Increased competition in the economic development landscape translates into a need for municipalities to develop and employ innovative strategies to retain local businesses and attract new opportunities.

Customer Service Solutions, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, specializes in customer retention and growth strategies, training and research. Over the past few years, CSS has developed a niche in working with local governments and economic development agencies to increase business retention and expansion. Its client list includes municipalities such as Charlotte, Hickory, and Monroe, North Carolina – as well as other public-sector entities, like Children’s Hospital of Atlanta, Central Piedmont Community College, and South Carolina Electric & Gas.

CSS was founded in 1998 with the premise that delivering the highest quality customer service is vital to the success of any business or organization.

Ed Gagnon, CSS President and Founder, relates this philosophy to economic development strategies in the public sector.

MuniNet: In general, how are the needs of your public-sector clients different from the needs of private-sector, or commercial clients?

Gagnon: Much of what our public sector clients need revolves around research, training, and strategic analysis and support. Because most municipalities have limited funds available, they are more inclined to target high priority areas of need to maximize the effectiveness of their staff and resources. Our public sector clients often want us to help them to succeed, providing the research and direction.

Our private sector clients also want the research, training, and strategic guidance, but their funding is usually structured such that they not only want that help, but they may ask us to be the implementers of change as well. They’re a little more acutely focused on the competition and want more hands-on support to make the change more quickly.

MuniNet: When you develop business retention and expansion strategies for municipalities, how do you take into account geographic factors – i.e., would you recommend the same strategies for an Arizona city as you would for a town in Vermont?

Gagnon: Individual municipalities have different global priorities. We help local companies to evaluate the business environment based on 25-30 factors relating to taxes, technology, infrastructure, availability of qualified personnel, etc. Some of these issues may be more or less important to businesses in different areas of the country. Assessment of these factors not only allows for geographic differences state-to-state, but also highlights the needs of various cities within a state.

MuniNet: How does this play into the research portion of your services?

Gagnon: Identifying local priorities is an integral part of our research. The surveys that we develop are particularly helpful in pinpointing specific areas of need. We must know what businesses recognize as unique strengths or weaknesses in their environment. When we see consistent issues, we can help municipalities focus on the macro-level concerns from local businesses that need to be addressed through better processes, revised policies, or improved communications.

MuniNet: What type of specific research and direction can you provide to municipalities or other public sector agencies looking to increase their viability?

Gagnon: CSS offers an economic risk assessment service that begins with the development of customized research instruments that local business leaders can use in surveys or telephone interviews. The surveys are designed to evaluate five specific components of their business needs and satisfaction, and cover the following points:

  • Is their leadership changing?
  • How well does the local business environment support the company?
  • Are other municipalities recruiting the business?
  • What is the economic outlook for the industry?
  • How well is the business performing?

MuniNet: How do their responses help you analyze their level of economic risk?

Gagnon: Their answers help us determine the level of risk for near-term (one to two year) job reduction or company relocation. We then relate this relative risk to the contribution that the company makes to the community and municipality, often in terms of jobs, taxes, fees, etc. Drawing this correlation helps the municipality to prioritize retention efforts and proactive communications based on a combination of a given company’s risk and its size.

MuniNet: What other types of research services do you provide for public-sector clients?

Gagnon: Our BRE News Research product involves daily research on local businesses. We review articles, press releases, financial reports, and other published documentation to look for situations that present job risks or opportunities. For example, an earnings report can highlight financial concerns or expansion plans that are underway. Leadership changes that have occurred locally, nationally, or internationally could move the organization in a different direction and impact local jobs.

Consolidations and acquisitions that happen elsewhere need to be identified because they can have ripple effects or show trends about what could happen locally. Research can also uncover information on new product development that could drive increases or decreases in the demand for the types of services and products developed in the local environment.

MuniNet: Can you provide some examples of the business retention and expansion strategies that you recommended for the City of Charlotte?

Gagnon: We surveyed and/or interviewed business leaders at over 350 Charlotte companies and identified the retention drivers for each – including determining which were most at-risk of job loss, and which should be highest priority for retention efforts. Then, we recommended to the City an ongoing “touch plan” with all 350+ clients, but more specifically implementing a call program with those at high risk.

MuniNet: What type of ongoing support does your company provide to the City?

Gagnon: For Charlotte – as well as other municipal clients who subscribe to the BRE News service – we not only provide research reports on any companies with news indicating job risk or opportunities every two to four weeks, but we also send “BRE Alerts” to our clients the moment we identify something that may require immediate action on the part of our client. That could include everything from a local business being acquired to a locally headquartered business changing its CEO to an announcement about job reductions or expansion plans.

MuniNet: What suggestions, tips, or pieces of advice would you offer to municipalities looking to expand economic development opportunities?

Gagnon: A successful business retention and expansion (BRE) program should facilitate job growth and “save” jobs from downsizing or relocation. The program – as in any service or retention effort in any business – needs to work hard to create value and to prove its value. Some specific suggestions include:

  1. First, dedicate a resource to BRE efforts. Have a “point person” identified with the responsibility, authority, and resources required to research local businesses, uncover those most at-risk of job loss, and find those with the greatest expansion opportunity.
  2. Implement an ongoing call program targeting key employers and those most at-risk.
  3. Develop internal processes structured to react quickly to a need or issue.
  4. Create ongoing “passive” research methods to gather information on local businesses without having to go to the businesses and repeatedly ask for updates.
  5. Document your successes.

MuniNet: Are these suggestions different for other public sector agencies – like universities, hospitals, transportation agencies, etc.?

Gagnon: These strategies can be applied across the board – not only to various public sector agencies, but to private entities as well: Dedicate resources, define priorities, create a plan, and conduct your research, and measure your success.

MuniNet: What sparked your interest in working with municipalities and other public sector entities?

Gagnon: Two items, in particular, helped me recognize a need and an opportunity in this arena. First, I heard a speech delivered by a local economic development director, and I could tell that he wanted a more concerted effort focused on business retention and expansion but didn’t know how to do it. Because we had already worked with municipalities in other areas, we were familiar with the industry. Second, retention and expansion was already an area of expertise we had as well. We have used our proprietary retention and growth models and survey/research instruments in similar industries, so we felt very confident that those tools would work here as well – and they do!