Select Committee on Trade and Industry Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. If I had a company in North Oxfordshire, in Banbury, which calls the call centre, does the call centre deal with the query or does it route them to the local Business Link?
  (Mr Irwin) It would depend what your query is. If you asked for information about the Disability Discrimination Act, then, yes, the call centre will give you information about that. If you say, "I would like a grant to start a dot-com business", then the person at the call centre will get a bit more information from you about what it is you really need, because my personal experience has been that most potential clients walk in and ask about a grant and as you talk to them you discover they have other issues. So the aim of the enquiry handler at the call centre will be to get at least a little further into the real issue the client has and encourage the client to have a one-to-one session with an adviser in order to explore the client's needs in rather more detail.

  21. What is the website address?
  (Mr Irwin)

  22. Where are you going to advertise that, because I have not seen it advertised yet?
  (Mr Irwin) I guess we fell into the trap of believing there might be an election in early May and therefore thought the purdah would coincide with the launch of the web and the call centre, so we did a little bit of advertising towards the end of March, which gave the web address and the telephone number for the call centre. We are planning to start the major advertising campaign a little later in the year.


  23. On this point about the call centre, one of the criticisms, and you have agreed with it, was the variability of the advice and the quality of some of the individuals who provided it. Is this not a rather specialist function to be allocating to call centre operators? I know there is a conventional view that call centre operators do fairly simple and straightforward advice-giving, and I know there are more sophisticated operations. Where in a scale between the simple and the complicated would you locate the work that you would envisage the call centre providing for people?
  (Mr Irwin) I would be inclined to use the word "sophisticated" rather than "complicated" but it is at that end. We have agreed to site the call centre in Dundee because that is the area where there are more people available with the right sort of educational background. We think it is very important we have enquiry handlers who can, if you like, start with the client and where the client is at rather than having a check list of questions and having to start at number one on the list, which has been my experience of call centres. We want the enquiry handler to be able to go straight to question nine if that is the right place. BT, who are managing the call centre for us, have been recruiting people specifically to handle our enquiries, so it is not any old call centre enquiry handler who has nothing better to do coming to work for us. We have been engaged in a fairly major training programme to ensure they do have the sort of expertise to be able to do that first line support. We will continue to develop both the training and responses to specific areas of inquiry as the call centre develops.

  Mr Baldry: What is it about Scotland that practically every call centre in the world is located there? Is it labour rates? Is it—

  Chairman: The quality of the people!

Mr Baldry

  24. It is a serious point. Every call centre I know of is in Scotland. It may well be the accent is reassuring or something like that. I am intrigued to know what, from your research, the factor is in Scotland that we are missing out on in England.
  (Mr Irwin) I come from the North East of England and there they think they have every call centre there is. We went to open competition for the contractor, BT won, we explained to them precisely the sort of person we thought was required in the call centre, and they came back and said that Dundee was the place to put it. I do not know.

  Mr Baldry: I am just intrigued.

Helen Southworth

  25. Will you be ensuring that people who are working in the call centre are on permanent contracts with a basic number of hours? We also have large numbers of call centres in Warrington and one of the issues which is raised is keeping the quality of staff, that you need to be able to give a consistent performance to the customer. I think that is very important. I must say that BT have installed a cyber café in one of the call centres in Warrington in order to enhance the skills of the staff. It is important you should set those specifications.
  (Mr Irwin) To be honest, I do not know whether they are given permanent contracts, but we will check that for you. We have insisted they do recruit people against the specification we provided, so they cannot just bring anybody in to offer the service. They are saying, "We require this sort of skill, this sort of ability", and the people do need to go through this sort of training, and we are doing a lot of training. We have also suggested a number of our own Business Link advisers come and spend some time in the call centre so they can hear some of the enquiries which are coming through, to give some immediate advice but also to help us identify the sort of extra training which may be required for these people.

  Helen Southworth: Because your reputation will go down very rapidly at that point if it does not work.

