Small Business Consulting: The 12 Best Options
Starting and managing a small business is a wonderful challenge. But any entrepreneur soon realizes that some parts of the process are more challenging than others. Each business owner has his or her strengths and weaknesses — where one person feels in control, another may need extra help.
Luckily there is a whole ecosystem of consultants ready to lend a hand in any aspect of business management and growth. Their expertise runs the gamut from IT to proofreading to marketing strategy — any need your business has can likely be satisfied by a well-chosen consultant.
Hiring consultants is a smart strategy for small businesses that don’t have the resources to bring on employees, even part-time. You can take advantage of the knowledge and skills of a range of professionals for a few hours at a time, paying for only the services that you need.
So how do you decide which type of small business consulting might be a worthwhile investment for you? It helps to have a little background information about the options. Read on to learn more about the various professionals who can become valuable members of your team. And SBA’s district offices can answer questions you have about who to hire and how to find them.
What is a small business consultant?
A business consultant is a professional who sells his or her expertise to help businesses with specific problems or challenges. Consultants are often self-employed, working as freelancers by the hour or the project. Other consultants are employees of agencies that coordinate their work for clients. Consultants usually provide some level of advice or strategy input, as well as executing technical tasks related to their specialty.
A company can benefit from consultants throughout its lifespan, from startup to selling or closing. A business in the early stages may find it useful to hire a legal consultant to advise about corporate structure, a branding consultant to design the company’s look and feel, or a marketing consultant to help build a core audience.
A business that has been running for a while and is starting to grow will find itself with different needs. For example, a company in this phase may want to hire an HR consultant to recommend policies and procedures for hiring, promotions, and staff engagement; an organizational consultant to help hammer out the corporate structure; or a PR consultant to push out news about the company’s successes.
At the end of its lifespan, a business will have still other needs, such as for a consultant in mergers and acquisitions who can help the owners sell the company.
Top 12 small business consulting services you need
Here are a handful of consultants you may want to have on speed dial as a small business owner. You likely won’t ever need them all at the same time, but over time every growing business is going to need to tap into a wide variety of knowledge that goes beyond its founders’ expertise.
1. Marketing consulting
Marketing is one thing almost every business needs to get a handle on from the very beginning. Especially now with digital tools and tricks proliferating, it can be hard to keep up with the most effective strategies for reaching your audience. In fact, you may not be entirely sure who that audience is and where to find them.
A marketing consultant will help you figure out who you should be talking to and how. These multi-talented professionals might do everything from designing marketing strategy to actually writing and scheduling your social media posts.
To find a marketing consultant, try reaching out to your local chapter of the American Marketing Association, a trade group for marketing professionals.
2. Merger and acquisitions consulting
If your business is at the stage where you’d like to acquire other companies or be acquired by someone else, then these hard-hitting strategists will be your friend. Many major consulting firms such as Bain & Company, Deloitte, and KPMG offer consulting on this topic, providing experienced professionals to help businesses execute the best deals possible. While this area has typically been the bailiwick of large investment banks and consulting firms, an increasing number of smaller M&A consulting firms, also known as boutique banks, are finding success.
M&A consultants can help companies assist with a wide variety of issues related to buying companies or being bought, such as finding appropriate businesses to acquire, assessing the value of a potential acquisition, and preparing your business for exit. If you’re even thinking about doing any of those complex things, a conversation with one of these savvy business strategists is a good idea.
3. IT consulting
IT consulting covers a wide variety of tasks, from basic technology advising and setup to designing bespoke systems to accomplish specific functions. “Technology” is a large category — make sure the IT consultant you hire has the specific technical knowledge you’re looking for, whether that’s a particular programming language, tools for data management, or some other targeted requirement.
Major consulting firms like McKinsey deal in business technology, but small businesses are more likely to be better suited to smaller firms or individual freelance consultants. Contact the nearest chapter of the Association of Information Technology Professionals (AITP) to inquire about where to look for a consultant who meets your needs.
4. Human Resources consulting
HR consultants, a subspecialty of management consulting, help businesses confront human resource challenges, implement change, and measure progress. These consultants either suggest and implement strategy directly or help a company find ways to raise the creativity and skills of their in-house teams so that they can implement new strategies themselves.
Small firms doing this work abound, and larger consulting companies such as Accenture often do HR consulting as well. Independent consultants handling HR are also in business, though it’s important to ensure that any individual you hire has appropriate experience and/or certifications to navigate the legal complications of this field. Contact the Society for Human Resource Management to ask about how to find and select an HR consultant for your business.
