What Models & Functions Work Best for Business Engagement?
Think Beyond the Job Title: Leadership Values and Vision
One of the most challenging aspects of implementing an effective business engagement strategy is that of presenting a consistent message, public image, or brand identity – and this starts with the development of a shared vision and strong plan for internal communication. Leadership is the strategic driver that moves State Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies (SVRAs) to build relationships with business and ensures high-quality services, dependability, and sustainability.
The Role of Leadership in Business Engagement
Some Common Organizational Models and Associated Roles
Centralized Business Relations Unit
In this model, business engagement is primarily the responsibility of dedicated staff located in the central VR office. This model supports a unified, consistent message to businesses and makes it easier to track business accounts and contacts. The agency's website can provide easily accessible information about services to businesses, and can offer a single point of contact for interested businesses.
Centralized operations may present a challenge in accessing smaller, local businesses that don't have a statewide presence. It can also be difficult to establish an effective system of communication about job-ready customers and possible job openings; counselors are usually best situated to have information about the former, and if job possibilities are being funneled through the central office it is necessary to quickly share the information with the field staff so action can be taken. In a small state this model may be efficient and effective.
Regional models move the business/VR connection out from the central office and into the hands of business specialists located throughout the state; for example, Washington DVR has 21 business specialists located throughout the state ( https://www.dshs.wa.gov/ra/division-vocational-rehabilitation/business-services-team-bst) and coordinated by the NET State Point of Contact in the central office.
Business specialists are responsible for knowing local labor markets, marketing VR services by participating in Chambers of Commerce events and similar activities, and responding to business needs for information and consultation. Meanwhile, they network frequently with local counselors who can link job-ready customers with interested businesses.
Direct Service Staff
In some agencies, counselors or designated employment specialists bear most of the responsibility for business engagement, either by design or because there is no central or regional structure in place. This can present a challenge for a counselor who is also carrying a full caseload, but in some smaller communities where the counselor is well-known to the business community it can be an effective way of meeting business needs and identifying opportunities for consumers.
More often in agencies that do not have a robust central or regional business engagement design, the role of engaging and supporting businesses falls to the community rehabilitation programs (CRPs) that are contracted to provide job development and placement services.
Moving Beyond the Point of Contact: Internal Communication Plan
At different steps in the process of business engagement, new challenges arise for SVRAs. As the models indicate, the point of contact with a business or businesses may be a regional business relations rep, a VR counselor, a state coordinator of business relations, or a Community Rehabilitation Provider – or someone else!
Regardless of the model, internal communication is crucial for effective outcomes at all levels. Internal communication will make or break any organizational model. The most sophisticated customer tracking system will not ensure successful communication if there is no incentive to use it. It does very little good for a centralized Business Relations Specialist to have close relationships with potential employers if the field staff never get any information. Conversely, when it comes to responding to the need for qualified candidates, the point of contact needs information from VR counselors about customers who are ready and able to begin working.
Planning and Implementation of an Internal Communication System
Whether your VR agency is building a business engagement model from scratch or simply making improvements in an existing structure, effective internal communication is critical to success.
Communication inside large bureaucratic organizations is a constant challenge. In order to meet that challenge it is helpful to think about three elements of a communication system: the Who , the What , and the How.
The Who means the staff within the organization playing key roles and functions in the business engagement effort. The What refers to the information being exchanged among them. How refers to the methods being used to convey this information.
Today's VR business engagement models typically respond to dual customers: a business and a VR client. To determine what kind of information must be a critical part of an internal communication system, VR agencies need to consider the answers to some important questions about customers and who will use the information toward successful outcomes.
Here are some examples of questions to consider:
- Who are the leaders of the business engagement strategies in the agency? Who sets the direction for the rest of the staff’s involvement? Who clarifies the expectations around roles and responsibilities in the business engagement approach?
- Who initiates business contacts? Who maintains business accounts? Who shares the information within the organization? And with whom?
- Who ensures that VR consumer information, such as qualifications and availability, is readily accessible to meet demand-side needs?
- Who needs to know WHAT?
- What do VR counselors and business relations staff need to know about a company and a job opening to assure a quality job match?
