What would you do if you couldn’t hire anybody for the next five years?

That’s the deliberately slightly playful question we’ve been asking consulting leaders recently, as part of our research into what’s going on from a talent perspective. And it’s already elicited some interesting responses.

The one that caught my attention the other day was someone saying that they’d build more relationships with small specialist firms.

It makes sense: If the people you need aren’t available, simply go after the people who aren’t available. After all, they might not be available to work for you, but they’re almost certainly available to work for your client, and that might just amount to the same thing.

We’ve heard talk of this kind before—big firms acting as a shop window for smaller firms—but not as a direct response to the issue of talent. And now we hear it again it raises some interesting questions, because it starts to position consulting firms as retailers.

In fact let’s imagine that consulting firms are already retailers, but ones who sell their own products rather than everybody else’s, even if some of those products are own-branded versions of the same thing offered elsewhere. Using that as a starting point, what we’re talking about here is the consulting firm branching out to offer other people’s products, alongside its own, under its roof. It’s the difference between Burberry and Selfridges, or Ralph Lauren and Saks.

The key to the former (the Burberry or Ralph Lauren model) is that you have a product everyone wants to buy (and that you can sell to them profitably). Provided your customers can’t get the same thing anywhere else, you’ll be OK. The key to the latter (the Selfridges or Saks model) is probably a bit more complicated. Either you need to carry other people’s products exclusively—so yours is the only place people can buy them—or you need to add sufficient value to the customer’s experience of buying that nobody would go anywhere else anyway.

Assuming that the former is likely to be tricky, because if a small specialist was resistant to the idea of working for your firm then they’re unlikely to be keen to do an exclusive deal that amounts to pretty much the same thing, you’re left trying to work out how to add value to the customer’s experience of buying from you, so they don’t decide to access the same firm through your competitor.

How do you do that? Drawing on my personal retail experiences you do a number of things:

    • Be an impartial expert: Know about all the products for sale under your roof, not just your own. Then you mitigate the threat of the manufacturer of those products selling to your customers directly (and presumably more cheaply) by being a trusted source of information about the whole market and allowing the customer to compare
    • Be a single point of contact for problems: If I had a problem with ten of the items in my weekly shop, I’d be pretty upset at having to address my complaint to ten different manufacturers instead of the supermarket I’d bought the products from. This tends to be interpreted, in consulting circles, as being about the customer having a “single neck to choke”, but I think it’s more than that: done well, complaint/problem handling can be a huge opportunity to add value. Everyone knows that shit happens, it’s how you deal with it that matters.
    • Put your name to it. If I see a jar of marmalade on the shelves of Fortnum & Mason, I feel reassured that it’s a high-quality product, no matter who made it. Similarly, clients accessing the specialist part of the consulting market may feel nervous about what they’re buying, and from whom, but doing it via a big, trusted brand is not only likely to make them feel more comfortable, but may even encourage them to do it more. Back that up by offering some sort of guarantee.