Evaluating and Improving Performance of the Founder-Led Boutique Consultancy
In an increasingly complex and competitive business landscape, founder-led boutique consultancies face unique challenges and opportunities.
These firms, characterized by their specialized expertise and nimble structures, are perfectly positioned to provide bespoke solutions to their clients. However, they require ongoing, strategic assessment and improvement to harness their potential and maximize performance truly.
In this article, I delve into a comprehensive evaluation framework perfected over the years of advising and guiding such consultancy firms toward success.
Drawing from first-hand experience and a deep understanding of the industry dynamics, I've created an approach that spotlights the key areas integral to the health and prosperity of these consultancy firms.
Through this lens, I aim to give consultancy owners a fresh perspective and a roadmap to assessing and boosting the performance of their boutique consultancies. Here, I share the key components of this assessment.
Table of Contents:
- The assessment, Part 1: The desk research before meeting with the client
- The assessment, Part 2: Strategic review with the owner(s)
- The assessment, Part 3: Understanding the power in the sale
- The assessment, Part 4: Developing existing clients
- The assessment, Part 5: Structural Strength and Existential Health
The assessment, Part 1: The desk research before meeting with the new client
1. Positioning Specificity in the market
The first step of my evaluation focuses on the firm's positioning in the market.
This encompasses how effectively the consultancy identifies its target audience, establishes its expertise, and stands out amidst competitors. I look for clarity and distinctiveness in their market positioning, which often reflects a strong strategic foundation.
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2. Differentiating Value Proposition
Next, I assess the consultancy's unique value proposition. This involves examining what they promise to deliver to clients and, more importantly, how this offering sets them apart from others.
I delve into their value proposition's uniqueness, relevance, and compelling nature, which is crucial in attracting and retaining clientele.
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3. Visibility and Reputation in the Market
My evaluation continues with an analysis of the firm's visibility and reputation. This includes their presence in relevant media outlets, their standing within industry networks, and overall market recognition.
I consider both their online and offline reputation, assessing how effectively they are perceived and known within their field.
4. Thought Leadership Quality, Consistency, and Distribution
I also assess the firm's thought leadership efforts, investigating its content's quality, consistency, and distribution. This includes reviewing articles, blogs, reports, presentations, webinars, and other content, with an eye for authority and value.
The firm's ability to consistently generate insightful and impactful content is key to establishing credibility and fostering client trust.
As I always say: ‘Business development in consulting is rooted in educating the target audience’.
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5. Social Proof: Outcome-Based Client Testimonials and Case Studies
Finally, I evaluate the firm's social proof, focusing on outcome-based testimonials and case studies. These elements provide evidence of the firm's ability to deliver on its promises and generate successful client outcomes.
I review these testimonies and case studies for their authenticity, the significance of their results, and the breadth of successful client engagements they represent.
The assessment, Part 2: Strategic review with the owner(s)
Part 2 of the assessment, "Strategic Review," is integral to my evaluation process. This phase involves a deeper dive into the consultancy's broader strategic framework, building upon the preliminary desk research I conduct before meeting with the client.
In an in-depth meeting with the consultancy founder(s), owner(s), and leadership, I assess the firm's long-term goals, responsiveness to industry trends, opportunities for growth, and potential risks that could impact performance.
The review includes revisiting my desk research outcomes: the consultancy's market positioning, value proposition, visibility, reputation, thought leadership, and social proof, positioning these aspects within a larger strategic context.
This holistic overview enables me to evaluate how well the firm understands and addresses the big picture and the degree of internal alignment among its founders, owners, or leaders on the strategic agenda.
Recommended reading: 4 Lessons Learned From A Consultancy Due Diligence
Misaligned owners, a frequent challenge
Throughout my years advising consultancy owners, I've observed a recurring theme that threatens the long-term sustainability of boutique consultancy businesses: I call it 'the illusion of internal alignment'.
In the meeting room, agreements are made, nods are shared, and a sense of unified direction amongst the owners is seemingly reached. However, once the meeting ends, each owner often reverts to their individual path, driven by their own interpretation of the strategy, leading to disjointed actions that dilute the consultancy's coherence and impact.
