This is an important issue when recruiting for a business consulting job. In finance, most people think you must work for the biggest – the Goldman-Sachs-or-bust mentality. And while the big management consulting firms (like McKinsey and Bain) get the lions share of media attention, there are many successful and well-respected boutique consulting firms (like Katzenbach Partners, LEK, and Marakon) that I would recommend prospective applicants consider.
So what are the differences between the two? First, I’ll start with the similarities:
1) Consulting travel will usually be a component
2) You’ll work in teams, interacting closely with clients
3) As an analyst/associate/consultant, your focus will be on data gathering, analysis, and presentation. In plain English, this means you’ll receive lots of data from your client, do calculations in Excel, combine that with thorough Internet research and some interviews, and put it into slides to share at meetings
But the differences are very important:
1) While the fundamentals of your work will be the same, the application of that work can vary. Boutique companies like Kurt Salmon typically focus on narrower questions and in fewer industries. At a Big 3 consulting firm (Bain, BCG, McKinsey) you receive exposure to different industries and functions (eg, strategy, operations, organization). In boutiques your exposure is more narrow – at Kurt Salmon, your primary focus would be on retail and consumer goods companies. This is both a pro (you start building expertise) and a con (what if you decide the retail sector is not for you?).
But again, the day-to-day will look very similar. The difference is in the longer-term.
2) As for travel – it depends. Some boutiques do a lot of traveling if they have an industry focus (Kurt Salmon is a well-regarded expert in the retail/consumer goods space, with clients spread throughout the US and internationally). But other boutiques have a more local focus (eg, Slalom Consulting) and thus you may travel very little – most of your work would be with area clients with whom your firm has developed a lasting relationship
3) While you’re guaranteed to work in teams and with clients, both the types of team members, types of clients and nature of interaction could be different. Boutiques have less coverage for clients overall, which could mean you’ll see significantly more client interaction from an early stage, and with more senior members (this is the norm – but I have heard of smaller consulting firms like ATKearney with enormous teams at the client, so it can vary). Your teams will usually be smaller, often with you and maybe one other person as the only real day-to-day presence at your clients. Each of these comes with its own set of pros and cons.
Further reading: Interview with an ATKearney Shanghai consultant
4) Culture can be vastly different
I use the example of a small liberal arts college (Brown) vs a large, public institution (UCLA).
Brown offers greater personalization and support, everyone knows your name, you’re a big fish in a small pond. At UCLA, its harder to standout. The support network is not personalized and easily accessible. While there are more opportunities, it’s up to you to seize them. You’re a small fish in a big pond, but the upside can be higher.
The analogy also applies to large city offices versus satellite/smaller city offices (for example, Bain’s San Francisco office versus their satellite offices in Texas. A great discussion of consulting office selection can be found in my interview with Marquis)
5) Future jobs/exit options. In particular I need to put a disclaimer here, because your situation is largely within your control and the actual situations vary widely. But when we discuss the ACCESS that you have to exit opportunities across industries and job functions, larger firms (like Boston Consulting Group) are the clear winner. Much larger alumni networks, more internally shared recruiting emails and advice, greater brand recognition, the list goes on. Boutiques, given their strong reputation in particular niches, offer plenty of opportunities in the same space – but are distinctly behind in offering opportunities to enter unrelated career paths. These corporate paths usually include (and this is not counting the many who enter graduate school):
Further reading: Part 1 of a series on management consulting exit options
Also, as a note for prospective summer interns – many boutique firms do not offer consulting summer internships in the U.S. This practice is more common internationally. However, summer internship season can offer a great opportunity to see how the Big 3 management consulting firms/Big 4 accounting/one-stop-shop firms operate from the inside. While recruiting is competitive, the opportunity is golden if you get it