Consultants come in all types of sizes, shapes, and specialties. However, most fall into one of two broad categories — management consultants or technical consultants. While both provide services and advice aimed at helping the client, there are some significant differences.
As a consulting engineer, I am more familiar with the technical category. Nevertheless, I’ve known and worked with a number of management consultant over the years, so I feel comfortable sharing observations on this category as well.
Technical consultants are usually problem-oriented, and typically live in a “concrete” world. Most are specialists by education (engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, architects, etc.) with years of advanced professional education and experience.
- Most technical consultants focus on solving technical problems or addressing compliance issues. (Think doctors, accountants, lawyers, and most engineers.)
- Other technical consultants, however, focus on creating new ideas, concepts, and products. (Think architects and design engineers.) They all apply hard science, logic, and even art to achieve results.
- Technical consultants often need to be licensed by government boards before they can offer their services to the public. The licensing requirements are strict, and require in-depth examinations combined with suitable professional experience. As such, they can confer a high degree of credibility.
- A word of caution. Non-licensed professionals can be censured or even jailed for practicing without a license. Don’t even think about practicing medicine or law without a license.
Management consultants are usually process-oriented, and typically live in an “abstract” world. Most are generalists by education (business, liberal arts) but may have extensive experience in business specialties (marketing, advertising, personnel, etc.)
- Most management consultants focus on solving business problems or improving business processes. Profitability and ROI are major measures of success (or failure) for management consultants.
- Management consultants are typically more “people oriented” than technical consultants, and often apply soft science (psychology or market research) and emotional appeals to achieve results.
- Management consultants rarely require specialized legal licenses, but may still need simple business licenses.
- In order to enhance credibility, many management consultants pursue certifications by nonlegal entities. Depending on the client, these credentials may or may not have meaning, so choose your credentials with care.
Two different types of consultants — two different cultures. In my experience, the two types sometimes even distrust each other, but much of this is due to misunderstanding. Personally, I have great respect for both types of consultants. Hopefully this post has promoted some tolerance regarding these cultural differences.
As a final thought, consider opportunities where the two cultures collide. For example, if you have a technical background combined with marketing or finance experience, you’ll have a big advantage with high tech clients over the liberal arts major.
The same is true if you have management background combined with legal or medical experience — you’ll have much more credibility in your core community than a generic consultant. I’ve seen successful examples for both.
The bottom line — understand the differences, and then build on your own unique strengths and experiences.
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