Driving Direct Leads: Are you doing all you can to boost local sales?

National franchise operations have marketed in the same ways for years and years. That is, the national budgets were applied to brand building and the local franchisees were charged with creating local lead flow.

But as they say: that was then, this is now. Certainly the approach I described above will continue to be the chief formula for many franchise marketing strategies for years to come. But new technologies afford franchises the opportunity to explore new formulas.

The Internet: a game changer

The Internet, along with a number of related technologies, has fundamentally changed the way people find information and communicate with each other. Just ask the editors of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, which recently added the word "google" as a verb. Interestingly, the Los Angeles Times reported that linguists said, "Google entered the lexicon especially quickly. It reached the pages of the dictionary just five years after its first known public reference as a verb in a New York Post article."

One large effect the Internet is having is the way consumers discover information about their local surroundings--most notably, the businesses in their area. People are finding this information not just through search engines and community websites, but also by communicating with complete strangers through blogs and social networks.

This dynamic is causing a shift in the approach of marketers at some of the world's most recognizable franchise brands. Not only are they responsible for difficult-to-measure awareness campaigns, but they are being charged with driving leads directly to their local franchises. Why is this?

Prior to the rise of Internet search and new low-cost communications technologies, it was ineffective for franchisors to take responsibility at the local level. With the emergence of these some franchisors are realizing they can--and must--channel some of their marketing resources to driving leads into the hands of franchisees.

The second question is: How? Jenny Craig and DaimlerChrysler have made changes to their corporate web strategies and implemented new technology to support local lead distribution. Both have experienced dramatic results.

A franchise and its online presence

Businesses use websites for a number of reasons, including driving e-commerce sales, garnering feedback to create a dialog with customers, and keeping the customers and prospects aware of new products and features. Consumer-facing franchise websites were mostly designed for branding, and served primarily as information portals. For online sales, companies were content with offering customers self-service tools, therefore avoiding the perceived costs of direct contact. However, as transactions increased in value, sales became more and more complex, and began to require more than just self-service tools, e-mail, and FAQs. So companies began to evolve their online customer communications to improve processes in order to be able to quickly respond to changing customer requirements.

The nature of many franchise businesses makes it unlikely that consumers will purchase something sight-unseen and without engaging in a one-on-one dialog. If that were the case, many franchises would not be franchises in the first place-they would exist in a few central locations and ship their products from there.

Jenny Craig and DaimlerChrysler both have found innovative ways to drive sales directly from their online channels to local businesses, using an emerging technology called "click to call." Click to call allows companies to proactively engage customers by offering web browsers a chance to speak to a customer service representative instantly through either their PC or phone, based on the browser's online behavior.

For example, a customer who has navigated to a product page, and spent a significant amount of time on that page, will be prompted with an invitation to speak to a representative if they navigate away from that page, or show some signs that they're unable to find the information they're looking for. Both Jenny Craig and DaimlerChrysler use similar technology to route calls to local franchises based on a prospect's geographic location.

One of the underlying principles supporting the strategy is that all Jenny Craig and DaimlerChrysler franchises still largely rely on voice and in-person interactions to make sales. Most local franchises do not have the resources to support extensive web marketing. And, needless to say, their core expertise {ITAL}is{ITAL} talking to customers.

Grabbing the loose change

Click to call is part of a larger class of technologies that many refer to asproactive conversion solutions. What is so important about proactively offering customers communication when they are on your website? Consider this--at this very moment, there are a substantial amount of people on your website willing to purchase what you are trying to sell them. That's good news. However, the majority of them will never buy anything from your website. That's bad news. So how do you effectively convert more browsers to buyers?

Ample evidence suggests that many websites don't offer customers their preferred channel to complete transactions, resolve problems during the buying cycle, or have their questions easily and quickly answered. So instead of consummating the transaction, these people simply leave the website. Forrester Research reports that 50 percent of people who research a product at one online retailer's site actually purchase from a different offline retailer, and a lot of them never come back. Can you imagine the result if those online shoppers were offered a way to ask additional questions about a product they were looking at online, instead of having to drive across town to ask their local retailer?

By adding proactive conversion solutions to a website, companies can reach out to customers at the exact moment they are making a purchasing decision - and when it's a complex purchasing decision, it's all the more important. For Jenny Craig, it's the moment when a person has decided they are willing to make a commitment to losing weight. For DaimlerChrysler, it's the moment when an online browser has gone through all the steps of selecting the exact model, options, and features for a vehicle and is ready for a price quote. By reaching out to customers at that moment, these companies capture lost sales in ways that affect the bottom line.

The results for both companies have been positive. For DaimlerChrysler, 20 percent of people who use the click to call service purchase a vehicle, as compared with only 10 percent of those who use traditional channels like the 800 number at the same point in the transaction process. And, sales initiated through click to call are closed in a fraction of the time compared with standard inquiries. Most important, these calls have increased sales originating from the web without taking away sales from other channels-in fact, DaimlerChrysler has seen no drop in its 800 calls.

Jenny Craig has also doubled its online conversions by using click to call. Previously, interested consumers were required to fill out a web form that local Jenny Craig centers would respond to in 12 to 18 hours. By connecting with these prospects instantly by voice, they are able to prevent them from going to a competitor, or simply not acting on their impulse to take steps to lose weight. Click to call engages the consumer at the precise moment in time they are most likely to convert.

One of the promises of the Internet is immediacy. Consumers have grown accustomed to getting the information they want online--immediately. Now, as more people become used to shopping for products and services online, they'll expect the same immediacy in a sales environment that they've grown accustomed to in a research environment. Long gone are the days when a consumer would willingly put up with waiting for an e-mail response from a business.

The cases of Jenny Craig and DaimlerChrysler, however, aren't about technology. Both companies altered their fundamental approach of how they use their website to generate leads for their local franchises. By being able to connect with prospects when they are ready to buy, they are sending a strong brand message while helping their local franchises take better advantage of the marketing dollars being spent nationally.

John Federman is the CEO of eStara, a provider of proactive conversion solutions for enhancing online sales and support initiatives.

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