Aim High: the importance of stressing suitability, return on investment and product value when promoting supported employment(1)
You are walking past your local Rolls Royce dealership (OK, you probably don’t have a local Rolls showroom so just use your imagination) and there’s a sign writer with pots of neon orange and yellow paint dressing the showroom front windows with, ‘end of year sale, buy 1 and get 1 free, 2014 plated vehicles 25% off....’
What’s wrong with this picture?
To my knowledge Rolls Royce don’t discount, they don’t hold sales and in there’s a probably fictitious story about Rolls Royce stating that; ‘if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford the car’!
Whether that’s true or not, this quality product doesn’t come at a discount and both the manufacturer and their customers understand that this policy helps preserve the prestige of the brand:
“When you offer a discount, you are taking the focus from the value you provide and placing it squarely on your price.... studies show that discounts actually reduce the effectiveness of whatever is being discounted. In a buyer's mind, the discounted offering literally does not perform as well as it did at full price” (2)
In promoting any product or service once you begin to discount it is almost impossible to adjust your sales or promotion strategies.
In helping people with a disability to gain meaningful employment, the broad based use of subsidies effectively discounts the product and in so doing places both people with disability and the agencies that represent them in an invidious position.
So wise service managers and their staff wisely consider the following 5 points:
1. If all you have to offer is the price of your product, you should also understand that price can always be matched and, as soon as that happens, you have no advantage and without at least something that stands out about you, you are doomed to mediocrity.
2. Discounting (and that’s effectively what a wage subsidy is) affects existing and potential employers perception of your service and your product – they value both less.
3. Introducing wage subsides lowers the operating profit of the service provider and forces cost cutting that inevitably lowers service quality which drives further discounting thereby creating a downward spiral.
4. Introducing discounts damages internal perceptions of the product for service staff who may come to use price as their foremost promotional tool and themselves fail to appreciate the value of the job seekers that they represent and
5. In a discounting war the deepest pockets win and in Australia foreign owned ‘for profit’ companies have used their financial resources to create artificial results. While for such agencies this has had the desired result of increased market share, for Australia rewarding the practice has assisted in the destruction of the skills base necessary to effectively support people with more significant disability
If discounting is so damaging, what is the alternative?
Let’s go back to Rolls Royce. If you were to ask their sales folk about Rolls and why you should buy, they would emphasise their exclusivity, the craftsmanship, the quality and the suitability of their product as a reflection of the status of an owner – clearly, a Rolls customer is someone who has achieved.
In the context of employment for people with disability, can this approach be converted to serve the needs of both employers and potential employees?
I believe that it can, and that the process to support this approach begins in the internal philosophy of the service provider and the training programs that inform and equip their staff.
Some of this is simple core values that can be shown in simple statements such as; ‘We believe in the inherent right of all people, regardless of level of disability, to pursue employment of their own choosing in conditions identical to their non-disabled peers and enjoying all of the same rights and responsibilities’
However, such statements need to be supported in all aspects of service delivery and this requires staff to be trained to identify service practices that are contrary to the statements of belief.
As an example, raising internal KPI’s for end of year bonuses to only count placements with >15hrs employment per week has resulted in agencies results for hours worked that are 50% greater than national averages.
Consistency is also vital, external advertising that highlights government or service provider discounting put the lie to statements of quality and can be seen as confirming an underlying lack of faith in both the product and it’s suitability.
Staff need to be supported to understand clearly that if a person that has a disability is able to successfully complete the tasks associated with their employment at the same pace and with the same level of quality as their non-disabled peers then their wage should not be automatically adjusted by subsidy.
Instead of discounting, agency approaches should emphasise the quality and suitability of candidates to meet employer expectations.
A quick word about the ‘product’: For disability employment services the product they offer is not employees that have a disability (or at least it shouldn’t be). Agencies offer a service that includes pre-screening candidates to identify suitability, in many instances pre employment preparation enabling candidates to understand both their rights as employees and also their responsibilities as salary earners.
