Talk to Me: Good Communication as a Business Strategy
By Joe Schumacher and Robin Posey
Franchises depend a lot on trust. Like any relationship, they require open, honest communication. A good franchise relationship is a valuable business asset to be nourished and developed. By providing consistent, quality communication and field support, the franchisor creates a reservoir of good will. The ability to tap into this reservoir when something new or difficult comes along can be invaluable. The successful franchisor places great emphasis on structuring the relationship in a way that supports the needs of the franchisee consistently asking, “What information does the franchisee need from me to be successful?”
Similarly, effective franchise communication is a two-way street. Franchisors must ask, “What information do I need from the franchisee to be successful?” In many organizations, these questions are asked and answered by the field staff with the support of a team at the home office.
It’s important to identify the key roles and responsibilities of effective field teams that specialize in guiding franchisees through every phase of their development. The field organization must also have counterparts at the home office to support their efforts, such as a help desk or franchise relations specialists. Careful coordination of field level and home office resources allows a franchisor to keep channels of communication open and ensure that franchisees feel supported. Equally important, successful franchisors leverage the field team as ambassadors of the franchisor’s business philosophy, culture and mission.
The cornerstone of franchisee communications is field support. In addition to helping the franchisor keep a finger on the pulse of its franchise community, field operations support is one of the greatest resources a franchise system can provide to its franchisees. An added benefit is that, through face-to-face visits, phone calls and e-mails, the field team can help ensure that each location is running according to the system. Coach the field staff to make the most of every phone call and in-person visit: ask good questions; bring new, useful information; take an interest in each franchisee and location; and carefully document and communicate any problems or issues.
As a franchise grows, communication, especially with geographically distant franchisees, can make or break the relationship. Communication with franchisees should be clear and consistent. Reach out by phone, e-mail and in-person on a regular basis to share ideas and identify issues before they become larger problems. A franchisor’s worst nightmare is to hear, “How was I supposed to know you changed the logo?” Regular company newsletters with “It Worked for Me” tips and franchise milestones are useful, but don’t forget the personal touch. Dust off company stationery and send a handwritten note congratulating a franchisee on an accomplishment or thanking them for a great idea.
Franchisees who don’t have someone to turn to with questions and problems often find their own, less desirable answers. This can also lead to a “no one at the home office ever listens to me” attitude. Providing help desks and other points of contact for franchisees to turn to with their challenges and successes can help foster goodwill with franchisees.
Make active listening a priority. Franchisees should feel comfortable picking up the phone with any concerns, at any time. Train home office personnel to listen patiently and identify solutions. As always, documenting this communication is a key step.
Here’s the bad news: there will sometimes be conflict between franchisees and franchisors. Resist the urge to bury your head in the sand and hope the problem will disappear. It probably won’t. Conflicts often go from bad to worse when field staff and home office personnel ignore concerns from the field. It’s easy to call the most satisfied franchisee, but it’s the consistent and open communication one has with an unhappy franchisee that can save the brand time, dollars and frustration in the long run.
Regional meetings can be fun and informative. Annual conventions provide a great opportunity for the franchisor to communicate with franchisees about policy changes, best practices and new ideas. These types of events also give franchisees the chance to share issues and successes with their fellow franchisees, a valuable opportunity. Goddard Systems Inc. takes advantage of the annual convention to recognize its top franchisees through recognition and awards for their efforts. Gatherings give the franchisor a platform for introducing new staff, vendors and ideas to the franchisee community. Lastly, gatherings are a way to build momentum with new products, services, programs and initiatives.
One of the franchisor’s greatest responsibilities is to keep the product or service fresh and to keep franchisees informed of trends in their field, as well as trends in business management. This can be accomplished through research and development, focus groups and through partnerships with industry experts. Is your company flexible and open to change?
Technology is here to stay. Use it to enhance franchisee communication through e-mail, e-newsletters and blogs. Company Web sites or Web portals can be used to streamline reporting, make forms and templates readily available and answer frequently-asked questions.
If a company culture is not franchisee-focused, it’s time to start shifting. Respect for franchisees, coupled with positive day-to-day interactions between field staff and franchisees, combine to create great franchise relationships. Even inspections by the franchisor can be a positive experience, when a company has established trust and respect with franchisees. Always be sure to recognize what’s good at the franchise, even if areas of improvement need to be highlighted. Franchisees want to know that the franchise organization sees the entire picture, not just the negative. Also, build some flexibility into inspections. If something truly unusual happened recently, the field inspector should be able to account for that in scoring.
Develop core company values, and coach field staff to put them into practice. For instance, at GSI, all phone calls and e-mails from franchisees must be returned within 24 hours. Employees also know that it’s their job to “close the loop.” The advertising executive knows that if a franchisee asks a question about construction, it’s his responsibility to get the franchisee to the right person and to make sure the question gets answered.
It’s a cliché, but is your franchise a team? It is essential that both franchisee and franchisor understand that the success of one depends on the success of the other. Franchisees should know that their opinions are needed and valued. Encourage feedback, especially around big shifts and new programs. Ask the best of the best in your franchise for their input on issues big and small, and then enlist their support as new programs are rolled out. Tap successful franchisees to mentor new or struggling franchisees.
Maintaining healthy franchise relationships is a full time job. Keep current, stay flexible and promote positive interactions. Home office employees with clear communication, good listening habits and open minds ultimately make for happy, successful franchisees.
Joe Schumacher is chief operating officer and Robin Posey is franchisee liaison of Goddard Systems, Inc.