Not a good thing in this labor shortage era.
The main KPIs of Part 2
Important note: In evaluating a consultancy's financial and operational performance, I go beyond just reviewing the current numbers. Depending on the firm's history and available data, I carefully analyze trends over the past several months or even years.
This historical review offers invaluable insights into the firm's trajectory, growth patterns, and responses to past challenges or opportunities. Understanding these dynamics enables a richer and more nuanced evaluation of the firm's health and potential.
Moreover, it helps to identify areas of strength to build upon and areas of concern that need more focused attention or strategic adjustment.
Therefore, this part of my assessment adds an essential layer of depth and context to the firm's current performance metrics. Now I'll review the key performance indicators I think of in this process...
1. Revenue (of course)
The starting point of my financial assessment is the firm's revenue. I examine the total income generated from client engagements to gauge the firm's financial health and market performance.
I look for trends in revenue growth, as this can indicate the consultancy's effectiveness in attracting and retaining clients, as well as the value clients derive from their services.
Revenue generation in a consultancy isn't a straightforward task. It's a delicate balancing act between acquiring new clients, nurturing existing relationships, and delivering a compelling value proposition. Each factor is an essential piece of the puzzle, and mismanaging just one can disrupt the entire revenue ecosystem.
In my revenue assessment, I aim to unravel how effectively a consultancy navigates this intricate balance, as it reveals not only the potential for greater revenue but also the resilience and sustainability of the consultancy.
Recommended reading: The Negative Impact of Obsessive Revenue Focus in Consulting
2. Revenue per Full-Time Employee (FTE)
Some might be surprised as to why I am assessing Revenue/FTE.
First, I do own quite a bit of benchmark data, of course, always with the risk of comparing apples with pears. But it consistently gives me an immediate indication of the power of the entire team. I've seen immense differences for similar kinds of consulting activities, varying from 75k to 450k Euro average revenue per FTE. It tells a lot.
Second, to better understand the firm's financial health, the revenue generated per full-time employee helps me identify the team's productivity and efficiency and can reveal insights about workload and expertise ‘distribution’ within the consultancy, know-how transfer, and staff utilization.
3. Gross Margin (and detail per client, per project, pre and post-project)
A key part of my assessment involves analyzing the firm's gross margin – overall and detailed per client, project, and pre and post-project. This gross margin analysis can easily spot the difference between a thriving and a non-thriving consultancy.
As I always say: 'The gross margin says it all'. It's a reflection of how effectively and efficiently a consultancy is managed.
The reality is that most consultancies go with the flow when managing gross margins. They may track it as an ad-hoc thing or ignore it altogether. Gross margin per client, per project, and the difference between the proposal-based margin and the final post-project margin? I'd say, only 5-10% of the consultancies I meet, are tracking it.
I’ve been there myself in my early years. But I’ve learned how important gross margins are (gross margin = total project revenue minus total project-related payroll cost).
The truth is, it's one of the most important metrics to track to ensure long-term consultancy health because there are a lot of difficult-to-cure margin eaters, such as:
- too low pricing, or heavy discounting to improve win rates
- poor resource management
- ineffective project and scope management
- an excessive amount of revenue from freelancers and contractors (the markup on their fees has a negative margin impact)
- an over-reliance on low-margin projects (hitting the downstream project wall and no plan to move to upstream, higher-margin advisory work)
- a lack of investment in technology and infrastructure (to improve efficiency, allowing to accept of more projects and generating more margin)
- to name a few…
4. Number of Projects, Project Size (in revenue and hours):
I delve into the number of projects the firm undertakes and the size of these projects in terms of revenue and hours.
This examination reveals important patterns related to client challenges, the firm's capacity to manage multiple projects, and the size and scope of work they can effectively handle.
An overflow of new projects and clients may appear as a sign of success, but it often signals a hidden struggle: a lack of depth in developing existing clients (see also parts 3 and 4).
This continuous churn can put a strain on business development efforts, escalating new client acquisition and onboarding stress.
