Does Your Client Need a Consultant or an Agency?

By Whitney Hess

Published: August 3, 2009

“I’ll try to give UX professionals an honest look at managing relationships with clients and provide some tips on how to turn unpleasant situations into winning ones.”

Last August, I took the leap into independent consulting after four years of full-time jobs and three years of freelancing on the side. While I thought I was prepared for what lay ahead, I’ve learned many things the hard way in the past year. In my new UXmatters column, Client Matters, I’ll try to give UX professionals an honest look at managing relationships with clients and provide some tips on how to turn unpleasant situations into winning ones.

Let’s start at the beginning: first contact. Oftentimes, when prospective clients get in touch and tell me about a potential project, it’s immediately clear to me that the amount of work is massive, and there’s no way one UX designer could handle it. Usually, they also need visual designers, content strategists, copywriters, programmers—a whole product development team. Such a job is much better suited to an agency with resources in multiple disciplines.

Sometimes a project would benefit from a UX team, so I’m faced with the option of either bringing on more people to work with me or passing on the project. When you’re working solo, making such strategic decisions can be a challenge. Turning down work is never fun, but you definitely don’t want to get yourself into a situation you can’t handle.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll use the term consultant throughout this article to mean a solo practitioner and agency to describe an organization with multiple UX professionals on staff.

So, how do you determine what a prospective client needs? What are the key questions to ask? What should you do when you realize you alone are not enough? On the other hand, what do you do if you’re at an agency and a client’s project seems too small—a better fit for a single consultant?

Based on my own experience, plus that of other consultants, as well as the perspectives of some agency heads, I’ve established three factors for determining whether a gig is more appropriate for a soloist or a team:

  • time commitment
  • budget constraints
  • services required

Let these be a rubric for you to use whenever you encounter this question.

Time Commitment

“After your initial conversation with a prospective client, you should have a sense of how much time a project is going to require.”

After your initial conversation with a prospective client, you should have a sense of how much time a project is going to require. Perhaps they have a specific deadline they need to hit or the project might require a long-term process over a significant period of time. They may either already have a timeline in mind or want to use your expertise in helping to craft one. In either case, you need to examine the project objectives to establish both the project’s probable duration and the likely weekly allocation of hours necessary to accomplish the work.

While the timing for the project will become more exact as your conversations with the prospective client continue, it’s important to estimate the necessary time commitment early. As a solo consultant, you are limited by a 24-hour day and need to ensure you can accommodate both day-to-day and long-term commitments. Determining whether you can commit to a project is often a matter of whether you can make room in your schedule.

On the other hand, consultants tend to have much more flexibility in their schedules than agencies do. Kevin Hoffman, Director of User Experience at Happy Cog, in Philadelphia, told me, “Timing is a big factor for us. We aren’t as likely to be available as quickly as a freelancer.”

Consultants are often best for clients who want a lot of face-to-face time. Amy Cueva, Founder and Chief Experience Officer of Mad*Pow, still tries to capture such projects by operating her agency as a band of consultants. “Recently I staffed two independent consultants to jobs that required a great deal of on-site time initially,” Amy said. “But now that those consultants have built a rapport with the companies, they are doing most of the work remotely.”

However, there are some companies that need on-site help for longer periods of time, and Mad*Pow or other agencies aren’t able to serve their needs. They need independent consultants. Amy told me, “We frequently help clients find these folks—helping them write the job description, advising them about what sites to post the job on, marketing the job ourselves, and helping them review resumes.” In doing so, Mad*Pow provides an invaluable service to their clients and creates good will with these companies, building a bridge for future collaborations.

Budget Constraints

“What consultants can accomplish for a limited amount of money is likely to be much greater than what an agency could offer.”

Agencies have many more resources, but they also have many more expenses. As a result, independent consultants have lower overheads and, therefore, can charge lower prices. We don’t have to pay for office space or employee salaries or group health insurance or carpet cleaning. What consultants can accomplish for a limited amount of money is likely to be much greater than what an agency could offer.

“Occasionally, you get clients who have expectations that are not in line with the market,” said Karen McGrane, Senior Partner at Bond Art + Science. “Usually that’s a good starting point for a conversation about what they can reasonably accomplish within their budget and how they can use that budget wisely to get as far as possible.”

By getting a prospective client to narrow their project scope, a project can become more suitable for an independent consultant. “The limited budget will go farther with a consultant, since there’s less overhead, and you’re not including multiple team members in meetings,” said McGrane.

Gene Smith of nForm has found that even when a company is very interested in working with his agency, low budget is a big red flag. “These kinds of small projects tend to be bad for both parties,” he said. “The client comes in with high expectations, because they’re hiring UX experts, but their small budget doesn’t let them engage us really effectively. And we struggle to deliver high-quality work within their tight budget and make the project profitable for us.”