- What client characteristics do VR counselors and business relations staff agree are critical for employment success?
- What labor market information gathered by business relations staff is of value to VR counselors and their clients? How and when can this information be used?
- What factors contribute to employment retention?
- What process measures can be introduced that will improve the quality of a business engagement effort? (e.g., number of referrals per job opening, number of interviews, job starts, number of client contacts-job shadow, informational interview, internships with businesses)
- What information exists within VR case management systems that can be used to forecast employment needs of clients?
- What kinds of information are businesses seeking about hiring people with disabilities?
- How will business relations staff ensure VR counselors are informed of employment opportunities?
- How will business contacts and accounts be shared?
- How can VR counselors access necessary business and labor market information in a way that is integrated with their daily work load?
- How do case management and business account systems interface?
- How is business account information kept current?
These are just a few examples of areas to be explored by VR agencies as part of a business engagement strategy. When consensus is achieved on the kind of information that is of value to various players, processes for sharing that information can be developed. The experience of asking and answering these kinds of questions has the potential of creating more trusting and productive relationships among VR counselors, business relations staff, and SVRA leadership.
How all of this information is communicated will vary greatly depending upon many factors, including agency size, geography, technology, and culture. The important factor is that administrators, business relations staff, and VR counselors participate in the design of whatever systems are developed to share information.
There is more to engaging business than creating positions and job descriptions within the SVRA. There must be a pervasive belief throughout all levels of the organization and all job titles that business is our customer, essential to our success. That critical message must be supported by systems that are aligned to deliver services to both industry segments and "Mom & Pop" shops, while preparing a qualified workforce of people with disabilities.
Download the brief, Developing a Business Relations Structure: Lessons Learned from VR Trailblazers to learn more about six agencies’ business relations structures and functions, how they determined a business relations approach, and the challenges they faced throughout this process.
Necessary Functions for Business Engagement
VR agencies use many different models in engaging businesses at the state and local levels. Regardless of the model, there are certain functions that every VR agency must perform if it is to engage in a meaningful way with business. Who performs the functions depends on the vision and values of the organization, the size of the state and the agency, the number of full time positions and the geographic distribution of staff, the availability of and relationships with external partners, and economic development issues within the state.
Business Engagement Staff Roles and Functions
The following sections review five Business Engagement functions: Marketing and Outreach, Assessing Business Needs, Responding to Business Needs/Requests, and Evaluating Customer Satisfaction.
Marketing and Outreach
Marketing programs, though widely varied, are all aimed at convincing people to try out or keep using particular products or services. According to the Small Business Administration, marketing emphasizes the value of the customer to the business, and has two guiding principles:
- All company policies and activities should be directed toward satisfying customer needs.
- Profitable sales volume is more important than maximum sales volume. ( sba.gov )
SVRAs are not seeking profit, but in a sense, they are selling a product or a service. If we replace the language in point 2—"profitable sales volume," with "high quality vocational outcomes," and "maximum sales volume" with "many quick closures"—this principle translates to a basic VR tenet: High-quality vocational outcomes are more important than many quick closures. We often hear "Careers vs. First Job/Any Job" as the distinguishing feature of the VR program among other workforce development programs.
Just as all VR participants have unique needs, so do businesses. As SVRAs seek to develop the most productive relationships with businesses, a firm understanding of the general functional capacity and skill base of the current clients receiving services as they relate to needed and available jobs in the local economy will aid in the profiling of target employers. (Fraser, 2008)
"Select a target market" is often the first piece of advice offered as organizations delve into marketing. Why? Because marketing isn't effective unless you know to whom you are marketing. To get results, your marketing must meet the needs of a defined group of people. Marketing messages must address specific needs and concerns. (http://www.thinkadvisor.com/)
Marketing involves repeatedly keeping the agency's name in front of the target market over an extended period of time. It takes work and persistence. If SVRAs are serious about gaining real results, it's wise to think of a marketing investment in terms of years rather than months. ( http://www.thinkadvisor.com/)
Businesses must be contacted frequently in order to be responsive to vocational rehabilitation programs. Ideally, this is some form of consistent direct contact, but mailings, "e-blasts," newsletters, and other forms of publicity can maintain interest in your services and clients. (Fraser, 2008)
While some SVRAs conduct marketing initiatives and public information campaigns, a more familiar endeavor may be outreach. An external outreach effort requires true involvement in community organizations, such as Rotary, Chambers of Commerce, and other civic groups. Participation as a contributing member is critical to contacts with upper management in diverse businesses. In a nutshell, all VR personnel need to think "business engagement" both on and off the job. (Fraser, 2008)
SVRAs also need to develop an internal presence of business within the organization. On a basic level, employers may be brought in to teach job-seeking skills, provide informational interviews, or otherwise mentor clients. Over time, businesses may assume a more influential position on a project advisory board or the State Rehabilitation Council. How close can your program become to "being one" with the business community? (Fraser, 2008)
Oregon Commission for the Blind: The Business Perspective
How can VR market services to business? OCB asked business leaders what they think.