In essence, a consultancy's ability to manage project volume and cultivate enduring client relationships is a vital gauge of its operational health and long-term sustainability.
Recommended reading: Getting Over 'The Project Wall' To Grow A Consultancy Firm
5. Pricing Strategy
Finally, I assess the firm's pricing strategy. I examine whether their pricing model aligns with the value they deliver, market expectations, and the firm's financial goals.
This evaluation helps to determine if the consultancy's pricing strategy is competitive and sustainable in the long run.
In my experience, it's all too common to find that boutique consultancies lack a formalized pricing strategy. Many are caught in the flow of the market tide, adjusting their rates based on client expectations or competitors' pricing.
This approach, while convenient, is far from ideal. It risks undervaluing their expertise, leaving money on the table, and it can create inconsistency in perceived value.
A well-defined and implemented pricing strategy, on the other hand, is instrumental in asserting the consultancy's value proposition and driving sustainable profitability.
The assessment, Part 3: Understanding the power in the sale
The third dimension of my assessment focuses on "Understanding the Power in the Sale". In this crucial part of the evaluation, I explore the interplay between the firm's visibility, reputation, expert-led positioning, thought leadership efforts, and their impact on the sales process.
Firms with strong market presence and credibility often have an inherent advantage, giving them more power in the sales process. This advantage manifests in various ways, from lowering new client acquisition costs and enhancing win rates to reducing the sales cycle time and decreasing the volume of discounts offered.
But understanding and harnessing this power requires a nuanced evaluation. That's why I'd like to delve into how I assess this power and the significant benefits it can bring to the consultancy…
The main KPIs of Part 3
1. New Client Generation
The first KPI in this assessment component is new client generation.
I look into how effectively the consultancy attracts new clients, an essential metric for growth and sustainability. This measurement offers insights into the effectiveness of the firm's marketing and networking strategies and the appeal and relevance of its value proposition.
For those who know me, I always ask: 'Why exactly are prospects calling the consultancy?'
Most of the time, I get troublesome answers from founders/owners. Their answers are not always to the point, which is an important indicator to me of a flaw in positioning and value proposition design.
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2. State of the Pipeline
I next turn my attention to the state of the firm's sales pipeline. This involves evaluating the quantity and the quality of potential clients at various stages of the sales process. I scrutinize the firm's pipeline management practices and the ability to forecast future revenue as accurately as possible.
A well-managed pipeline that reliably forecasts revenue trends indicates a disciplined approach to sales and can suggest stability in the consultancy's financial future.
This robustness in the pipeline often signals a healthy potential for future revenue and strong market demand for the consultancy's services.
Recommended reading: The Way a Consultancy Manages Its Pipeline Is the Way It Manages the Consultancy
3. Cost of Acquisition
I evaluate the cost of sales or client acquisition. This metric encompasses all costs associated with securing a new client - from marketing expenses to the time invested in proposals and negotiations.
In my role as a consultancy advisor, I've observed that the cost of acquisition is not only a reflection of effective business development processes and strategies but also a barometer of the consultancy's reputation, demand for its expertise, competitive landscape, and the power of its thought leadership.
This nuanced understanding of the cost of acquisition KPI can provide a more holistic picture of a consultancy's market position and business development efficiency.
4. Number of Opportunities, Number of Proposals as a Result
I delve into the number of business opportunities the firm identifies and the resulting proposals it generates.
This helps gauge the firm's proactiveness in seeking new business and the efficiency in converting prospects into potential engagements.
5. Average Deal Closing Time
The average time it takes for the firm to close a sale is another key metric I analyze.
Faster closing times can indicate strong demand, effective sales techniques, and the persuasive power of the firm's expertise and value proposition.
Believe it or not, this KPI, together with the win rate ratio (see next KPI), always provides me with an excellent picture of the resonance of the value proposition and the expertise in the market.
Over the years, I've collaborated with a wide spectrum of consultancies. Some exhibit impressive agility, clinching deals within a span of 4 to 6 weeks, while others navigate a more complex sale process, extending their closing time to as long as 6 months.
