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The expertise paradox: Why brand and reputation matter more than ever

Here’s a scenario we’ve all been in: You are on your way to dinner at a friend’s house, and you don’t want to turn up empty-handed. You intended to go to that gorgeous artisan chocolate shop near your office to pick up a little gift, but the day ran away with you, and now you’ve got to get something en route, otherwise you’ll be late. There’s an express store on the way that will have something that’s a sufficient treat, and you decide that a reasonable gift plus being on time is a good enough outcome—and certainly better than late and empty-handed. Often, we buy things because they’re convenient and will do, not because they’re the best.

This scenario may tell us something about how clients think about the consultants they work with, and how they buy. Our latest client survey reveals the greatest shake up in what clients tell us is important when working with a firm since we started tracking the metric. In previous years, clients consistently told us that having an innovative approach was the most important attribute, with the methodologies to support it frequently just behind. This year, brand and reputation is the most important attribute to clients, followed by subject matter expertise, and then sector knowledge. In fact, the chart below almost looks like there’s a ‘sort’ Excel error (we have checked, and that hasn’t happened).

So, what’s caused the dramatic change in opinion? First, the world has changed so much in the last two years that expertise has once again become differentiating. While it has always been a key reason to hire consultants, it’s more important now than it has ever been: Consultants with knowledge of how their sector worked in 2019 may as well be recommending installing fax machines, or telling clients about this exciting new thing called the internet—it was another time. Clients want consultants that have spent the last two years at the frontier of their sector or functional expertise and understand what that means for their organisation. Second, remote working has made depth of expertise—or lack of it—more apparent, and it has transformed firms’ abilities to get their experts in front of clients. In the past, clients had to make do with the best local expert that happened to be available; now firms can connect clients with their experts anywhere in the world with a simple video call.

But why would brand trump expertise? It seems like a paradox: clients say deep expertise is important, and yet so is having the big brand of a big firm, many of which are sometimes criticised as being generalist. On top of that, clients often insist they’re not swayed by mere marketing.

We think it’s because a firm’s brand actually helps clients to get things done—and clients really want to get things done at the moment. Three quarters of those we surveyed in late 2021 say their corporate goals are more ambitious than they were pre-pandemic. They also tell us that they’ve achieved more in the last two years than they had believed possible, so there’s a sense of momentum that they want to capitalise on. Multidisciplinary consulting firms have undoubtedly played their part in making transformational change a reality, and clients give two main reasons why a trusted brand helps: First, prestigious firms’ recommendations have more credibility with internal stakeholders. This can help to cut through organisational politics and remove stumbling blocks in major change programmes. Second, they trust bigger firms because they have access to a wider range of capabilities—vital when setting out on a transformation programme and everyone is unclear exactly what skills will be required when. In this way, a stellar brand helps reassure clients that they’ll get the internal buy-in to make change stick, and that the firm will have the breadth and depth of skills to make it a success.

Brand helps square the circle of needing deep expertise and a breadth of skills. Like the commuter rushing to a dinner date, they don’t always need the absolute best option available—sometimes you just need something that’s good enough. There might be a more perfectly qualified consultant out there for a specific part of a major transformation, but one that’s qualified enough and from the top-flight firm a client is already working with is a much more convenient solution. To that end, brand that guarantees breadth and depth is a powerful wind in the sails of transformation—no wonder it’s so important to clients.