As part of their job-driven technical assistance project, the Oregon Commission for the Blind (OCB) and the Institute for Community Inclusion created a video series featuring OCB clients, Oregon businesses, and OCB business engagement staff.
In this marketing video, OCB lets businesses know that in addition to qualified job candidates, OCB offers a wide range of free services, including paid internships and other short-term work-based learning experiences; adaptive technology demonstrations; diversity training; accessible technology training and assessment; job retention; and much more.
Getting Your Message Out: The Power of Social Media
The pervasiveness of internet use in daily life creates an opportunity for organizations to make a “digital impact” through the effective use of social media. Its reach is vast. Recent marketing research from HubSpot reports that LinkedIn has 450 million members, with over 110 million of them visiting the site monthly. Facebook has 1.1 billion daily users, with 74% of them reporting to use the site for professional purposes. Read more...
R.T. Fraser / Successfully engaging the business community in the VR process, 2008.
Assessing Business Needs
Businesses are looking for qualified, reliable employees. This is a given, but it's not true 365 days of the year, or even every year. If all that SVRAs have to offer is workers, there will be times that business has no need for us.
If we offer more, we stand a better chance of meeting a determined need. But how do we find out? How do we know what to offer and to whom?
A number of surveys have been conducted to determine needs of business in overcoming barriers to hiring people with disabilities. In one survey of mid-west managers, there was a strong need for adequate knowledge and experience related to hiring and retention of qualified individuals with disabilities and chronic health conditions. In the same survey, employers expressed need for support with identifying appropriate workplace supports, accommodations, and vocational services related to job retention and return to work (Chan, 2010).
Using a market research effort based on questionnaires given to current or prospective business leads, a SVRA can often uncover possible new products or services and identify dissatisfaction with currently offered services. Market research will also identify trends that affect potential relationships. Population shifts, legal developments, and the local economic situation should be monitored to quickly identify problems and opportunities (SBA).
Needs of individual businesses are as varied as the businesses themselves. Analysis of survey data and labor market trends only gives SVRAs part of the information. Once a relationship is established with a business, an important service that VR can provide is to help identify and prioritize their diversity needs. Frequently the need that is presented as a priority, such as hiring or training, is only the tip of the iceberg when a skilled professional begins to work on the underlying issues.
Some strategies for identifying business needs include:
- Involving frontline supervisors and workers in needs assessments to identify employer needs.
- Engaging groups of employers rather than single employers when possible.
- Partnering with employer associations when possible.
BENEFITS OF SECTOR STRATEGIES
- Businesses experience greater success finding workers with the skills they need to compete and to expand.
- Workers receive relevant training that can lead to greater job stability and advancement opportunities.
Regional, industry-focused approaches to building skilled workforces are proving to be one of the most effective ways to align service providers to address the talent needs of businesses. Sector-based strategies take a comprehensive, broad-based approach to identifying and addressing skill needs across key industries within a region rather than focusing on the workforce needs of individual employers on a case-by-case basis.
These strategies require SVRAs and other regional workforce service providers to establish engaged and sustainable relationships with business to determine the specific skill and occupational requirements to meet industry needs. As these relationships strengthen, service providers will likely offer more customized, coordinated, and timely workforce solutions. Simultaneously, VR, education, and other training providers will refine programs and curricula to more tightly align with industry demands. (Kentucky Sector Strategies White Paper)
Chan, F., Strauser, D., Maher, P., Lee, E.-J., Jones, R., & Johnson, E.T. (2010). Demand-side factors related to employment of people with disabilities: A survey of employers in the Midwest region of the United States. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation.
