From education to employment

Key account relationships: Making them bigger, better, stronger

As employer engagement continues to rise up the list of FE college strategic priorities, the introduction of the employer apprenticeship levy has generated increased interest – not only from colleges, but from employers too.

Over the past few weeks we have received a number of enquiries from blue-chip employers requesting advice and guidance on the apprenticeship levy and how they can capitalise on their future investment. The levy will begin in April 2017, with employers with a wage bill of more than £3m paying a 0.5% levy, which the government says will exempt 98% of employers.

Our focus in this blog is about how FE colleges can build long term strategic training partnerships with the 2% of employers that will be paying the levy. FE colleges serve local SME business communities extremely well, investing significant business development and training delivery resource into the local community and creating networks for small businesses and communities to thrive.

However, colleges will need to develop an increased number of strategic relationships with blue-chip employers for both strategic and financial reasons. Strategically, this is essential in order to create partnerships that support future curriculum development, to gain market intelligence for future jobs and to provide work placements and CPD for learners and staff. Financially, income diversification is a key priority for colleges. Developing a roster of high-yield key account relationships will create the opportunity to win large value commercial training contracts as well as significant apprenticeship business. The approach to dealing with the following challenges is vital to future success:

1. Gaining a competitive advantage – The sector is facing increased competition from both colleges and private training providers who are all displaying intent and desire to develop key account opportunities with large employers.

2. Increased employer choice – Large employers will have more control and choice regarding where their apprentices are trained.

3. Committing investment – The sector is facing a challenging time in terms of financial health. The more entrepreneurial colleges will examine the opportunity cost and recognise the impact of not developing these key account opportunities. Colleges have good employer engagement foundations and may only have to make modest investments to move to the next level.

FE Business is a market leading employer engagement specialist supporting colleges and training providers to accelerate income growth and diversification. We have worked with over 40 providers across England and Wales to develop employer engagement strategies, plans, skills and behaviours. To meet these challenges above (and of course make the most of the opportunities) we think there are three vital components for success in developing strategic relationships with large employers.

1. Develop a distinct key account strategy

A key account strategy is the blueprint for success with large employers, and should be integrated into an overall employer engagement strategy and plan. Often, we see that key account strategies are referenced in the employer engagement strategy as a statement of intent, but without any clear direction, milestones, targets or accountability. The strategy needs to clearly articulate your business vision for engaging with blue-chip employers – including strategic principles (why are key accounts important to your organisation?), up-to-date market intelligence, overall goals and, most importantly, defining your competitive advantage. Identifying your differentiators is vital – what makes you unique? As a management guru once said “If you don’t have a competitive advantage, don’t compete.”

2. Implement and review key account plans

With a clear overall key account strategy in place, it is important to identify the criteria for selecting key accounts. For example, certain employers may be identified as key accounts (or key account targets) because they have long-term strategic value, are loyal business partners and deliver significant revenue (or have the potential to).

It is essential that separate key account plans are developed for each identified employer. Each plan must clearly detail organisational information such as structures, key personnel (decision makers, influencers and anti-sponsors), budget holders and financial information.

Additionally, it is essential to define how you are going to support the employer to meet their stated business objectives. It should also contain the operational business development plan, relationship management techniques and key milestones and targets.

Key account plans should be led by business development professionals and senior managers and communicated to senior executives (and possibly Governors) on a monthly basis to monitor performance and progress.

3. Develop strategic relationship management behaviours and skills

The most important aspect of developing key strategic partnerships with blue-chip employers is the ability of your people to demonstrate the value of your solution, as well as develop the skills to manage and grow complex accounts as a team. Commonly, we hear employer engagement teams presenting the features and components of apprenticeship frameworks and training courses rather than discussing how these solutions will deliver business impact and improve organisational performance. Successful development of large strategic accounts requires excellent commercial, planning and communication skills. It also requires a long-term vision, patience and a healthy approach to deferred gratification.


In a sector where achieving next week’s targets is always a priority, it takes commitment and vision from the leadership to support long-term relationship development that doesn’t always deliver short-terms wins. But with the right approach, strategies and skills, colleges that begin to align themselves with blue-chip employers now will be in the best position to increase employer engagement income and strategic value in the future.

Omar Khan is director of FE Business, a consultancy and training firm for employer responsiveness in 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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