Mr Laxton

  26. Can I talk to you about micro businesses because part of the brief you have is to focus a little on micro businesses. Just looking at the figures, in the last couple of months of 2000 about 100,000 businesses were assisted by Business Link and a little under half of them were micro businesses, ten or under. Do you think that balance is about right, 50 per cent micro business, with the balance being the larger businesses?
  (Mr Irwin) Our penetration amongst businesses which are bigger is higher than amongst businesses which are smaller. I think we need to do more so that every business understands how Business Link can help them if they feel they need help. There are an awful lot of businesses out there which could fit your category of micro, many of whom do not want anything from us, although that is assuming they know we exist and if they do decide they need help they can get that help from us. What I think is important is that the Business Link network is willing to work with anyone who wants to ask us for support. In the past, Business Links has seen its target as growth businesses but one of my experiences has been that it is very difficult to predict a growth business in advance.

  27. The balance in crude terms is just under 50 per cent of the businesses assisted by Business Link in the last two months of 2000 were micro businesses and you are saying there is some difficulty in that area. Would you have an expectation that you are looking to focus more on micro businesses, perhaps offering your services to more of them so we could see a greater percentage of micro businesses taking up your services than they are at the moment?
  (Mr Irwin) I think that would be the case. From memory, and Haf will correct me if I am wrong, I think the penetration amongst businesses employing more than 50 is a fraction under 50 per cent. The penetration amongst micros is somewhere in the order of 3 per cent. So just by limiting the marketing, we are bound to get more coming in at the lower end.
  (Ms Merrifield) One of the key changes in the specification we have for the new Business Link network as opposed to its predecessor, which obviously is not reflected in the figures, is that they should explicitly promote themselves as offering services to all businesses rather than concentrating on those larger businesses with growth potential. So we would expect to see some change in the balance.

  28. What about dealing with ethnic minority businesses? This is perhaps a bit of a sweeping generalisation but I suspect many of them would fit into the category of micro businesses in the main. How do you propose to deal with those in terms of offering services and what sort of services would you highlight to attract them to come to you for help?
  (Mr Irwin) There are two different sides to the answer to that. The first is that it is absolutely clear that we need to do more to promote the availability of our services to ethnic minority entrepreneurs, ideally to other groups of entrepreneurs—to women entrepreneurs as well—where there is a smaller representation. So we need to do an awful lot more on the marketing side. I am not sure we need to do more in terms of the service itself. In my previous incarnation I did quite a lot of work around the world and quite a lot of people said, "David, what you have to understand is our needs are different here", but actually their needs were exactly the same wherever I went, the emphasis may have been different and the timing may have been a bit different, but what was different around the world was the culture, the background of the entrepreneurs. So we have been doing a lot of work with all the staff in the Business Link organisations to try to ensure we all share a common vision, share common values, and I have been stressing to them they need to think about the culture and background of the entrepreneurs. So it will be far more about the way in which we work with ethnic minority entrepreneurs than about offering a different service.
  (Ms Merrifield) When we were looking at the proposals from those who are now delivering the new Business Link service, the assessment panels included ethnic minority entrepreneurs and they pushed quite hard on this issue in terms of not so much what different service might be offered but how you ensure that all entrepreneurs in your area feel it is a service for them. The message we were getting was, rightly or wrongly, many groups of entrepreneurs, be they women or ethnic minorities, did not always feel this was a service for them. That might have been about the nature of the advisers, the times at which the service was made available; a whole range of issues, which varied from area to area. It is something we have explicitly asked them to think about and to address in terms of developing their business plans area by area.
  (Mr Irwin) The Secretary of State has appointed an Ethnic Minority Business Forum and we do work with them and seek their advice on ways in which we can promote the service more effectively.

