The authors examine factors that influence the propensity of a firm to take up external business support across four large English towns, using random effects nominal probit regression analysis to capture sector heterogeneity. The results suggest a strong positive association between the orientation of the firm towards growth and its propensity to use external business advice. 'Push' factors, including the existence of recruitment difficulties, are identified as key triggers to use business advice. These results provide valuable guidance to public policy organisations concerned with business development and competitiveness, and suggest a number of avenues for future research. © 2007 a Pion publication printed in Great Britain.