economic development professionals would agree that keeping and growing the existing businesses in your community is vitally important. Most would also agree that, done correctly, what we label
business retention and expansion (BR&E) requires some sort of relationship between these private sector customers and us.
Despite our growing reliance on technology and all things digital, the relationship with these customers is more paramount today than ever before. A true relationship with your private sector customers is critical to understanding the “who, what, when and how” dynamics impacting these wealth and job generators.
We've long asserted that survey-centric BR&E is an anachronism in our warp speed, globally based economy. After all, the survivor companies from the last couple of recessions are smart and agile. They are appreciably leaner, meaner and faster than they were—even a few years ago.
These survivor companies don’t have time for inwardly focused
economic development exercises that fail to provide VALUE to them. Being surveyed by a well meaning but misguided economic developer is—in no way, shape or form—a value proposition to the private sector.
Those companies that do agree to the modern day equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition will typically recognize the error of their ways about 2 minutes into the robotic interrogation process. From that point forward, they’ll provide only obligatory and cursory feedback to get the interaction with their local economic developer over as quickly as possible.
When we, as economic developers, engage in survey-centric BR&E, it creates a scorched earth policy that rarely provides a second act with our business constituents. More important, it leads to the creation of erroneous programs, policies and strategies that are built on flawed data about our customers.
But there is another problem with survey-driven BR&E. It provides the
economic development professional with an
economic development placebo effect. It implies that “touching” a customer every 12 to 18 to 24 months will be sufficient to create and, more importantly, nurture a relationship with them.
Think about the essence of personal relationships with your family, friends and coworkers. These relationships are fortified by the frequency of your interactions with these people. Typically, higher frequency translates into a stronger relationship.
As you already know, your best private sector firms are operating a warp speed today in response to their own markets, competitors and customers. Keeping up with them requires that we intersect and engage with them as much as possible. Seeing them every year or more doesn't allow us to understand them or foster the strategic relationship.
The rule here is simple. The more actual or potential value these companies provide to your community, the more frequent these interactions and engagements should be. These ongoing “touches” are impossible in a survey-driven BR&E framework.
Does this mean that the annual “deep dive” face-to-face meeting (NOT SURVEY) with your private sector customers is a thing of the past? Absolutely not. It still has a place—albeit a more limited one—in the continuity of touches with these businesses each year.
Think of your annual interactions with your private sector customers as building layers. The first layer is the annual deep dive meeting with the business. That will typically happen once every year.
Now, we need to fill in the blanks. To do this, we’ll need to use other tools like high value programs, business walks, focus groups and, of course, social media. The effective use of these tools in your
business retention and expansion program mix will ultimately govern your success in 2015 and beyond.
The use of volunteer outreach for
business retention & expansion (BR&E) is becoming more prevalent throughout North America as
economic development organizations, chambers of commerce and workforce agencies strive to minimize costs, maximize market coverage and heighten their active engagement with key private sector constituents.
Volunteer (peer-to-peer or C-to-C Level) outreach presents unique challenges over traditional staff-based visitation for BR&E. Obviously, volunteers are not full time staff resources. Most are not well-versed in
economic development. Ultimately, they are not accountable to us.
To minimize pitfalls when using volunteer outreach, follow these simple tips for success:
Engage an accountable staff member to “own” the entire volunteer outreach process. They will be responsible for selection and orientation of volunteers as well as ongoing management of the volunteer outreach effort. In many cases, this staff person will “play matchmaker” between specific volunteers and subject companies in the market area for a best fit and to avoid confidentiality issues.
Mandate extensive orientation and training for any volunteer who will meet and interact with their peers. Training should be more exhaustive than a “60 minute luncheon rah-rah session.” Training should include a framework for the entire visitation process, desired outcomes and reality-based deliverables. This includes things like brand name reinforcement, explanation of the purpose/intent of the BR&E program, description of participating organizations and the resources they represent as well as anticipated outcomes for the subject business and community as a whole. Typically, training should be conducted over two or three “building block” sessions. If you are doing things correctly, the list of willing volunteers will drop precipitously after each session. Many potential candidates will opt out of the program and process during the training phase. Don’t fear. The last men and women standing will be the true believers who will produce tangible results for your effort.
Intensive training needs aside, keep the overall outreach process simple and straightforward. See above…volunteers are not full time resources, well versed in
economic development or accountable to us. Make it easy for them to plug into your framework by following the KISS principle. Less is more here. Make sure that you compartmentalize them as part of the overall BR&E program.
Prohibit volunteer outreach people from using the BR&E program as a marketing forum to sell their wares to other businesses in the trading area. The intent of the outreach initiative must be pure and external—focused on the subject business and community as a whole. Similarly, for membership organizations, the volunteer outreach program should not be a thinly veiled membership drive. The best way to lose wholesale credibility with your business community is to use BR&E as a means to achieve membership objectives. Keep the BR&E agenda and program completely separate from the professional sales goals of volunteer outreach people and your organization’s financial endgame.
Pair up two volunteers or team up a volunteer with an economic developer to gain synergies. A fluid conversation with business people in your community is organic and will invariably start and end in different places with each and every BR&E visit. Because volunteers are not professional economic developers, they won’t be able to offer relevant feedback and assistance in many situations. Two heads are better than one—to understand the subject business and offer reasonable paths forward. If an
economic development staff person is available for tag team outreach, all bases will be covered.
Learn from success and failure. Get ongoing, active feedback from volunteers and, more importantly, subject companies about what is working and what isn’t. Use that information to refine your program, approach and hone orientation and training for existing and new volunteers. Make sure to recognize and even incentivize your best volunteers. Think about everything from social media to industry dinners as appropriate vehicles for shout outs to your top performers.
Because volunteers have real day jobs you can expect a constant churn of them with your BR&E efforts. To facilitate the transition, enlist and engage your best volunteers to help orient and train new ones. After all, there is no substitute for experience.
Seattle, Washington is one of most dynamic, diverse and unique cities in the world. The City’s Office of
(OED) and affiliate partner organizations have been doing systematic and successful
business retention and expansion
for over six years. During this tenure, the program has gone through many iterations-all based on the ever changing economic landscape as well as evolving needs of their customers and stakeholders. What has not changed is a steadfast focus on the private-sector customer and satisfying customer needs-big or small.
We are happy to have their contribution as part of
.guru! Click here to view more information
The Greater Halifax Partnership (GHP) in Nova Scotia, Canada has been actively involved in
business retention and expansion
for over a decade. Their SmartBusiness Program
has gone through many iterations and changes over time but always remains focused on active customer outreach and excellent customer service. The knowledge and intelligence obtained from SmartBusiness
has resulted in assistance to hundreds of individual private sector firms. The program connects the dots between company needs and available economic, workforce and community development programs and services.
More importantly, the
business retention and expansion
program has spawned a number of strategic programs and initiatives that provide benefit and ROI to groups of companies and business people throughout the metro area. Our friends at GHP have submitted these initiatives as best practice examples of what can be achieved when we are actively and systematically listening to, and learning from, our business customers.Click here to view more information