your surgery, your heart will look and operate like no other heart you have heard of or known”. An approach like that to your health would cause concern. What you want to hear is: “I’ve performed over 400 surgeries exactly like this one. The procedure will take about 2 hours. You will come in the morning-of to prep and should be released the following day by 2:00 pm. It will take you 1 week to fully recover.”

Similarly, when it comes to a specific, complex user experience problem you want to know that the team you’ve hired has successfully solved the problem many times before, that they know exactly how to arrive at the solution, what it will take to do it, and can clearly explain the process to you. You want to be a participant who is involved in ensuring that your specific needs and requirements are met and appropriately addressed. When you have a specific and complex problem you don’t want your partner to leave for a while, come up with a solution without your participation, and stage a “big reveal” of the recommendation.

If you have an opportunity to innovate and create something new where success criteria are based more on brand affinity than task completion—you may be better served by hiring an agency.

When you have a specific objective to solve for, and you need is deep expertise, along with a tried and true approach, and a history of proven success—you need a consulting firm that specializes in the problem you need to solve.

When it comes to your health, whether the health of your business or your personal health, it’s important to know what you are looking for and ask the right questions up front before you pick someone to work with.

Wondering if UX Consulting is the right fit for your project? Contact us or use our checklist.

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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