These facets of service delivery should be leveraged to clearly show the value added proposition using a disability employment service presents
Candidates the agency puts forward should come with a higher degree of suitability since the service should have smaller case-loads and consequently a better understanding of individual aspiration and ability.
What employers ‘buy’ (there is generally no charge) is the agencies services, not the worker. These services include assistance with ‘on-boarding’, assistance to access any money that may be required for workplace modification or adaptive technology and an on-going commitment to post placement support that may range from on-site help to achieve initial productivity down to simple phone calls to check on new worker progress.
This should be the value proposition that staff are trained to promote. The sales line should read something like; ‘here’s an untapped pool of motivated and keen potential workers that may as much as double the potential numbers of candidates, here are some examples of people in business like yours that have hired and are more than satisfied with results and we (the agency) will stick by you to ensure your worker rapidly earns you a return on your expenditure’ and this will all happen at no charge’.
Contrasted with; ‘there’s a pot load of money the Commonwealth have set aside to tempt business owners to do something they wouldn’t otherwise dream of’ or, ‘the cost of this ‘worker’ is discounted by pretty much their total cost of hire’ it should be easy to identify the difference that separates a commitment to long term sustainability with a quick score for businesses that access almost free labour while service providers that skim off profit from taxpayer’s money.
Here are some present facts: The Disability Employment network across Australia is not succeeding, the numbers of people with disability in employment are not increasing, and in fact the results achieved are falling.
At the present time the policy makers and senior management of disability employment programs appear to lack genuine understanding of the needs and capabilities of people with disability.
No clear goal or target* exists other than a repressive, stultifying ‘Star rating’ system that has seriously eroded the ideological commitment of service providers in a race to the bottom that is excluding potential participants with higher needs.
*I get pulled up on this from time to time so let me ask you;
• What are the numerical goals for the disability employment program for 2015?
• How many people presently in receipt of the Disability Support Pension should be encouraged to attend the program - outside of coercion?
• What would be a good result in terms of the percentage of the entire program caseload to achieve financial independence?
• Given Australia ranks so poorly on both participation in employment and poverty for people with disability, over how many years and at what rate will this position be improved to move Australia to ‘Top 5’ status?
Let me save you some time and say that no such targets exist. Instead a profoundly flawed measurement system encourages contract ‘gaming’ and caseload ‘creaming’ while removing the very services that could have delivered such results
An inevitable conclusion is that presently the program is a token attempt to make a difference, unsupported by a real conviction that people who have a disability both want to work and are capable of returning value for money to their employers.
What would a different and suitable response include?
1. A genuine attempt to achieve attitudinal change amongst employers and the community – this would take a 2-3 year commitment of approximately $12 p.a. for every person in receipt of DSP (I have such a program and you can have it for free!).
2. The removal of the present ‘Star Ratings’ and their replacement with a market based reward system that recognised financial improvement for participants – rewarding clearly identified success rather than punishing perceived failure would galvanise initiative and return the program to its roots.
3. A clear and readily accessible league table to show participants where and with which program they are most likely to receive the greatest financial gains.
4. No punishment for failure, and no money either - return risk to service providers.
5. Enable service participants to register with as many providers as they feel suitable.
Finally; big success = big money, link the level of reward to the achievement of the identified outcomes and make their achievement financially worthwhile (you could then keep ‘for-profit’ agencies without their present destructive consequences).
That’s my wish list for 2015!
1. ‘Supported employment’ refers to work for people who have a disability who require on-going assistance from an agency in contrast to ‘open employment’ where the individual reaches a position where on a day to day basis they do not require agency help and ‘sheltered employment’ provided by an agency and within that agencies business or overall control.
2. Kennedy, D & Marrs, J: “The Dark Side of Discounts” downloaded from: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/220091 25th December 2015
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