These disparities aren't just arbitrary numbers; they are indicative of the consultancy's strategic positioning and reputation, the nature of its service offerings, and its overall market dynamics.
Unpacking these nuances always offers me valuable insights.
Recommended post: 5 Things Consultancies Can Do to Shorten Sales Cycles
6. Win Rates
I examine the firm's win rates, i.e., the percentage of proposals that result in a successful engagement. Strong power in the sale should typically translate into high win rates, often in the region of >70-80%.
Strong win rates suggest the consultancy's competitive strength and its ability to (more) easily convince potential clients of the value it delivers.
If win rates are anything below 30-40%, it may point towards a need to reevaluate market positioning, value proposition, social proof (other clients telling about their outcomes), and maybe even the entire business development and proposal approach.
Win rates are a reflection of the consultancy's market appeal, so I don't take these numbers lightly.
7. New Client Ratio (New versus Existing Clients)
An important dimension of my evaluation centers around the consultancy's client mix, particularly the ratio of new clients to existing ones. This ratio serves as a litmus test of the firm's dual capacity to nurture enduring relationships while continuing to attract fresh engagements. While a 30:70 ratio of new to existing clients is generally desirable, the optimal balance can vary depending on the consultancy's expertise.
More than static figures, the trend lines are key here. For instance, while initially encouraging, a sharp uptick in new clients could indicate potential issues. These may include imminent capacity constraints with the challenges of onboarding, managing, and delivering value to an expanding new client base or difficulty retaining existing clients over an extended period.
This deeper insight calls for a further examination of client satisfaction (see Part 5) and client retention strategies (see Part 4).
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8. Role of the Founder(s) or Owner(s) in the Sale
Finally, I closely consider the role of the founders or owners in the sales process. From my experience, many founders and owners in boutique consultancy firms start as doer-seller-type profiles. This involvement is essential in the early years as they are typically the strongest ambassadors for the consultancy's expertise and are crucial for establishing trust with initial clients.
However, as the firm grows, this dynamic often needs to evolve. Over time, the firm needs to develop a sales process that is not overly dependent on the founders or owners. This allows founders/owners to transition from working IN the business to working ON the company, a crucial shift for long-term growth and sustainability. This evolution is a sign of a maturing consultancy preparing for its next journey phase.
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The assessment, Part 4: Developing existing clients
Part 4 of my assessment centers around "Developing Existing Clients." A healthy balance of new and existing clients, often favoring the latter in a 70:30 ratio (see Part 3), is a key indicator of a consultancy's long-term sustainability.
Achieving this balance hinges significantly on the firm's expertise in service offering design, aiming to foster long-term relationships rather than transient project-based engagements. Many consultancies hit a 'project wall' – continually cycling through short-term projects and inevitably losing clients after each engagement.
This pattern burdens the firm enormously, necessitating a constant influx of new clients and the associated challenges of acquisition, onboarding, and delivery. This is why the capacity to design services that extend beyond initial projects is critical. It promotes client retention and enhances the long-term health and viability of the consultancy.
In this part of the assessment, I delve into the firm's ability to cultivate enduring client relationships through effective service design (beyond the initial client project).
The main KPIs of Part 4
1. Type of Clients
In my assessment, I first examine the types of clients the consultancy works with. This provides insights into the potential for developing long-term relationships.
Some client types naturally lend themselves to ongoing engagements, while others may be more project-focused. Based on my experience, understanding and managing the client mix can be pivotal in strategizing for client development and retention.
2. Client Concentration
I then look at client concentration, essentially how reliant the consultancy is on a few big clients.
I've often seen that over-reliance on a few clients can pose significant risks. If one of these major clients were to leave, it could have a detrimental impact on the consultancy's revenue and stability.
Balancing the client portfolio is crucial for risk mitigation and ensuring the consultancy's resilience.
3. Existing Client Tenure
I also assess the tenure of existing clients. This helps me understand how long clients typically stay engaged with the consultancy.
Longer tenures often indicate strong client satisfaction and effective service delivery. However, if the average tenure is short, it could suggest potential issues in client retention that need addressing.
