By Chris Wood, CEO, Develop Training

Some of the biggest employers in the country are utility companies. These include household names such as National Grid, Centrica, United Utilities and Severn Trent which are members of the FTSE100 list of the UK’s largest public corporations.

These huge organisations, and those in the tiers below, run massive operations. They need to outsource projects, and they have the wherewithal to pay, which in theory at least makes them attractive prospects for business service providers and subcontractors.

As always with sales and marketing, there are drawbacks. The other side of the coin of targeting and dealing with large organisations is that it’s often difficult to find your way around, to identify the people you need to be talking to and to understand their procurement processes.

Of course, everything is do-able but don’t kid yourself that it will be easy or quick. Depending on your product or service, you will probably have to invest time and energy over months, if not years, so be sure there is a clear imperative in your marketing strategy for targeting large utility companies before you begin.

The first thing to consider carefully is that these are businesses with a mission that is critical with a capital C. If they get it wrong, the lights go out, the roads flood and things explode. Their tendency to be risk averse is not only intrinsic to their operations but also amplified by their sheer size. As is well documented, decisions in big private and public sector organisations are more likely to be influenced by the need to justify them if things go wrong rather than a drive to do something new and remarkable. This doesn’t mean utility companies aren’t innovative – we have introduced numerous new training initiatives with them – but it does make it more difficult for an untested supplier to break into these markets.

To sum up your marketing strategy in two words, “build trust”.

Here are some strategies we have used successfully over the years.

Hire people who know their way around

Our operations director, John Kerr, has been with us for nine years but before that he spent almost an entire working lifetime with Advantica, part of British Gas. In a colossal corporation like that it would be nonsense to suppose that he knows every individual, but his experience in a senior position means he knows how it works, understands the culture and, because he was in a training role there, knows how the organisation goes about specifying training and selecting suppliers to deliver it. In a way, he is gamekeeper turned poacher, but the more important benefit of his background is being in tune with the organisation and the gas industry.

Produce case studies

With a customer list that includes Northumbrian Water, Scotia Gas Networks and National Grid, and decades in the industry, it would be easy to think we could rest on our laurels and let business come to us. We think it’s incredibly important to continuously demonstrate our capabilities to both prospective and existing customers. This is especially true with innovation. A number of our customers have hired us to implement new kinds of apprenticeship programmes, training courses and delivery methods – such as e-portfolios for learners to store evidence of their competence in place of the hefty paper portfolios they used to lug around. Case studies are an excellent way to show to other customers that these innovations are successful and to demonstrate the business benefits. If you are new to the sector, case studies are an excellent way to prove your competence, and they will go a long way to opening doors.

Ensure you have the right credentials

No-one wants unskilled people digging up roads and working on pipes that contain explosive substances, so the gas industry is heavily regulated. Our training team works with operatives whose day-to-day work puts them in potentially dangerous situations so it is crucial that they know their subject; our customers need to see proof of that. All our trainers have appropriate qualifications and experience. We also certify awards, which are legally required for operatives in the gas sector so, as a company, we have to be accredited as a training provider. The water sector is not as highly regulated as the gas industry but it is moving in that direction. We have developed a Licence To Operate for one major supplier and are talking to others about introducing it. When it comes to tendering for contracts, you will not get past the qualification stage if you don’t have the right credentials.

Show your experience

Venture beyond the offices and this is a thoroughly practical environment. Yes, qualifications and accreditations are essential but people in the utilities do business with individuals who are experienced, realistic and not afraid to get their hands dirty, literally. The ageing workforce in the utility sector has reached crisis point, which incidentally presents us with growing demand for training and apprenticeship programmes. Your opposite number is likely to be much nearer to retirement than the other end of his career, so field a team that genuine experience.

Keep up to date

The latest major development in the water industry, called AMP6, has caused a stir. It has shifted attention to reducing upstream failures, and because it’s overseen by the water industry regulator OFWAT, the water companies know they must comply. At this stage, many people are getting to grips with the concept. Fortunately for Develop Training, our team had their fingers on the pulse and made sure we understood the subject. We have a number of training solutions that address the issue, and interest is incredibly high with a record number of hits on our website.

Develop products and services that meet market demand

Develop Training has a portfolio of dozens of training modules, and demand for these services mirrors what the market needs. We have strong interest from the NHS and facilities management companies for training to avoid legionella outbreaks while our consultancy initiatives to address the looming skills shortages are also in demand.

Go where the market is

It is a basic marketing tenet to go where the market is. We recently returned from exhibiting for a week at Utility Week Live, an ideal opportunity to meet new prospects and renew acquaintances with existing contacts.

Be flexible

Each utility company has its own culture, and there are different ways of doing things within individual companies depending on which area of the business you are dealing with. Our approach to large utility clients ranging from Balfour Beatty to PazGas, in Israel, is to understand the challenges they face, to provide expert advice and to create services and training that are tailored to their needs.