  29. You said yourself that although approximately half of your clients would fit within the micro business category, you are still only dealing with literally 3 per cent of those micro businesses. How, particularly in terms of dealing with ethnic minority businesses, do you hope to better target them in terms of saying, "Here we are, these are the services which are available"? It seems to me you have a huge amount of work to do there if you are only contacting at present 3 per cent. You have a big chunk of services to tack on to, have you not?
  (Mr Irwin) Yes. We have a fairly major objective to target all micro businesses. That is partly why we are going to launch the advertising campaign a little later in the year, but we are also working closely with intermediaries to encourage them to refer potential clients—the banks, the accountants—but also things like Customs & Excise which have done little deals whereby whenever they send out VAT returns they include a VAT note with it, and they are promoting the existence of the Business Link network. That helps us to get to existing businesses. We also need to encourage more people to start up a business. It is not right for everybody but I would like to get more people to think about it. That is why we are going to be supporting an initiative called Enterprise Insight, which is going to be primarily working with younger people, partly to try and change, or begin the process of changing, society's attitude towards enterprise and entrepreneurs but also to encourage them to think personally how they could be more enterprising.

Ms Perham

  30. You did mention women and I wondered if you had any special initiatives to encourage women entrepreneurs. This is something we pursued in visits to the United States with the Small Business Administration and in other countries. Have you got that sorted out yet or is it part of what you were saying earlier about the various initiatives you are thinking of?
  (Mr Irwin) We do not have a separate national programme for women. Some of the individual Business Link operators have been developing their own specific offerings. We will have, once the new website is up and running properly, a number of different ways in. One will be specifically aimed at female entrepreneurs and a lot of the information will be the same information but there will be extra information which is particularly relevant to women starting businesses, particularly on areas like confidence building where women tend to have more of a problem. Then we have also been through the Phoenix Fund which we have to promote enterprise in the more disadvantaged areas. We have supported a number of projects which are either solely or primarily targeting women.
  (Mr Waller) Nine out of 50 on that.

  31. You have just mentioned the Phoenix Fund, that is worth about £100 million and that started in January with the first applicants. Are you make efforts to raise the profile of that? I hope it is not anything to do with cuddly white calves! It was set up in 1999, so obviously not. You are administering that fund?
  (Mr Irwin) Yes, we are administering the fund and we are making efforts to raise the profile. Disappointingly, when we made the announcement about the first 50 projects, it did not get a very high press profile and we are trying to address that. As I am going round doing regional visits, I am visiting the organisations and we are using the machinery to try to get regional coverage for some of those initiatives.

  32. Is there any liaison with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on this fund?
  (Mr Irwin) I do not think there is.
  (Mr Waller) I do not think they have anyone on the project board. The people in our own organisation who run the Phoenix Fund are in regular touch with the Neighbourhood Renewal people in the DETR. There is contact there. So we are pretty joined-up on that. Just adding to what David said, we did manage to generate really quite a lot of bids. We got 250 bids the first time round and we are fairly confident we really got through to all the not-for-profit organisations who were interested in this with quite a lot of publicity. We will be working with quite a lot of those people—we are having a seminar—who had failed bids, to talk about how to improve the quality of the bids. In launching a second round, my staff tell me we have had requests for 1,800 copies of guidance the second time round, which is really quite encouraging.

  33. So when will they be awarded the second time round?
  (Mr Waller) The closing date is 29th June, probably by the time we look at them it will be early autumn I should think for the awards.

Helen Southworth

  34. Do you have a break-down of the gender balance of your customers?
  (Mr Irwin) We do. It is about one third/two thirds. Haf will be able to quickly tell you exactly what it is. Is this for enquiries or people who are customers?

  35. For people who are actually customers.
  (Mr Irwin) While Haf is checking that, we fully recognise we need to do more to promote enterprise to potential female entrepreneurs, but we also need to do more in the schools. When I say "we", it is not us, there needs to be more done in schools, and DfEE did some research published last year in which they suggested that far, far fewer female school students saw starting their own business as a long-term aspiration. It is the male school students who want that. So we all need to be working more on that.
  (Ms Merrifield) I am sorry, I cannot put my hand on those figures immediately but I will happily provide them in writing.