But wait...there might be a few risks to balance when clients remain too long and become too powerful in the relationship, see recommended reading below.
4. Service Offering Design Capacity Score
Lastly, I evaluate the consultancy's service offering design capacity. This score reflects how well the firm can design enduring client relationships by providing deeper services and expertise.
A high score suggests the consultancy is adept at creating value-added services that extend beyond initial projects, fostering long-term partnerships.
In my experience, a consultancy's ability to continuously innovate and deliver relevant, high-value services is a key driver of client loyalty and business sustainability.
As I always say: 'Service Offering Design is an expertise on its own'.
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The assessment, Part 5: Structural Strength and Existential Health
This final assessment segment encapsulates several fundamental aspects, such as client satisfaction, infrastructure, utilization, cash flow management, and retention of key players. Though these components may seem diverse, they all contribute to the conscious design of a robust, future-ready consultancy.
I've found that moving away from an 'ad hoc' approach to a deliberately designed operational strategy is pivotal in laying strong foundations for growth and stability. This conscious design of the consultancy practice allows the founders and owners to shift from reactive to proactive management, crucially enhancing the consultancy's ability to navigate future challenges and opportunities.
This section evaluates how effectively the consultancy has established these strong foundations and its readiness to grow and evolve.
Recommended post: Dear consultancy owner, is your consultancy designed to succeed?
The main KPIs of Part 5
1. Client Satisfaction
When evaluating client satisfaction, consultancies often resort to quick, digital measures like NPS scores.
While they provide a snapshot (and I do review them), I don't like them as the single source of client feedback. An NPS score can't capture the depth and complexity of a client's experience.
In my perspective, a full review should encompass an open dialogue about the client's overall experience, the tangible outcomes of the project, and any areas for improvement. It should delve into aspects like the perceived value of the consultancy's services, the quality of communication, the responsiveness to client needs, and how well the project's objectives were met.
Oh, and by the way, I recommend discussing the client's future needs and how the consultancy can continue to support them. This not only builds a stronger relationship with the client but also offers the consultancy valuable insights to refine its services and strategic approach.
2. Cash Flow Management
Cash flow management is another critical element I evaluate when assessing a consultancy. Sound cash flow management not only signifies financial health but also a robust understanding of the firm's income and expenditure dynamics.
My experience shows that consultancies with well-managed cash flows demonstrate a higher level of resilience in volatile market conditions.
Beyond this, it's crucial to recognize the impact of steady cash flow on the decision-making process within a consultancy. When cash flow is well-managed and predictable, it creates an atmosphere of financial stability and peace of mind for the owners.
This, in turn, allows them the comfort and confidence to make strategic choices that uphold the firm's value proposition and integrity. It empowers them to say 'no' to non-ideal clients or projects, preventing overstretching and safeguarding the firm's reputation and focus.
Recommended post: 10 Most Common Root Causes of Cash Flow Problems in Consultancies
3. Retention of Key Players
Assessing the retention of key players within a consultancy provides me with insights into the organization's work culture, career progression opportunities, and how well it values its talent.
However, the implications of retaining key players extend beyond this. The protection of know-how and specialized expertise is a critical aspect of the consulting industry. High staff turnover can lead to a loss of essential knowledge and insights, thereby impacting the consultancy's capacity to deliver quality services.
Additionally, the process of know-how transfer, which becomes necessary in case of high team turnover, can be quite costly and effort-intensive. This involves not just the monetary expenses associated with hiring and training, but also the time and resources invested in ensuring the new members gain a sufficient understanding of the consultancy's processes, clients, and specific methodologies.
In today's labor market, characterized by significant shortages, hiring and finding the right talent has become an increasingly daunting challenge. Hence, retaining key players has emerged as a more strategic, cost-effective, and operationally sound approach to safeguarding a consultancy's capability to deliver.
Team retention: a critical KPI, you bet.
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4. Infrastructure 1: CRM
Using a CRM system is a testament to the consultancy's commitment to effectively managing client relationships and prospects. Not only does a CRM system streamline communication and improve service delivery, but it also serves as a vital tool for managing the prospect pipeline.
