You don’t have to head to New York or Los Angeles to find top consultants. Local firms can provide expertise best suited for the Northwest economy.
It might be possible to work from anywhere with clients, customers, and vendors all over the world, but there still is something about face-to-face contact that can’t be replicated on a videoconference call. There’s a definite advantage to being able to walk down the street to address a client’s urgent need. That is probably why many Eastside consulting firms boast that most of their business comes from local clients.
Businesses of all types are booming on the Eastside, and the area’s consulting firms are benefitting from this expanding economy and experiencing incredible growth. Kirkland-based Loft9 Consulting, for example, was listed on Inc. magazine’s list of fastest growing firms in 2014. It hired 30 consultants that year and 14 more in the first quarter of 2015.
Offerings on the Eastside span the gamut, including firms that specialize in management consulting, IT, finance, or marketing. They range from small boutique agencies to multibillion-dollar global agencies with local branch offices. The Eastside also is home to industry-specific consulting from Microsoft, Oracle, and other companies.
The established names in consulting — McKinsey and KPMG, for example — tend to locate offices in Seattle. But the next generation of information technology-focused global consulting giants is choosing Eastside locations for Seattle-area offices. Bellevue is home to branches of Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services, Tech Mahindra, and Wipro.
Smaller firms experiencing growth
The sweet spot for local consulting firms is probably in the middle: small enough to offer personalized service that clients supposedly cannot get from the multinationals, yet large enough to have a staff of consultants at the ready to meet growing demand.
Pariveda Solutions is one such organization. With nine regional offices, the company is not exactly small, but its local approach to each market has more in common with boutique agencies than with larger firms. Its area office is in downtown Bellevue, within walking distance of many clients, including Expedia. That won’t be the case when Expedia moves to Seattle, but Pariveda is likely to add an office in Seattle proper for the convenience of both its workforce and its clientele. As David Watson, vice president of the 50-worker Bellevue office, put it, this is an example of “following what is important to our people.” Since the employees are fairly evenly split between living on the east and west sides of Lake Washington, having two Seattle-area offices probably makes sense in the long term. And it appears that Pariveda’s growth will support two offices in the region.
Pariveda offers IT consulting and business-systems planning for clients in a wide range of industries. Locally, it serves tech, financial, retail, healthcare, and consumer-goods clients and finds that working with diverse industries provides insurance in case of a downturn in any one sector.
Consulting is, for the most part, industry-agnostic. As businesses become more aware of how consulting skills transfer between industries, they are less likely to require a consultant to have industry-specific experience.
Eastside agencies such as Simplicity Consulting in Kirkland and Caiman Consulting in Redmond have benefited from this shift and are expanding their client rosters to more industries. Both companies began with a heavy focus on tech clients but leveraged their staffs’ skill sets to help companies in diverse industries.
“We don’t have a lot of leeway to not do well on a project,” said Caiman Senior Manager Ben Brown, emphasizing the need to succeed on every project in the competitive, referral-based consulting industry.
Lisa Hufford, CEO of Simplicity Consulting, finds that providing companies a “flexible team approach that meets their budget” has allowed Simplicity — which has about half of its roughly 300 employees located on the Eastside — to take on retail, health care, and insurance clients. With a focus on sales-driven marketing, Simplicity doesn’t compete directly with the large management-consulting firms.
But despite the marketing focus, Simplicity sometimes tackles projects that have a greater scope. One example is an insurance company that hired Simplicity to manage an internal cultural shift at the company, which included employee training and improving communication among stakeholders.
Loft9 is an exception to the rule about Eastside agencies getting their start in tech. Its first clients included a health care provider and a nonprofit organization. Loft9 continues to serve a wide range of industries and is seeing growth in demand from the tech, healthcare, retail, travel, and nonprofit sectors. Founding partner Edward Beals said Loft9 owes its recent growth — the company now has roughly 90 employees in Kirkland — to delivering results, “living up to promises to clients, and over-delivering just a little bit.”
