Through all of the school- and job-related decisions I have made in
my life, one question always comes to the forefront: Must I choose
a specialty? It started when I had to select a college major. Then
my first job. Then a master's dissertation topic. And so on.
I've been blessed with both broad interests and competence in many
types of skills. Yet I've always felt some envy for what I call the
dentist types. They didn't have to choose between art, dance,
philosophy, or communication--they knew they wanted to be dentists,
they were destined to become dentists, they had a very specific
path charted for them and that was that! Why couldn't I just know
the one area on which I wanted to focus, at which I was good, and
that made me happy? I had the mixed blessing of too many choices.
Unfortunately (or fortunately), the same holds true today. This
year, I have been busily building my entrepreneurial business after
dreaming about it for over 12 years from various internal
performance consultant roles. People have asked me the dreaded
question repeatedly: Do you have a niche? Do you specialize?
Niche and Specialty, Different Reference Points for Zooming
Both for internal and external consultants, there are different
ways to narrow our focus. A niche refers to "who we serve," which
can be the geographic area or demographic population section of our
target clients. A specialty is "what we do," referring to our
services. Perhaps you've always worked in the health care or
financial services industry, but have served in many different
capacities and can take on a broad array of projects and services.
So you have an industry niche. Or, you may be an expert in
intercultural communications, but provide learning services to many
organizations in all industries and locations to help them
communicate more effectively across cultures. In that case, you
have a topical specialty.
Should Consultants Narrowly Specialize?
According to Kathy Reiffenstein, founder and CEO of And Now
Presenting! in Gaithersburg, Maryland, "When I started my first
business 16 years ago, I felt I had a broad range of skills and
expertise and therefore offered prospective clients a laundry list
of services. The result was that they were confused " my offerings
seemed too broad. It begged the question, 'Can she really be
competent in all those things?' The old adage, Jack of all trades,
master of none, rang true." Kathy has since decided to narrow her
service offerings, focusing on presentation skills as her area of
"[Specializing] allows me to carve out a niche and really become an
expert in my field of presentation skills training and coaching. It
is very easy to communicate what I do, which gives prospective
clients a clear idea of where I can help them. It is also an
effective way to differentiate myself in a crowded marketplace,
which makes my marketing efforts more successful."
Ross Van Horn, a partner with the Palomar Consulting Group in
Washington, D.C., agrees. "Fundamentally...we simply don't have
enough resources available to administer projects in every and all
types of OD/Training. I consider myself a specialist...[because] I
want to be very good at what I do and provide value for money."
Are There Situations Where It's Appropriate to Stay Broad?
And Are There Any Downsides to Specializing?
Yes, and yes. One of the times when generalizing is a good thing is
when just beginning to build a private practice. There are so many
new experiences and such a steep learning curve in an
entrepreneurial start-up, that if choosing a niche becomes a hurdle
and causes undue anxiety, it may be a decision that can be delayed
until the training wheels come off and you've established yourself
with your first few clients and projects.
In addition, being a generalist may be great if you want to keep
all your options open and can't bear the thought of narrowing your
focus. Ultimately, it's important to enjoy your work and feel
passionate about the process and outcomes. If variety is your
life's spice, then let it remain!
Finally, one of the ways that your practice can offer a diverse
array of services or serve a wider clientele is by hiring or
partnering with experts in those areas.
In terms of a downside to specializing or working with a niche
target market, Reiffenstein says, "It's possible to miss out on
opportunities because you're not seen as having skills beyond your
specialty. However, effective networking and building good client
relationships will afford the opportunity to showcase additional
expertise beyond the areas you've chosen to specialize in."
In my journey of building a consulting practice from the ground up,
I've talked to scores of peers and poured over dozens of books and
articles on the subject. Resoundingly, the advice has been: to
niche (or specialize) is the answer!
I am still straddling the line about how much further to narrow my
focus in my marketing, I've already added the words Leadership and
Communication Skills to my bio and elevator speech to emphasize
those areas in which I have the most skill and passion. But I plan
to continue to refine my specialization or niche market, because,
intellectually, I have become convinced that it's the right path to
Now if only the variety-nut in me could stop begrudging this
decision so much!
2006 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.