Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20
WEDNESDAY 2 MAY 2001
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
(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) www.businesslink.org.
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
(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!
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
(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.
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.
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
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
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 entrepreneursto
women entrepreneurs as wellwhere 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
(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
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 clientsthe banks, the accountantsbut
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.
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
(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 peoplewe
are having a seminarwho 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
(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.
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
(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 reflectedwe
certainly require them to be reflectedin 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