Loft9 offers project management and business analytics, both of which are generating strong demand, but Beals said the company’s greatest area of growth is change management. Clients recognize the need to change how they are doing business to meet the demands of today’s marketplace but are reluctant to do so and need outside help.
Hiring and training
Eastside consulting agencies have different approaches to hiring and training their consultants, which reflects the variety in the consulting industry as a whole.
Simplicity Consulting employs what it calls the “Simplicity Success System” to create the best fit between client and consultant (or consulting team) for each project. The company usually hires consultants with at least 10 years of corporate experience and provides training to “help consultants discover the work that they love,” which, according to Hufford, is how they will be most successful.
Loft9 hires consultants who will be a “good value for the firm,” said Beals. These people meet the criteria Beals calls the “trifecta of awesomeness — smart, driven, and humble.” Each associate has a mentor to help guide his or her career, and Loft9 uses a co-delivery model in which all consultants, regardless of tenure, receive weekly feedback from another staff consultant on their projects. Loft9 also requires that all consultants hold or be working toward one or more professional certifications such as Project Management Professional or Six Sigma.
Caiman Consulting hires only experienced consultants who have worked either in corporate project-management roles or at other consulting firms. It encourages consultants to get professional certifications and training but does not provide it in-house. Most of its consultants are generalists, and Caiman gives them leeway to decide which projects to pursue. Caiman does supplement its roster of employees — which currently stands at 43 — with independent contractors when the need arises.
Pariveda Solutions is an employee-owned business, and all consultants participate in a stock-ownership program. Rather than hiring consultants with specific skills, Pariveda looks for effective problem solvers who thrive at gaining knowledge and applying it. Pariveda conducts internal training and offers consultants a clearly defined promotional track.
Location, location, location
So what motivates consulting agencies to open offices on the Eastside? For the most part, it comes down to convenience for employees and clients. Whether agencies started out local or expanded to the Eastside as business grew, all of them found a local business climate with demand for their services.
Keeping a roster of clients that are primarily local to a regional office minimizes the amount of travel required. This helps with work-life balance for consultants and keeps them more engaged. It also helps control budgets for clients and gives them immediate access to consultants when needed.
“When we get into a (new) market, we start with the right leadership” that will provide the connections needed to support consultants and develop a roster of local clientele, said Liem Vu, Western region manager for Pariveda Solutions.
Keeping things local also allows consulting firms to give back to their communities. Many do work for nonprofits, but some go further. Loft9, for example, has a community-involvement team and often assigns consultants who are between projects pro bono work for small nonprofits.
Consulting on the Eastside is thriving, but the growth in the local economy will, of course, slow at some point. When that happens, firms that have most effectively diversified their client base likely will stand the best chance of continued success.
How do you verify the credentials of a consultant or agency?
Referrals produce the vast majority of consulting firms’ business. Clients like working with agencies they know and trust. A firm looking to hire a consulting agency for the first time should ask the following:
What results have you achieved?
Agencies should be able to point to success stories from clients that have come to them with similar problems.
Can you provide references?
Any reputable agency should give you references of clients who have hired it for similar projects. If an agency is hesitant to give references, it is probably not an organization you want to hire. It likely either lacks relevant experience or hasn’t delivered on promises to prior clients.
How do you assign consultants to projects?
Some firms have consultants with specialized knowledge and will find a person or team that has extensive expertise in the type of help your business needs, whether that means running a social media campaign or implementing a cloud-based data system. Other consultants are generalists and solve a wider variety
of business problems.
Are your consultants employees or independent contractors?
Both types of consultants can do an excellent job, but employees are more vested in the success and reputation of the agency and are more likely to stay with the same agency long-term.
What training do your consultants get?
Some agencies have in-house training programs or require their consultants to get certifications that guarantee a certain level of professional knowledge.
Can we start with a small project?
Unless you’re looking to overhaul the way your company does business, you may be able to initially bring in an agency for a small project, and then hire it for more work if it pans out. In any case, you should be able to get an initial meeting for free to get a general sense of what the agency can offer.
The answers you get from agencies tell you a lot about their hiring process and how they do business. If you like what you hear, bring them on board. If not, consider another agency.