The basic ingredients of a healthy franchise relationship are no mystery. Keep the lines of communication open. Manage expectations. Show respect. Provide the essential tools for staying in touch, including a useful and informative Web site, a newsletter that's worth reading, a fun and educational annual convention, and a proactive team of field representatives. No secret formulas here.
But nurturing a truly robust franchise relationship requires going beyond the basics. In a growing system, a cookie cutter approach to communication will soon grow stale. It will not offer the creative outlets and individualized attention your best and most established franchisees deserve. Communication with corporate management will become yet another routine (and probably neglected) obligation, especially for your weakest performers.
Staying in touch should be regularized, but not merely routinized. Try some new recipes.
Be more than a sounding board for frustrated franchisees. Create a culture in which franchisees tell you about roadblocks – or potential roadblocks – before they become serious problems. Then, help remove them. This may require devotion of substantial resources, but the long-term benefit is usually worth the cost.
Tell your franchisees—by post, by wire, in person—that you value their efforts.
Active listening also means documenting your communications. It's too easy for an urgent phone message or e-mail to slip between the cracks, or for an important conversation to go unrecorded, in a rapidly growing system. Use technology to help solve this problem. If you haven't developed a reliable home-grown method of documenting your communications, consider purchasing some management software. This documentation will be invaluable if litigation arises.
Dial M for Mentoring
Put new or struggling franchisees in touch with successful colleagues. There are many ways of doing this. Some franchisors hire regional managers who are franchise veterans (or have other significant business-building credentials) to help recruit and train new franchisees, and who commit their efforts to the success of each franchisee in their region.
Other franchisors use variations on the traditional franchise operations and field support staff, bringing successful franchisees into this role, and ensuring that regular field visits generate ideas and concerns to be addressed by the home office. None of this is free. If you can't afford a full-fledged system, at least set up an informal mentoring network, and provide an appropriate incentive for your strongest franchisees to share their wealth of experience.
Share your long-term strategic vision.
Strive for quality communication rather than sheer quantity. Impersonal messages – weekly newsletters and broadcast e-mails – may be necessary, but they're not sufficient. Here's a secret formula you can take to the bank: Be nice. This may be a tall order for some, but do it anyway. Tell your franchisees – by post, by wire, in person – that you value their efforts.
Recognize success. Address complaints. Send personal, handwritten notes when a special word of congratulations or encouragement, or even a mea culpa, is in order. (Check with legal before sending the mea culpa.) It sounds sappy, but it's a cheap, easy, and amazingly effective way of nurturing a franchise relationship, because it makes the franchisor a real person. It will also temper an allegation of personal animus in the event of litigation.
The healthy relationship natural to a franchise system in its infancy can become strained as the system develops, benchmarks evolve, and successful franchisees with maverick tendencies are asked to toe a shifting party line. Share your long-term strategic vision. Invite feedback. Get everybody on board before you crank up the engine and start moving in a new direction. It may be impossible to eliminate Us vs. Them thinking completely, but never let your franchisees (or yourself) forget that growing the brand and growing the local businesses go hand-in-hand. Many franchisee associations have been formed precisely because of franchisors' failure to build consensus.
Don't ignore or exaggerate conflict
Franchisor and franchisee interests don't always line up perfectly. Conflict happens. The analogy of franchising and marriage has become commonplace, and for good reason: the franchise relationship is intimate, conflict is inevitable, and poor communication can turn a resolvable disagreement into a disaster. Staying in touch with franchisees is never more important than during those moments when you would rather not hear from them. Remind franchisees that the overlap in interests remains far greater and more significant than the present zone of conflict, and try to craft a solution that fairly apportions the necessary burdens and compromises. This is rarely easy, but if you have nurtured a healthy relationship and built consensus, it is nearly always possible.
If there is a franchisee association in your system, try to work with – not against – it. Striking a balance between the franchisor's desire to pilot the ship and the franchisees' inclination to offer navigational advice is a tricky business – and too important a topic to receive full treatment in this article. The point is that the association can provide a fantastic forum for communicating with franchisees, both formally and informally.
On a formal level, the franchisee association should provide information to help the franchisor gauge the market and assess the viability of proposed initiatives. The association can also serve a self-regulating function, helping to ensure that the voice of reason is heard more clearly than agitators' objections, which might otherwise command a greater share of attention than they deserve. Informal exchanges are likely to be even more valuable. When the franchisee association and franchisor management have built a bond of trust, many significant issues – including the merits of potential franchisee lawsuits – can be resolved quietly through communication, rather than aired publicly through litigation. Maintaining open lines of communication with the franchisee association can be an exceptionally effective method of staying in touch and feeding a healthy franchise relationship.
Joe Schumacher is chair of Wiggin and Dana's Franchise and Distribution Practice Group in Conshohocken, Pa. He can be reached at 610-834-2401 or [email protected].
Daniel Crosby is an associate in the New Haven office of Wiggin and Dana.