Taylor, Colin, EMPLOYER ENGAGEMENT IN THE NATIONAL FUND FOR WORKFORCE SOLUTIONS, National Fund for Workforce Solutions, January 2011. http://www.jff.org/publications/employer-engagement-national-fund-workforce-solutions
Responding to Business Needs/Requests
Business engagement is not a "one and done" deal. It is the establishment of a relationship over time, and the acknowledgement that needs change over the life of that relationship. Our response to emerging needs of business customers establishes our credibility and the long-term benefits of the relationship for all parties.
The following information was published by the National Fund for Workforce Solutions. It is a summary of effective business engagement strategies that are applicable in a VR setting. Actions that prioritize and demonstrate an ability to meet employer needs and/or requests may include:
- Providing employers with information—and lots of it
- Forecasting future skill shortages
- Adapting programming to employers’ future needs
- Aligning training programming, including customized training, with employer skill needs
- Providing or linking businesses with services that could enhance operations, such as:
- Tax incentives
- Employee retention/disability management
- Technical assistance
- Americans with Disabilities Act amendments and other legislation
- Training for potential hires, such as:
- On-the-job training
- Trial employment
- Job shadowing
The stage of the relationship between a SVRA and a particular business will indicate the kind of response that is appropriate, but there are basic principles that apply regardless of the specific need.
- Always demonstrate respect for the business and the people, no matter how little they understand disability.
- Respond in a timely manner.
- Directly address the issues presented, or find someone who will.
- Do what you say you will do.
Taylor, Colin, EMPLOYER ENGAGEMENT IN THE NATIONAL FUND FOR WORKFORCE SOLUTIONS, National Fund for Workforce Solutions, January 2011. http://www.jff.org/publications/employer-engagement-national-fund-workforce-solutions
Evaluating Customer Satisfaction
SVRAs have a long-standing history of assessing satisfaction with services provided and the subsequent results for people with disabilities who have received VR services. A similar approach must be taken with business customers in order to evaluate and improve VR business services. Some questions to ask your business customers include:
- Did the agency meet the identified need?
- Were services of the quality expected?
- Were services timely?
- Will you call on our agency again to meet future needs? Why or why not?
Some SVRAs are already tracking satisfaction of the business customer. As an example, Vermont DVR has information on its website regarding consumer, employer, and staff satisfaction survey results: http://vocrehab.vermont.gov/whoweare/ourresults/satisfaction
Frequency, tools, and modalities used in the evaluation effort will vary depending on the stage of the relationship and the content of the interaction(s). An annual emailed survey is probably the least productive way to get businesses to provide feedback on their satisfaction—how many of us bother to complete a satisfaction survey that may arrive months after we purchased an item or received a service?—but it may remind inactive business partners about the resources and services that are available from the VR agency.
Here are some other ways to assess business customer satisfaction. The approaches that take more time and personal attention generally yield the most useful information, so you need to balance the cost of the approach against the potential benefit.
- Follow-up survey (email or phone) immediately after services are provided to businesses (consultation, resources, referral of job candidates, etc.)
- Personal "check-back" visits to businesses following provision of services. This might also include leaving behind a short paper-and-pencil survey along with a pre-addressed envelope.
- Focus groups of businesses that have received services from the VR agency.
- Open discussions with business groups (e.g., Rotary Club) about VR's role and efforts.
Communication to Enhance Performance
The real value of a well-designed internal communication system is that the information that it produces will determine the performance of the business engagement system. Therefore it is important to build in regular reviews of the communication system to assess the quality and quantity of the information being shared.
Is the information helping VR counselors to identify potential job seekers more quickly? Are business relations specialists receiving quality candidates for the openings they are obtaining from business customers? Are job retention times improving? If the VR agency is not achieving the desired performance from the business engagement system, based upon these reviews, adaptations and changes need to be made with the full inclusion of business engagement staff and VR counselors.