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Businesses are facing ever- increasing pressures from all sides. European regulations, increased competition, the strength of sterling, and the need to embrace techniques such as benchmarking and continuous improvement all add to the burden. For smaller firms in particular, it is easy to feel you’re alone, facing a sea of troubles. But help is at […]

Businesses are facing ever- increasing pressures from all sides. European regulations, increased competition, the strength of sterling, and the need to embrace techniques such as benchmarking and continuous improvement all add to the burden. For smaller firms in particular, it is easy to feel you’re alone, facing a sea of troubles.

But help is at hand. Businesses looking for advice and assistance can choose from an ever-expanding range of providers. The difficult part can be in knowing which one to choose.

Government-supported organisations

Best for: first port of call, regulations and other information

The simplest way for small and medium-sized firms to get help is though a ‘one-stop shop’ an organisation which can provide all the answers, or can say who else has the answers. The Business Link network is intended to provide such a catch-all service.

Business Links are run by local partnerships between the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), chambers of commerce, local authorities and Training and Enterprise Councils (Tecs). The network has 200 advice centres in England.

Established three years ago, Business Links were initially criticised for failing to help smaller companies. Performance targets were set and, says David Hands, deputy head of parliamentary affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses: ‘They have improved over the past few years. Before that they didn’t really deal with the problems of our members.’

Each Business Link offers standard core services for example answering queries on employment law or obtaining company filings and a range of other, locally determined services. Business Link London East, for instance, offers three levels of advice. The most basic is finding a solution to a single problem which may have been identified by the client, such as sorting out a company’s marketing. In the longer term, the Business Link can form a relationship with a company to identify goals, set targets and review achievements over two or three years.

The Business Link’s role is to ask questions and make suggestions rather than tell companies what they should be doing. For example, Hammond says: ‘We wouldn’t do a marketing plan, because we couldn’t put the numbers in. But we could show a client how to put the plan together.’

Some services are free, while others, such as consultancy, can vary in cost according to the work and location. Some have criticised the charges for putting certain services out of reach of smaller firms. But Hammond says charging encourages ‘buy-in’ and ensures that firms are committed to the job.

Business Links only cover England. The Scottish Business Shop network provides information and advice, and acts as a gateway to support offered by local economic development agencies. Companies in Wales can call the Business Connect helpline, which connects them to the closest of 31 local centres.

In Northern Ireland, the Local Enterprise Development Unit helps companies with fewer than 50 employees, while larger companies generally contact the Industrial Development Board.

Other sources of support and advice include the DTI’s Business Incubation Unit, intended to promote best practice and networking among new companies, while Tecs provide advice and support on training and employment.

The pattern of Government- supported business advice will change with devolution of executive power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and Regional Development Agencies being set up across the country.

Business organisations and trade associations

Best for: networking, industry-specific information

Trade associations exist to help their members and just paying the subscription can provide access to a range of services.

There are many such bodies, some specific to a particular industry and others, such as chambers of commerce, with a more general brief.

Of the industry-specific bodies, the Engineering Employers’ Federation supports companies through its regional network. It can provide advice on employment law, European issues, education and training, occupational health and safety, information and statistics.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders Industry Forum has been active in bringing firms together to improve performance. Engineers trained by global vehicle manufacturers, such as Toyota, Volkswagen and General Motors, teach techniques to British companies through ‘shopfloor masterclasses’.

The Industry Forum approach is being promoted as a model for other industries as part of the DTI’s competitiveness strategy.

Among the pan-industry bodies, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) runs a competitiveness forum, which is free to members. Companies can look at examples of good practice in manufacturing by visiting sites, for example going to Toyota to see lean manufacturing in action.

For businesses which are trying to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, the CBI provides a benchmarking scheme called Probe. This is one of the few consultancy products which comes with a set price tag, at £1,200 per site.

Chambers of commerce can be valuable sources of business support. Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCI), the largest in the country, offers a range of services to its 5,000 members. Trade missions are run to countries such as Chile and Japan, and a translation service can interpret 40 languages.

Chambers can also provide networking opportunities, allowing companies to meet others which may have solutions to seemingly complex problems. BCI runs a ‘meet the buyer’ programme, introducing local companies to large international companies.

The Institute of Directors provides an information and advisory service through its library. Members get four hour-long legal advice sessions as part of their membership fees, and can obtain company and market information and training focused on the needs of directors.

The Federation of Small Businesses provides a 24-hour helpline for legal, business and personal advice.

Management consultants

Best for: reorganisation, strategic advice

Management consultancy is often thought of as the expensive end of business advice. Companies looking for more specific advice or for detailed restructuring plans may decide to call in private-sector advisers or consultants.

But before picking up the phone to one of the Big Five, don’t forget a source of advice nearer home: your bank. Banks are keen to be seen helping business customers. The local manager or adviser is likely to have some say in a small company’s business plan; larger firms can get investment and funding advice from corporate banking arms.

Reputable advisers can be found through chambers of commerce, Business Links or their equivalents. The Institute of Business Advisers has 1,800 members providing advice, counselling and mentoring to small businesses.

The Management Consultancies Association (MCA) recommends making a list of potential consultancies, narrowing this down to a shortlist based on expertise, experience and resources, and then inviting the firms on your shortlist to tender.

There are about 3,000 management consultancy firms in the UK, so drawing up the initial list is not easy. Business Links can advise smaller firms on the best consultants, and in some cases can arrange subsidies.

The MCA and the Institute of Management Consultants run shortlisting services, but both are from limited lists of member firms.

The Directory of Management Consultants in the UK (AP Information Services) lists a large number of firms and gives their specialisations. But there is little differentiation between large generalists, such as Andersen Consulting, and smaller, more focused outfits like the Castings Development Centre.

Some consultancies have particular expertise in manufacturing. The Bourton Group, formerly Ingersoll Engineers, looks at the management and processes of industrial companies, while the Smallpeice Trust provides training for engineers.

Of the larger accountancy firms, Robson Rhodes has developed a manufacturing practice at its Birmingham office. A spokesman for the firm says: ‘We don’t tend to serve one-man-and-his-dog companies. The typical turnover is at least £5m, although we do get some fast-growing smaller companies.’

Services offered by firms such as Robson Rhodes or Deloitte Consulting include examining the supply chain, introducing information technology and strategic advice.

At the top end, certainly in terms of fees, are firms like McKinsey and Bain & Company. They tend to concentrate on overall strategy for large companies and multinationals.

Companies looking for high-level strategic advice usually have some idea of where to go. Others should generally start with the ‘one-stop shops’ or trade associations.

They will hopefully avoid the fate of one company which paid an adviser several hundred pounds for advice on obtaining European grants. The advice? ‘Contact your local Business Link.’