By Daniel Hunter

When it comes to advice, Britain’s smaller businesses are still looking for personal relationships. The latest (Q3) Quarterly Survey of Small Business in Britain from The Open University Business School has found that face-to-face communication channels are the most popular way of delivering business advice and information.

Dr Richard Blundel, Senior Lecturer in Enterprise Development at The Open University Business School and editor of the report said: “Our findings suggest that, while web-based advice and information services are becoming increasingly important, most business owners and managers still value the personal touch.”

The survey also found that accountants remain the most commonly cited source of helpful advice or information, identified by 50% of businesses. Customers, suppliers and other business people’ are second (37%), and banks take third place (31%).

Amongst the report’s key findings:

• Face-to-face communication channels are the most popular ways to deliver business advice and information, identified by more than two thirds (69%) of respondents. Government websites are second (55%), followed by commercial websites (43%) and telephone help-lines (42%).

• Three quarters of SME respondents (75%) used one or more sources of business advice or information in the last year.

• Smaller businesses make less use of business advice and information services. For example, 26% of respondents in the £5m+ turnover band make use of business advisors, but only 9% with a turnover below £100,000. Similarly, 44% of respondents with a turnover of £5m+ made use of their bank, compared to 22% in the less than £100,000 turnover band.

• Growth-oriented SMEs make use of a wider range of information and advice services. For example, businesses with plans to ‘expand significantly’ were more than twice as likely to use five or more advice services (20%), compared to those with no growth plans (9%).

• About one in seven firms (15%) think access to advice and information has become easier in the last year while 9% find it more difficult. However, most SMEs (74%) have seen little change.

• The ‘top five’ specialist areas where SME owners and managers have actively sought business advice and information are: regulations and compliance (28% of respondents), accounting (28%), sales and marketing (27%), financing (22%) and information technology (17%).

Caroline Elsey of Essex-based CME Personnel Consultancy took part in the survey and her business is one of the three featured case studies. Caroline values face to face contact when in need of business advice. She employs five people and together they provide payroll services for over 110 businesses and engage directly with HMRC on their behalf.

Her business also offers a range of personnel services, which includes employment contracts and handbooks as well as personnel policies and procedures. She uses a variety of channels but Business Link was one of the most valued.

Speaking about when it was absorbed into she said, “I thought they were wonderful and it’s a shame they’ve gone”. She now goes to a variety of organisations when she needs business advice and information, depending on the specific requirements including LinkedIn.

Dr Blundel concluded that, “Getting the right business advice and information is crucial for the UK’s small and medium-sized firms. We found that owners and managers make considerable use of external business support, whether it is to help them grow, to fill a gap in their knowledge and capabilities, or simply to ensure their survival. We estimate that three quarters of the country’s SMEs accessed this kind of assistance in the last year, particularly the larger and more growth-oriented businesses.

"Our survey picked up mixed messages on ease of access, suggesting that, while there are plenty of service providers, provision is often fragmented. This means it can be difficult to find timely, high quality and trusted advice.

“There was a strong preference for face-to-face communication channels, particularly for intensive ‘transformational’ advice, but we also found considerable use of online sources for more straightforward information needs. The message to policy makers and specialist business support providers is that, though SMEs can see a lot of good practice around, there’s also plenty of scope for improvement.

"This is likely to include technological innovation, such as more interactive websites and better integrated service delivery models, as well as helping to promote more effective long-term relationships between SMEs and their business advisors.”

Sue Hayes Managing Director of Barclays Business said: “One of the most valuable assets business owners possess is a network of contacts to share knowledge and get advice. This is the core principle behind Barclays Connector, an online community for anyone in business allowing them to form new relationships with like-minded people and potentially gain new customers by sharing knowledge and experiences.

“We have seen equally important networking moments happen face to face through the array of Barclays business clinics and seminars held across the country. A connected network, whether online or face to face is a vital step in supporting development in the SME sector.”

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