An Independent Relationship
The franchise model has always been filled with tension due to the disparate goals of the parties. The franchisor that owns the brand and concept, and the franchisees that acquire the limited, delegated authority to operate the business model. The franchisor is generally a private business that is seeking to expand its brand, know-how and products and/or services through a network of independent business owners by providing them access to training, manuals and some level of ongoing support. Yet, the franchisees are not employed by the franchisor and can only be held accountable to the standards required under their license to the brand.
This independence legally can create significant challenges to practical communications. The franchisor needs to be able to convey changes to the brand standards and expect the franchisees to accept and implement them, otherwise the consistency of the customer experience will be jeopardized. Franchisees are busy operating the business and changes communicated by the franchisor can be a source of disruption, annoyance and cost. And, given each franchisee has their own agenda relative to the franchise, their absorption of franchisor communications vary dramatically across any franchise network.
Technology Enabling Manual Creep
Not too long ago network communications were a fairly mundane affair. The franchisor would send a letter to each franchisee outlining periodic changes to the operations manual, requesting the franchisee to “remove the outdated pages and insert the new ones”. Field staff would inspect the operations manual during an onsite visit to the franchisees business to confirm that the manual was up-to-date, address questions the franchisee might have about the changes and even provide training if needed. While this process might be cumbersome it was generally effective. Today, this process has virtually vanished, literally replaced by a catalogue of manuals stored on a portal and updated with increasing frequency.
I would venture to guess that any franchisor that actually printed out all the “manuals” stored on their portal that represent standards a franchisee must follow would be astonished at the volume and weight. As technology has empowered more efficient storage and retrieval of documents, images and videos franchisors have increased their proclivity to define their standards, resulting in an overwhelming collection that most franchisees simply cannot integrate into their daily operations. And, all too often the franchisees first glimpse at the manuals is on day one of their initial training program where the ability to consume such is severely limited. They are embarking on a new venture, trying to make a significant transition in their lives, and their mindset is guarding against “overload”. Franchisees should be reviewing the manuals well as part of a deliberate pre-training curriculum so that they have a modicum of hope to absorb the core elements of the business during the formal training sessions.
The Diversity in Franchising
The “one-size-fits-all” approach to franchise recruitment is quickly fading as more sophisticated, educated and diverse prospects are entering the franchise arena. Coupled with expanding franchise models including multi-unit, multi-concept, area developer, area representative and master franchise, each with a broad array of hybrids being offered, are generating much more diverse franchise networks than ever before. In any given franchise system there may be high-school dropouts and MBAs, agnostics and Catholics, gay and straight, millennials and boomers, owner operators and investors, foreign nationals and domestic, and an expanding list of other traits, preferences and interests.
And, as you look across the spectrum of franchisors you will find increasing diversity as well, from an entrepreneurial founder to a large Wall Street investment firm and everything in between. The thing they all have in common is the franchise, and unless the franchisor can devise an intentional, deliberate and efficient way to communicate standards the brand will suffer from inconsistent customer experiences.
Franchise Advisory & Marketing Councils
One approach many franchise systems utilize to garner franchisee feedback and input on key initiatives is the formation of franchise advisory and marketing councils and/or committees. Typically, franchisees are elected by their peers to serve 1-3 year terms and generally will “represent” their fellow franchisees from a delineated territory or region. FAC/MAC groups will meet periodically throughout the year to interact with the franchisor on strategic initiatives, assert issues within the franchise system and to provide feedback garnered from their peers on a wide variety of topics.
While this approach has been common for decades, there have been signs that its effectiveness is waning given the significant changes afoot in franchising. One of the challenges to this traditional model is the growing disparity between single-unit/territory franchisees and the growing multi-unit and area developers. The interests, investments and expectations of these segments within a franchise system make the work of a FAC and/or MAC difficult as they attempt to appease these diverse interests, as well as support franchisor initiatives.
Creating a Deliberate Communication Strategy
For decades franchising was a fairly simple model with a largely homogenous set of franchisees that owned and operated a single unit/territory. Over the past decade the complexion of the franchise sector has changed faster than franchisors have accepted and/or adapted, putting a significant strain on communications. Resolving this dilemma will require franchisors to develop and implement more deliberate approaches to communications within their organizations structures so that message are crafted more poignantly to each segment with the system based on where they are in their lifecycle with the franchise, the type of franchisee they are and in some cases the region of the country they operate in. There are numerous new modalities available to franchisors as well including webinars, video messaging, social media platforms and peer-to-peer engagement software. The days of a system-wide email as the basis of messaging are long past…welcome to the new age of focused, segmented and personalized communications.
Rising Above the Ordinary
The ability of franchisors to create deliberate and effective communication strategies may well determine the relative success of concepts in the future. Those organizations that can embrace the diversity permeating society and engage the growing segments of franchisees within their ranks will rise above the ordinary.