Features: February 25th, 2005

Business Support Goes Local

By Hannah Brindle

The delivery of government funded business support has been a changing picture over the past few years. The Business Link organisation is the vehicle that has been used to deliver business support throughout England, and similar organisations have been established in other parts of the UK. Initially devised as a “one stop shop” for all business support Business Link has evolved in many areas into a more flexible “brokerage” service whereby Business Link operates as a portal to forward clients onto appropriate subcontracted services delivered locally. These providers will be generalist or specialist business support organisations, drawing funding from a variety of public, and sometimes private, sources. They will typically provide businesses with one to one advice, mentoring, or training services.

Going local

The Business Link service has historically been delivered by central government in the form of the Small Business Service, an agency of the Department of Trade and Industry but from April 2005 the responsibility for delivery of publicly funded business support services is being devolved to the regions were the Regional Development Agencies will be taking up the challenge of providing locally relevant and effective services consistent with regional economic development objectives. The brokerage model of delivery will be widely implemented as the regions draw on the expertise and local knowledge embedded in their existing local business support providers.

One model for the delivery of business support is that which has been developed in London over the last two years. A coalition of business support providers and local government agencies have worked with the London Development Agency and Business Link for London to develop the London Business Support Network (LBSN), a network of more than 350 organisations committed to increase collaboration, reduce duplication of effort, and simplify access to business support for London’s businesses. The LBSN aims to reduce customer confusion, to improve the quality of services and drive up efficiency across the sector. Facilitated by Business Link for London, the LBSN has rapidly become the forum through which business support organisations co-ordinate their work.

Partnership working has been crucial in the development of the network and a shared vision for the coherence and excellence of the capital’s business support has enabled them to develop a common approach to such issues as the sharing of information and knowledge and, vitally, the driving up of standards of customer service. The historically low take up of business support by London’s businesses was demonstrated in various surveys and LBSN identified customer ignorance or confusion about the services, as well as doubts about the quality of services as being important factors in this low take up.

Quality assurance framework

A recognition that communications and client relationships were vital issues if the brokerage model were to succeed, led LBSN through Business Link for London to work with Business Links and other key funding agencies in Yorkshire and the Humber to develop Putting the Customer First, a quality assurance framework designed for and by the business support sector. The three key areas within the quality framework are customer relationships, market awareness and people.

The Customer Relationships standards focus on how business support organisations (BSOs) build relationships with customers. The standards get BSOs to think about how they identify customer needs, how they fulfil their requirements and refer them to other providers, as and when appropriate. The framework also looks at practices in place to ensure that any problems customers experience are dealt with effectively. The customer in this instance may be someone receiving advice, training, signposting to other services, or information.

Market Awareness standards look at a BSO’s approach to understanding its market, how to identify the target market, how new or improved services are developed, how it works in partnership with the larger businesses network, and how it markets its services.

The People standards focus on the people in the organisation delivering business support to customers. The framework assesses whether they able to diagnose customers’ requirements accurately and whether they are able to broker relationships with other providers. Recruitment practices are also assessed to ensure BSOs recruit the most appropriate person for advisory positions and that up to date training is provided for staff.

Customer First UK recently conducted a piece of research on behalf of BLU, part of the Small Business Service, investigating the initial assessments under the quality framework and identifying the main strengths and weaknesses of business support organisations prior to building their quality systems as a result of the framework assessment.

Core findings from the research were:

  1. While business support organisations are good at building long term relationships with their customers, the majority did not evaluate the impact of their services on their customers’ performance.
  2. While the majority of providers understand the objectives of their organisation and carefully target the delivery of their own services, very few providers had mechanisms for identifying their customers’ needs or how these changed over time.
  3. The majority of providers ensure that their staff are clear about what is expected of them, but very few use customer feedback or experience of service delivery to develop their staff and very few have appropriate and recent training.

Challenges for business support

It is clear that without being assessed against a quality framework business support organisations can become too narrow in their focus. While they will have strengths in delivery they often fail to monitor and evaluate their environment to ensure the correspondence of their services to client needs. The Putting the Customer First framework challenges business support organisations in areas they might not have considered before, enabling them to improve their offering to customers. This results in raised standards in the three core areas of customer relationships, market awareness and people.

Customer First has been supported by the key regional funders and providers of business support in Yorkshire and the Humber, and in London. To date nearly 350 different business support providers have committed to and are working towards achieving the Customer First Framework. Currently we have 130 providers that are fully compliant against the standard.

In Yorkshire and the Humber the Framework is a key element of “Better Deal for Business” – the Framework which has been developed by all the key funding agencies in Yorkshire and the Humber to improve business support in the region. The Framework aims to deliver improved access for businesses to services, appropriate advice and support to meet the needs of businesses and consistently high quality service from all business support providers.

The national LSC are also using the Customer First Framework and are running assessment pilots with a range of workforce development providers in Norfolk, Northamptonshire and Hertfordshire. Customer First UK is also working and liaising with a range of other organisations including BLU, National Federation of Enterprise Agencies, The Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales, the British Chambers of Commerce and a number of other regional and sub-regional agencies.

Regional Development Agencies can use the framework to ensure their business support deliverers have a genuine customer focus. Some sources of funding are already demanding their suppliers implement the framework as a mechanism to ensure that deliverers provide an effective service. The increasing range of organisations using and piloting the standards means that there is a large library of best practice and capacity building resources available. It also means that regions can monitor their support against standards of provision elsewhere and draw the experience of others in implementing the Putting the Customer First framework.

The importance of having a business support network which is fully responsive to customer needs cannot be underestimated. The move to regionally delivered business support programmes will help ensure that provision is relevant to local needs but using an effective customer service assessment framework such as Customer First will ensure that businesses are not only aware of the service offering but also can be confident of effective and timely support when they seek it. Together these factors will ensure that regional economies gain maximum benefit from their business support services.

Hannah Brindle is the Chief Executive of Customer First UK. www.customerfirst.org