Business Link – gatekeeper or facilitator?

Ask business owners about their experiences of Business Link and you’ll often hear the negatives pile up.
Out of touch, lacking in real entrepreneurial experience, off-putting, too old, irrelevant. …

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11th July 2007 at 5:03 pm

Ask business owners about their experiences of Business Link and you’ll often hear the negatives pile up. businesslink

Out of touch, lacking in real entrepreneurial experience, off-putting, too old, irrelevant. Not ideal feedback for an organisation that is increasingly positioned as the hub of public sector support for UK start-ups and small business.

However, lots of people have good things to say about Business Link too. Indeed official statistics for 2006 reveal that 96% of small business owners were apparently happy to recommend the service.

Why the above contradictions? Perhaps people are more vocal when they’re unhappy, but less likely to fill in feedback forms. Also the high recommendation rating does not reflect the opinion of every Business Link customer (800,000 face-to-face enquiries last year), but only the unspecified percentage who chose to provide feedback. That said who you happen to get as an adviser will very often dictate how you feel about the service. To that extent it can be pot luck.

One thing is clear, Business Link, now run by the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), is at the heart of government rationalisation of business support schemes. Former DTI minister Margaret Hodge announced earlier in the year that the confusing array of 3,000+ schemes would be reduced to under 100.

I recently spoke to Glen Atherford, head of Business Link at the South East of England Development Agency (SEEDA), the lead RDA on these issues. He acknowledged some of the criticism levelled at the service in the past:

There was a time when Business Link advisers were largely made up of retired bank managers or accountants, but that has changed. The average age of advisers has come down considerably and there’s a healthier mix of gender. In general they’re more likely to have run or been involved with a small business themselves.

Glen also made it very clear that the service couldn’t provide specialist business advice, but was increasingly being seen as a single gateway to other support services. The model being adopted was very much one of information, diagnosis and brokerage.

Interestingly the view is that when Business Link was actually providing tangible advice, it was ‘distorting the market’ for commercial consultancy services. Under the proposed new system it will keep a database of consultancies and other business support, acting rather like a matching service.

Clearly if you’re in consultancy, you’ll want to get on that local database fast, so start schmoozing now!

But seriously, I do have some concerns about the way Business Link is shaping up. The diagnosis, information, brokerage model could actually lead to a rather mechanical gatekeeper like role for advisers. A role readily disintermediated.

Business Link advisers need to be facilitators and nodes on the network, not gatekeepers. They need to be keeping communication and mutual support between businesses running smoothly.

They need to know people, rather than have their computer say no. They need to blog about their local business scene. They need to be creating communities on Facebook. Perhaps they need to be greater in number. Perhaps they should be seconded from real businesses on short term contracts.

Whatever Business Link becomes it needs to be more than an advice funnel down which anyone interested in business is forced, simply so they can be added to a number whose total is designed to justify the spend of tax payers’ money.

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Alex is the founder and editor of SmallBizPod, the UK's first podcast dedicated to small business, start-ups and entrepreneurship. Alex writes about topical small business issues, entrepreneurs and anything else that catches his eye here on the small business blog. http://www.smallbizpod.co.uk

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  1. Yep, what you say makes good sense. Inspired by this I’ve put together a quick proposal for making the businesslink.gov.uk website more user friendly by introducing live chat to provide a more responsive human face – see http://www.stuart-hall.com/blog/_archives/2007/7/11/3086298.html

  2. Stuart Jones says:

    I phoned our “new” Business Link recently to ask if they knew of a company which would maintain my business’s PCs (hardware & software) and was told they didn’t recommend firms and had I tried Google!

    Thanks.

  3. David says:

    Very poor experience of BL.

    ‘Advisor’ showed no genuine interest, could not offer any helpful advice, answered a personal mobile phone call during the meeting, showed signs of being hungover (coffee and water taken at the same time), did not offer any drinks(!), had no knowledge of grants system, did not show any interest in our business model, put down the local social and economic market by going into extensive detail about how her son had to re-locate to London to find work and was only interested in filling out ‘to do’ forms.

    As a professional, and having dealt with financial institutions, accountants, experienced businessmen, etc i was not impressed by the attitude or service (or lack of it) from the advisor.

    Rating 0/10

  4. Stuart H, interesting suggestion re Live Chat. I think the BL website is actually a very useful resource.

    Stuart J, David hmmm … I’m not sure what type of brokerage BL has in mind. Achieving a level of consistent high quality of advisers across BL must be their aim. Let’s see how things change. I think a lot of people are appreciative of the service they receive.

  5. Balanced article. My personal experience is that BL is ineffective, slow , negative , a burden on resources and out of touch with how money is made and business sustained. I think it has lost its way and is more interested in its own targets than the interests of SMEs. Unfortunately most successful companies would rather carry on making profits and growing than waste precious time with BL initiatives and their diagnostics.

  6. Don’t hold back Ed, will you? 😉 My guess is BL doesn’t position itself as a resource for already successful businesses. My impression is it’s more for the pre-startup, startup, and very small business. Am I wrong? Maybe someone from BL would care to comment?

  7. Ed Holdsworth says:

    Sorry if that was strong, I’ve quietly put up with the state of affairs for some time and felt it important to be frank, many businesses in our area are unhappy with BL but there is little we can do to change things as they exist in a bubble and not many people speak out. For clarification, BL is not just for startups. We are in an Objective One area and it would be interesting to know how much of the funds actually got to businesses and not consultants, I mean real figures not headlines and spin that mislead the public.

  8. Ed, no problem at all, in fact the expression of strong views is relished on this blog as on most. I think Business Link really does need to think through what it is and what it’s going to deliver. I’m not entirely sure they’re absolutely sure what they’re about yet. The last thing we need is a clearing house for overpaid, private consultants!

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