Winning awards and accreditations can be not only recognition of the hard work that goes into running a business, but also ideal marketing material. Yet there are also concerns, as Tim Smedley reveals
As a lifelong Arsenal fan, Geoff Wilkinson saw meeting former Gunners’ goalkeeper Bob Wilson at Wembley Stadium as an award in itself. But it was actually just the icing on the cake after the Managing Director of Wilkinson Construction Consultants won ‘highly commended’ in the Best Business to Work For category of the Red Ribbon Awards 2016.
The awards, which recognise the most innovative and exciting family firms, had received more nominations than ever before. Mr Wilkinson describes winning his award as “fantastic recognition of everything that we have done over the past seven years of trading”. It’s also “a great marketing tool to say that you have been accredited by a third party or won an award”, he says.
External accreditations are increasingly important for small businesses. In some sectors, such as the gas industry or public sector, it’s a legal requirement to have a particular badge, or to be approved by a trade body. In others, the need may be less but the advantages from receiving industry recognition can still be great.
For John Popely, Managing Director of Anglia Printing (founded in 1978 by his father and former FSB stalwart Fred), winning a 2016 Queen’s Award for Enterprise was an opportunity to turn the firm’s fortunes around. “After the 2008 recession, we came close to going out of business, losing half our staff, one building and refinancing ourselves,” says Mr Popely. Determined “to never be placed in that situation again, I have since done everything I can to raise our profile”, he says.
The Queen’s Award for Sustainable Development was a big part of this process. It was recognition for having become powered by 100 per cent renewable energy, investing in a waterless printing presses, using non-soya vegetable oil-based inks, and sending zero waste to landfill. “Any award is a good excuse for self-promotion,” he says, adding that it has brought a noticeable “increase in the number of enquiries and sales”.
Accreditation of a particular product or service can also bring business benefits. David Broadhead runs Partners in Management, a small leadership and management development training company in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, specialising in middle and senior manager development.
After the recession, “we quickly realised that both individuals and organisations were no longer prepared to pay for qualifications when faced with increasing time and cost pressures”, he says. In late 2015, he decided to put the company’s flagship ‘21st Century Leaders’ programme through a national standards recognition process run by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI).
“The course content, structure and delivery now has national recognition, and participants can receive acknowledgement for attending and completing,” he says. “It also means that employers and funding bodies have reassurance that the programme meets appropriate quality standards.”
In early 2016, Partners in Management won a contract to deliver the six-month programme to a large NHS trust. “The critical element was being able to provide a level 7 CMI qualification,” says Mr Broadhead. “Without this, we wouldn’t have been shortlisted”.
Even recognition for individuals within your company can rub off on the rest of the workforce. Twycross Zoo in Warwickshire is a small business with 150 employees. When its Chief Executive Dr Sharon Redrobe won the Vitalise Businesswoman of the Year Award 2015, this raised the profile of the zoo beyond its own sector.
These awards celebrate the achievements of exceptional businesswomen. Winning the award, says Ms Redrobe, “has provided assurance to staff, visitors and stakeholders that the business is stable and well managed, and that the organisation’s charitable work can continue. Staff surveys also show that morale has significantly improved over the past few years.”
However, not all awards are equal. The rigour of the entry and judging processes can vary and some, argues Mr Popely, “are not worth the paper they are written on”. “Some of the awards don’t even check your application,” he says. “There are no questions, no feedback and, hey presto, here’s your award, which to my mind makes them worthless. Most customers do not know this and it is up to us to educate them.”
Chartered Architect John Kellett, of KR.eativ: Architects, believes this variability of standards is a problem in his sector, too. “Some trade associations do not check credentials or competency, and a membership only involves the transfer of money,” he says. “That is not good for any trade.” Even industry awards are not always above-board, he suggests. “I have often been approached by companies informing me that a project has won an award, and to claim it I am required to take out an advertisement with them. That is more than bad practice.”
For all the awards featured in this article, however, the process was reassuringly rigorous. The proof lies in the prestige of the awards and the veracity of the judging. Those affiliated and run by large professional bodies – such as the FSB & Worldpay UK Business Awards, which receives more than 1,000 registered entrants across the UK – offer prospective entrants and their customers a recognised seal of approval.
Less than a year after winning the FSB & Worldpay UK Business of the Year award in February 2016, 918 Coffee Co has seen a huge impact on its business, in terms of both exposure and growth. “It’s not only the kudos of being business of the year but also the publicity,” says Chief Executive Justin Cornelius. “It’s an FSB and Worldpay award, so it’s not an award that nobody has heard of. We’ve reached audiences that wouldn’t normally be in our range.” The prize money helped buy some much needed equipment, too.
Mr Wilkinson’s road to Wembley included a nomination from a member of staff , a detailed submission process taking hours, after which “the organisers set off to see all the shortlisted businesses first-hand, speak to staff and conduct a formal filmed interview with the business owners”.
He believes it’s “important that you ensure it’s not just about a piece of glass on the shelf, and there is rigour in the process”, but also that “businesses and customers are not silly and can get a good feel for companies that walk the walk rather than just talk the talk”.
Awards that fail to stand up to scrutiny could ultimately do more damage than good to a company’s reputation. But for those that are fully roadtested, it’s a case of accreditation where credit’s due.
Public sector minefield
In the public sector, gaining industry accreditations can be a prerequisite when bidding for work. Here, Tim Colman, Chairman of the FSB Procurement Policy Committee and owner of HR outsourcing company Abacus HR, explains why this is a tortuous process for small firms and how they can help position themselves to bid for such work.
Question: How much focus is there in public sector procurement on the accreditations and qualifications held by potential small business contractors?
Answer: There is a massive focus, particularly in the construction industry. And the situation is a mess. There are more than 20 different health and safety related-accreditations, and different local authorities have their own favourite.
So bidding for, say, six tenders with six different accreditation requirements could involve a small supplier spending a fortune going through six different accreditation exercises.
In many cases, there is no significant difference between the actual requirements. The process is a money-making exercise for many of the self-appointed accreditation bodies.
Some local authorities now recognise accreditation bodies that are Safety Schemes in Procurement (SSIP)-registered, but as yet this recognition is not widespread.
The requirement for an ISO9000 quality accreditation is now widespread in the public sector, and there is also an ISO14001 environmental accreditation. These are not too onerous to get, but you will need well documented processes in place, and the cost of getting accredited will generally run into thousands of pounds.
Question: What sort of policies and procedures need to be accredited to tender for public sector contracts?
Answer: The key is to be ‘bid ready’. Many small businesses don’t even have the most basic policies written down, even when these are required by law. Some examples are disciplinary procedure, grievance procedure, appeals procedure, corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy and equal opportunities policy.
If you will be undertaking work in occupied premises, then more complex policies – such as safeguarding children, safeguarding vulnerable adults and working in occupied premises – will be required.
And even if you have fewer than five employees, public sector procurement teams will not take you seriously if you don’t have a written health and safety policy.
Could winning external industry awards help to win public sector contracts?
All companies should have a CSR policy. Even the smallest companies generally have some CSR activities in place, even though they might not realise this.
The trouble with CSR is that it can be difficult to prove that you comply with your own policy, but some specific examples will suffice. Winning an award may prove that you are doing what you claim.