Reaping the benefits of being a generalist or specialist

Reaping the benefits of being a generalist or specialist

Consultants, would you classify yourself as generalist or specialist? Do you know which is more beneficial? Personally I’ve realized rewards from being both.

The Generalist

A generalist typically focuses on solving the problem at hand. However, their pursuit of solutions has both pros and cons.



  • Might have insufficient expertise to implement solutions (lost revenue).
  • Constant immersion in the discovery phase of researching problems.
  • Billable rates may be lower than specialists.
  • No differentiation of your services.

The Specialist

A specialist is actually a generalist with a “purpose.” Some specialists choose their field, while others fall into it. Still, specialists, just like generalists, experience pros and cons:


  • Passionate about their solutions.
  • Can implement complex solutions.
  • Expertise with particular products tends to provide qualified leads.
  • Billing rates are typically higher.
  • When you solve tricky problems, clients are more likely to call you back for future work
  • You’re considered an expert in your field.


  • A focus on a specialty may limit your ability to offer other services.
  • Market downturn can increase competition for scarce opportunities.
  • Work is often more detailed.

Is there a benefit to being a generalist and a specialist?

I asked this question in several public forums asking for feedback. The responses yielded many of the same pros and cons. However, one comment in particular struck a chord with me. Advanced QuickBooks ProAdvisor Laura D. said, “I support many clients – from restaurants to eCommerce to construction to law firms – but put myself out there as a specialist. When I am working with a client, I am THEIR specialist.”

John S. added, “When one is not feeling well, you first go to see the general practitioner. You might have a test ordered or be sent to a specialist. The specialist may be able to solve the problem or refer you to another specialist. Or, you may not like what the first specialist had to say and decide on your own to get a second opinion. Information technology is much the same thing; unless you know yourself what the problem is, you need to first consult a generalist who has broad knowledge … and then search out the specialist.”

I agree with both of these comments and find that I consider myself both a generalist and a specialist. Like many practitioners, I actually became a specialist by way of being an industrious generalist.

Many years ago I was working as a self-employed bookkeeper for many small local businesses. In an effort to drum up new opportunities, I took a stack of business cards to a local QuickBooks training event.

I sat next to a CPA who was there to learn how to use QuickBooks for his newest client, who owned multiple restaurants and bars. He turned to me and asked if I knew how to use QuickBooks for that industry. I quickly answered “yes,” when in reality I never had worked with that industry. Didn’t I mention earlier that generalists are eager to solve the client’s problems?

When I returned to my office, I opened the QuickBooks Help menu and got up to speed on creating Daily Sales Summaries and other unique restaurant setup tasks. The CPA and I met with the client, and for 10 years, we provided monthly help for nearly a dozen locations. I’m sure you can imagine the missed opportunities, both monetary and skill wise, that I would have missed out on if I said, “Oh, sorry, I don’t have any experience in that industry.”

Among my QuickBooks consulting peers, I have made a name for myself as a construction specialist. When Intuit® purchased a construction software package, the company named it Master Builder. When I was asked if I helped construction companies – well, you can guess my answer. Master Builder is now owned by Sage, yet the opportunities continue years later.

What have I learned?

If you want to be productive, industrious or whatever best describes your goals, consider the following:

Become a professional generalist

  • Look for opportunities.
  • Cast a wide net with regard to your clients’ needs.
  • Be willing to research.
  • Be aware of your limitations.
  • Create relationships with specialists.

Be a specialist in everything you do

  • Continuously improve your skills.
  • Put 100% of your effort into every project.
  • Take on projects beyond your current reach.
  • Know where, and when, to turn for help.

You never know what opportunities are in the future for you. Every day is different for me. For instance, I might start the day helping a church properly set up QuickBooks, meet with a veterinary clinic for lunch and end the day helping a restaurant reconcile the previous day’s sales.

I am never bored with my work – and I am never without work. My commitment to being a generalist has enabled me to be a specialist to my clients.

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