  36. I am smiling, and the reason I am smiling is because when we were in the States we spent some time with the Small Business Administration and we visited various different sites working with the Small Business Administration and this was one of their key targets. It was something everyone knew about. It was part of the reason they had such an explosion of growth in small businesses in the USA. So obviously it is something we have to sharpen up on and have right up there at our fingertips. I am sure that will happen next time you are here.
  (Mr Irwin) That is fair comment but each of the Business Links I am sure could tell you immediately what theirs is. Certainly when I was in my previous incarnation at the Enterprise Agency I could tell you exactly what the figure was. We do want to encourage more women to start in business but we do not want to end up with artificial targets which end up depressing the number of men starting to get the percentage right.

  37. I am sure you can manage those two things together.
  (Mr Irwin) We will be working hard on it.

  38. Can I take you on to issues relating to relationships with other bodies, particularly the Regional Development Agencies which can have such a significant impact on economic development? What is the relationship? How is it set up? Are the regional directors co-located with the RDAs, for example? How are you working alongside Regional Economic Strategies? What is happening out there?
  (Mr Irwin) We are aiming to work very closely with the RDAs. Clearly they are relatively new organisations and we are even newer so we are still feeling our way a little. There is a particularly important relationship between Business Link operators on the ground and the RDAs and we are trying to ensure that wherever RDAs are setting up, for example, sub-regional partnerships, which many of them are, they are involving the Business Links in those, and many of them are already doing that. Six of our regional managers have either moved into the RDAs or are literally on the point of moving in. The London RDA is not quite there yet, and the North West and North East both have problems of premises, as they do not have room yet for our team but as soon as they can resolve that they aim to move in as well, and even there they have been setting up arrangements so they have been spending a considerable amount of time within the RDA. So, for example, they have set up a couple of hot desks for both the BTI team and the SBS team so they can go and spend time with the RDA enterprise team to ensure we have that close co-operation. We involve people from the RDAs on the selection arrangements for the new Business Link contractors, and indeed we involve RDAs in the selection process for regional managers as well.
  (Mr Waller) I visited every RDA in the few weeks either side of Christmas and I would very much echo David's point that we are both new organisations and do not yet have the depth of relationship between the people in the SBS and the people at the RDAs. That is going to take time to build up. In principle I would like all our senior people to have the time to do what I have done, visit every RDA, and have each of the RDAs visit us, but in a sense the RDAs are trying to grapple with developing relationships across all the government departments at once, so it does take some time. All the Regional Economic Strategies are reflected—we certainly require them to be reflected—in the business plans of the Business Links. We now have to work very hard with the RDAs to make sure in practice they are being delivered. Also we have to work with the RDAs to ensure that they work with us, so they see Business Links at the local level as the natural delivery point for things they are originating, because otherwise we get back into what has been a problem in this whole area of different delivery routes, great confusion, et cetera, et cetera. So the commitment is there but it would be foolish to say that the depth of the relationship between the two new organisations is there as deeply and in full as it will be in another six or nine months.

  39. But is there the shared vision there?
  (Mr Waller) Yes, I think so. We had dinner with three of the RDA chairs and representatives from other company chairs a few weeks ago and the first starting point was, unless we work together with the same vision, same goal, which we do currently share, we will be in trouble. So if we do not work in partnership, that is when the problems will arise. As long as we do work in partnership there is that commitment there.
  (Mr Irwin) We also required the Business Link contractors when they were bidding to demonstrate to us how their business plan fitted into the Regional Economic Strategies.
  (Mr Waller) One of the curiosities I did find on my regional tour was that RDAs have now got into the habit, which is perhaps unfortunate, of talking about the local Business Links as the SBS, so I found some confusion at times. I thought they were saying, "We have problems with the SBS" and it turned out although they had issues with the SBS it turned out to be a particular franchise they had been talking to. So developing a relationship between them and the 45 outlets is also a very important part of what we do and a very key role for the regional managers.

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