From education to employment

Employer Engagement: The importance of professional business development

With employer engagement a strategic priority for the skills sector, it’s more important than ever to ensure your teams are performing to the edge of their capabilities. Skills devolution, area reviews, changes to funding mechanisms, exponential apprenticeship growth and the need to diversify income through commercial training are all having a significant impact – are you ready to take advantage of the opportunities and offset the challenges? The need to develop employer partnerships to access market intelligence, shape new curriculum, create training and employment opportunities and deliver additional income has never been greater.

In our view, delivering success with employers depends on the following five key elements:

1. Agile, resilient and authentic leadership.
2. A clear understanding of your external environment, market intelligence and the key opportunities and challenges.
3. Outstanding curriculum product development and delivery – that meets employer and labour market needs.
4. High-class, solutions-focused sales, marketing and relationship management activity.
5. Functional, accurate and timely systems and processes to support growth, delivery and compliance.

We have supported over 40 FE colleges, training providers and charities over the past 12 months to increase growth and performance in these areas. Although all of the above need to be in place for success, in this blog we thought we’d share our thoughts on getting the ‘front end’ right. Excellent sales, marketing and relationship management practice is key to delivering a competitive advantage, and here are three areas we think are important.

1. Develop a clear sales and marketing strategy. In a crowded employer training market, the pressure to maintain existing business and win new opportunities is intense. It is essential that providers have a focused sales and marketing vision, strategy and action plan. We appreciate that often, employer engagement activity has been embedded into overall college plans. Having a distinct employer sales and marketing strategy is fundamental, enabling you to develop the operational detail and gain internal buy-in. (For example, outlining your approach to engaging SMEs or development of key account strategies for larger employers). This strategy should also include development a clear value proposition to set you apart from the competition, one that demonstrates the business impact for employers that work with you.

2. Build strong internal capability and capacity. Often, we find that a lack of investment in professional sales, account management and partnership development professionals is the underlying reason for lack of growth or performance in employer engagement. ‘Investment’ covers both recruitment and training. For recruitment, attract the best salespeople and relationship managers you can (from any related sector) and train them in your product (rather than take technical experts and trying to turn them overnight into professional business development operatives). In too many cases, staff are recycled internally to so-called ‘softer’ business roles, without the required skills or experience. (Of course, recruiting sales apprentices on an intense programme of both technical and product skills is a great entry into the profession, and a way to develop new talent from scratch). We would advocate applying the same exacting level of scrutiny to business development recruitment and training that’s required of teaching staff. With regards to training, invest in core business development skills – particularly at advanced and strategic levels. (Research has also shown that often, every £ spent on learning and development creates more motivation in salespeople than the equivalent £ spent on performance related pay). Skills should be audited and improved, in line with commercial benchmarks. Development should be in place for dedicated business professionals, but also for colleagues across the organisation. Overall, excellence in relationship development and management is often the competitive advantage in a crowded provider market.

When we ask providers the question ‘what makes you special’, the answers are normally focused on the quality of the curriculum product. We rarely hear the answer ‘it’s our industry leading sales and account management’. Not because it isn’t true, but because the ‘s-word’ is still a little taboo. But it doesn’t have to be. Providers who want to increase their commercial income by a factor of 10 will need to move beyond the product sell towards developing solutions that deliver business results, and for that you need to call in (or develop) the pros.

3. Create an internal sales network of ‘Employer Engagement Ambassadors’ Having a shared vision for employer responsiveness across the college is vital. Colleges that have invested in developing an employer engagement culture across the organisation will be able to identify and win many more business opportunities. Although it’s primarily the job of business development professionals to win new business, other colleagues such as trainers, assessors and curriculum staff should have the freedom and responsibility to identify and communicate further business opportunities. We would define this as creating ‘Employer Engagement Ambassadors’ among all staff. Colleges that have a shared understanding of internal roles and responsibilities develop trust and responsiveness, with business development and curriculum teams working closely together to respond to employers. When it implemented effectively, this creates a powerful and networked sales army.

Mark Cook is director of FE Business, a market-leader in consultancy and training for employer responsiveness for the FE sector providing a range of services including business transformation projects and training programmes on culture change, sales skills and leadership and management

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