By providing a consolidated view of each client's engagement history, preferences, needs, and potential leads, a CRM can significantly enhance the firm's ability to convert prospects into clients. Its role in tracking interactions with potential clients makes it indispensable for forecasting future business and ensuring a healthy sales pipeline.
From my experience, a well-implemented CRM is key to maintaining a clear vision of the consultancy's growth trajectory.
5. Infrastructure 2: Project Management Tooling
Project management tooling reflects the consultancy's dedication to delivering projects efficiently, on time, and fully transparent with the clients (clients have access to the project tool).
These tools can significantly enhance productivity, coordination, and communication among team members, leading to more successful project outcomes and increased client satisfaction. The Excel sheet era is over.
I have supported several consultancy acquisitions due diligences in the past years, and the buyers and investors were always very keen to understand the way projects were managed and how well this was organized from a structural point of view.
6. Infrastructure 3: Consultancy KPI Monitoring
The implementation of consultancy KPI monitoring shows the firm's commitment to continuous performance improvement.
Tracking the right numbers and KPIs - the ones from this assessment, a bare minimum, I’d say - will provide valuable insights into areas of strength and opportunities for improvement, driving strategic decision-making.
Doing these assessments and being on the receiving side of the numbers and KPIs, it’s often quite surprising how many boutique consultancies struggle with retrieving all these numbers and KPIs.
Recommended post: 10 Metrics That Will Elevate a Consultancy
Finally, I delve into utilization rates.
Now, anyone who knows me understands that I maintain a restrained appreciation for utilization when it's purely wielded to drive up billable hours. This is a scenario I've encountered all too frequently in my line of work.
I often refer to this as 'the dark side of utilization'. It has the potential to engender a counterproductive atmosphere within a consulting team by suggesting that the quantity of hours billed takes precedence over the quality of value delivered and outcomes achieved.
This skewed perspective, I believe, fundamentally misses the point of what consultancy should truly be about.
To me, the (important, yes!) utilization KPI is all about understanding the bigger picture of resource allocation and capacity planning. Proper utilization measurement can uncover bottlenecks, inefficiencies, and potential burnout risks, guiding the strategic direction for balanced growth and sustainability.
In my experience, executing a thorough evaluation of a consultancy's health and performance across these five key areas can be a revelation. Many founder-led boutique consultancies, absorbed in the daily demands of their business, may need to pay more attention to the importance of a holistic, data-driven view of their operations.
By undertaking such an analysis, we delve into the heart of the consultancy, exploring the nuances of the market positioning, the strategic overview, the power in the sale, the existing client development, and finally, the structural strength and existential health. Each part of this assessment is like a puzzle, contributing to the complete picture of the consultancy's current standing and future potential.
It's worth noting that it's not a one-off exercise but an ongoing process allowing regular checkpoints and calibration. I've often seen that consultancies that stay on top of these numbers and KPIs are better equipped to navigate the industry's complexities and maintain their growth trajectory. They can adapt more swiftly, identify opportunities more accurately, and mitigate risks more effectively.
I strongly recommend investing time and resources in such a comprehensive assessment. It's not about ticking boxes or meeting industry standards; it's about conscious business design, proactive management, and sustainable growth.
Consultancy owners should not let the consultancy run them.
Data and numbers aren't just figures on a spreadsheet; they tell a consultancy's story and hint at its future chapters. Consultancy owners should listen closely, act consciously, and let these insights guide their path.
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Hello, I’m Luk Smeyers, and I’m helping mid-sized consultancies become high-performing consulting firms. I have been in the consulting businesses for more than 20 years, in very different roles: as European CHRO in a global consultancy, as a founder of a mid-sized analytics consultancy, and as a leader in a 'Big 4' consultancy, post-acquisition of my consultancy. I had the privilege of achieving global visibility as a consulting leader, and I never had to sell, persuade, or negotiate as a result. I have now bundled all those experiences, expertise, know-how, research, reading, successes, struggles, and failures from managing and advising consultancies in the past years.