As an independent consultant, it can be hard to reset expectations—especially if an agency has referred a prospective client to you. While a company is happy to receive more focused attention and the services they need within their budget, there might be other financial factors to consider. Do you want to charge a fixed project rate? If so, you have to do a spectacular job of estimating the project hours ahead of time to ensure you stay within their budget and don’t end up putting in hours for free at the end. Are they prepared to pay a significant portion up front? Some companies may have reservations about parting with their money when they’re dealing with a solo practitioner—who may have a smaller body of work, fewer references, or a lesser-known brand. Are they willing to pay only by the hour?

Services Required

“The most obvious reason an independent consultant might not be equipped to take on a project—for which an agency might be a better fit—is the skills that are required to get the job done.”

The most obvious reason an independent consultant might not be equipped to take on a project—for which an agency might be a better fit—is the skills that are required to get the job done. Not all UX designers are created equal. We have different levels of experience, different areas of interest, and different processes. Agencies, on the other hand, are likely to employ practitioners in various specialties and, therefore, may be more apt to meet a prospective clients’ diverse needs.

Independent consultant Kyle Soucy told me, “Typically, I find that, whenever a client needs a service I can’t supply, I can recommend another consultant or agency that can handle a piece of the project.” She tends to provide user research and usability testing services, so if a gig requires development or graphic design services, she needs to bring someone else in.

Similarly, independent consultant Sarah Rice said, “If it’s really clear they need something I can’t offer—for example, they need a hardcore interaction designer, where I’m more of a content-heavy IA person—then I might refer them to a colleague or set something up where I pair up with a colleague to meet their need.” By recognizing her area of expertise and bringing in others to fill the gaps, she can still find a place for herself on the project rather then passing on it entirely.

Sometimes agencies face the same dilemma—wanting to reel in the client, but not having the appropriate resources on staff. Dan Brown, Founder and Principal of EightShapes, told me, “Our ambitions to build EightShapes sometimes have us stretching a bit. We’re equipped to take on subcontractors, who we use to flexibly increase the size of our team without assuming too much risk.” This lets them take on more desirable projects, more complex projects, and just more projects overall.

In Conclusion

“If a project is appealing to you, find a way to stay involved—either by helping your prospective client limit the scope of work or by offering your specific expertise and bringing other UX consultants or an agency to the table.”

There are no hard-and-fast rules for judging whether a consultant or an agency is a better fit for any given project. Aside from time, money, and required skills, there are a variety of other factors to consider—for example, the stage of the product development process at which you’re asked to come in, whether an engagement is one of strategic guidance or tactical execution, and the maturity and capacity of the client’s team.

If a project is appealing to you, find a way to stay involved—either by helping your prospective client limit the scope of work or by offering your specific expertise and bringing other UX consultants or an agency to the table. By helping to scope the project and referring the client to other UX professionals, you provide invaluable services to your client and build social capital within the UX community. Know your limits, be willing to put in the time up front to determine whether a project is the right fit for you, and maintain relationships with colleagues with whom you can share the love.

7 Comments

Great article, Whitney.

Thanks.

Stu Collett

Super User Studio

Very interesting post, as I am currently struggling with these issues myself. Thanks a lot for sharing these insights.

Mirweis

Good stuff, Whit!

I’m looking forward to future articles in this column.

~ Kyle

Great insight from all perspectives! Pairing up or referring when necessary is a great way to show the client that you’re working with their best interests in mind.

Thanks, Whitney, for sharing. Definitely it’s a dilemma and especially in these recession moments we’re living in, where it’s crucial more than ever to fit budgets and adjust expectations from the client point of view and the consultant point of view.

Capacity and capabilities are the resources any consultant must master. After reading your article and having worked with a number of consultants recently, I was wondering if this could be recast to think in terms of strategy consultant versus tactical or executing consultant.

As a small shop or independent consultant, is your most valuable offering strategic? Utilizing experience, process, and judgment to help your client identify the problem correctly and scope it well. The strategic path is about capturing the metadata of a project and setting the stage for success. It is a role of services that challenge the thinking of your clients and lead to better solutions than they would have been able to accomplish on their own.

A more tactical approach to consulting would be the actual execution of requirements. This would draw on your talent and skill in the use of the tools and processes of your industry to deliver the best solution possible. If the groundwork and strategy have been well worked out, the execution of a project should be fairly painless, as most of the unknowns should have been worked out already.

I think it is very important to know what kind of consultant you are or what kind of consultant you need, strategic or tactical and work with their core capabilities and capacity.

Thank you for sharing your entrepreneurial leap in UX. It will certainly be informative for the rest of us, and I wish you the best of luck. Really great article.

Joe

@Stu, @Mirweis, @Kyle, @Meg—Thanks so much for your kind words. They mean a lot.

@Joe, I absolutely agree that there is a distinction to be made between strategists and production folks. I use the term consultant to refer to the former, while a contractor is the latter—hired as a resource to execute deliverables on a project with a predetermined scope. Would you agree with that terminology?

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