5. Legal consulting
Most growing companies will need the services of a lawyer at some point or another. And legal consulting is increasingly popular with lawyers looking to gain the benefits of self-employment while maintaining satisfying, high-paying legal careers. Their rates may be no lower than those of the local law firm, but you may be better able to find someone with the specific area or industry expertise you need from an individual consultant than from a firm.
Legal consultants help companies with everything from drawing up contracts to creating employment policies to ensuring compliance with online privacy laws. Check out Nolo’s list of law firms and lawyers organized by specialty or look on LawLink to begin your search for a legal consultant.
6. Organizational consulting
Organizational consultants are the big-picture people. These jack-of-all-trades business pros can help companies ensure that they’re running as well as they can, financially or managerially — or both.
Like everyone, founders and other company leaders bring limited expertise, experience, and perspective to their roles, and the larger and more diverse their companies become the more difficult it becomes for them to see all the angles of any given decision or business strategy. Organizational consultants can help these leaders confront particular challenges or set up structures or procedures for sustainable change.
Companies hiring organizational consultants are likely to be relatively complex and growing. Large consulting firms with serious fire power, such as Bain & Company, may serve such businesses well, though plenty of smaller firms such as Kates Kesler specialize in organizational consulting specifically.
7. PR consulting
Public relations can be a great investment for growing businesses, garnering valuable earned media that can boost interest and audience engagement. But PR is a specific discipline different from marketing — PR professionals spend years developing their networks with journalists, news organizations, and influencers. They know the appropriate strategies and methods of getting media and other influencers to write and share about what companies are doing.
PR consultants can help companies with a lot more than just crafting and distributing press releases. They develop publicity strategy and create a range of publicity materials, actively pitch stories to writers and journalists, and sometimes manage social media presence to encourage reach and engagement, among other things related to boosting a company’s publicity. Look for PR consultants using PR Council’s Find a Firm tool.
8. Business development consulting
Business development (BD) consulting, a subspecialty of management consulting, involves working to build long-term value for a company by creating and maintaining competitive advantage. These advisers are concerned with more than just sales strategies — marketing, operations, IT, and other elements of the business may be pertinent to a BD consultant. They do everything from help design new products to design marketing strategy to generate sales leads.
Many large and medium consulting firms do business development for clients, but plenty of small firms and freelance consultants also offer these services. Contact a local chapter of the Society for Marketing Professional Services to inquire about how to connect with management consultants in your area.
9. General finance consulting
Many companies do not maintain an in-house CFO or other high-level finance managers, leaving financial management and planning tasks to the CEO, COO, or an executive committee. Even if a CFO isn’t needed on an ongoing, daily basis, the help of a professional financial adviser can be useful, especially in start-up phases or times of particular sharp growth. With a general financial consultant — sometimes called an outsourced CFO — you can get expert guidance during important moments of change but avoid the cost of a permanent in-house finance team.
Other financial consultants many businesses use are accountants and bookkeepers, though these professionals are less equipped to advise on financial strategy or investment decisions. You can find financial consultants at big firms like PwC, or check out Paro to find outsourced CFOs and other financial professionals
10. Fundraising and grant consultants
Small businesses looking to obtain funding may turn to debt financing, investors, crowdfunding or other fundraising efforts, or grants. In any of these cases, you may need the help of an experienced adviser and application writer — many small business owners have more experience with running their business than with securing funding for it.
Business fundraising consultants may specialize in one or another type of funding, such as those who help startups get ready to approach investors, but if you’re looking for general advice about how to fund your business by any specific means, a general business consultant may be all that you need. Contact your SBA district office to speak with an adviser or find an applicable online course from the SBA Learning Center.
11. Corporate consultants
Otherwise known as management consultants, corporate consultants help larger companies and firms assess their businesses, strategize for growth or change, contain problems, and execute plans. One subset of management consulting is corporate strategy consulting, which encompasses the core elements of strategic planning for value creation.
Corporate consulting is often carried out by large consulting firms such as Ernst & Young, Capgemini, and McKinsey & Company. However, firms of any size and individuals can also make effective corporate consultants — it’s important to vet your options for background and expertise, as this is an area where hiring a seasoned professional is very important.
12. Efficiency consulting
Efficiency consultants provide a specific kind of management consultant service — advice on how to streamline business processes and cut waste as a way to reduce cost and operate more effectively. While this type of analysis can occur under the umbrella of operations consulting, there are professionals who specialize in helping companies work leaner and lighter.
Companies with specific problems keeping operations or finances under control can benefit most from efficiency consulting. This includes those who have neglected to keep a close eye on spending, let business practices develop haphazardly, or suffer from conflicting management styles that prevent progress. Your SBA district office may be able to direct you to good resources in your search for an efficiency consultant.