How Great Communicators Use Technology

Manuel Solorzano was frustrated with his drivers and their excuses. The owner of six Martinizing Dry Cleaning stores in Tampa, Fla. would call his drivers on their cell phones during the day and never know whether he would reach them or not.

"If they didn't want to answer, they would tell me later that they weren't in a cell zone or some other excuse," he says.

To reduce his stress and ensure his six store managers and three truck drivers were always immediately available, Solorzano switched to Nextel walkie-talkies. Now they answer on his terms.

"If they don't answer now, I know for sure they are doing something wrong, and I can track them down and follow up," he says. "Immediate communications has become very important to our success."

In a business that often hires people who are not necessarily the most responsible, Solorzano says he needed an edge. He wants to continue growing and plans to open a seventh store this year. Within two years, he wants to have all his stores connected online in real-time. Currently, only his two main plants provide up-to-date sales and inventory information online.

Other franchise systems are experiencing the value of immediate online information, and are incorporating it into the original franchise agreement with their owners and operators. Mr. Goodcents Subs & Pastas, based in DeSoto, Kan., has 120 locations in 13 states and is using a high-tech point-of-sale system to help fuel the system's growth.

"We needed as much information as we could get in order to grow," says Rick Frederick, manager of Goodcents Information Systems (GIS). "We were polling cash registers at night and looked for a solution to provide accurate information on our terms."

Working with software vendor InfoSoft Technology, the GIS team has linked its cash registers directly to the corporate office. Frederick says that while the system is leading-edge, gathering the information is done automatically through the cash register and doesn't require a computer guru or techie.

"We have taken control," he says. "We know who is selling and who is not. We know what brands are selling and where. It truly helps from a support standpoint."

Frederick says the store-level information reported is also useful to franchisees, who have access to the same data. "If a owner gets up in the morning and logs in to all his stores, he can see who should be his first call, where there may be a labor shortage or cash flow issue. With our system today, they have that information at their fingertips," he says. "It's a big selling feature for the company."

Melissa Bisogno, who manages two company-owned units in Kansas, says the system allows her to manage from a distance. "I visit the stores as frequently as possible, but I live 45 minutes from each one," she says. "A lot of people are on the clock and I can see where there might be shortages I have to take care of right away. I know right away what's going on at any time."

A recent company special was not at one of her stores. "I gave them a call and they said they would start promoting it right away," Bisogno says. "There's no way you could operate like this using just a quarterly report."

With the obvious success of this technology, Mr. Goodcents is looking to upgrade other systems and integrate them into the organization. A proprietary system to take orders by computer and develop a customer database is now under development.

"All information is so important," Frederick says. "It's exciting to be here and walk through the changes from having limited information to having real-time information."

Now he wonders how the franchise ever got along without this technology. "We would operate with information that was maybe a month old," he says. "I can't even imagine that today."

Finding a niche

Rick Batchelor is owner of Atlanta-based ZeeWise, whose Franchise Performance Management Suite collects, analyzes, and provides reports on any information in the franchise units' software. Batchelor is betting that more franchisors will realize the importance of real-time, on-demand information, and developing an IT strategy to gather it.

When Batchelor left his position as an Internet consultant during the Internet's heyday and hung out his own shingle, one of his first clients was a franchisor seeking a dashboard system to track royalties. Batchelor says he looked for something already on the market. When he couldn't find one, he built it.

ZeeWise now caters exclusively to franchisors and franchisees with a desktop application that can pull together almost unlimited information, including customer profiling, royalties, inventory levels, and sales reports. "We can automate any collection of data they have," he says. "The information can be right at their fingertips. It's not just anecdotal, but based on factual data."

Batchelor says that while his product is seemingly a "no-brainer" for owners and operators, he finds himself more in the role of educator than salesman. "Franchising is typically non-technical and this is very cutting-edge," he says. "People in general need more to see what is available from technology today and how easy it is to use."

Trust levels for new technology are often low, and acceptance comes slowly, he says, and clients sometimes prefer to stay with tried and true. "I've been doing it this way forever and it works for me," they tell him.

But Batchelor says new technology does not replace certain aspects of business like phone calls and personal visits--nor should it). "I'm not advocating that an owner stay home," he says. "I'm saying continue with the store visits, but now you can go into the store armed with more information."

Franchising IT outsourcing

CM IT Solutions has taken the tech boom one step farther, offering franchise opportunities for its IT outsourcing concept. Formerly known as Computer Moms, the franchise system has made a complete transition from helping residential clients to consulting for small businesses, helping them to manage their technology so they can focus on their business.

Former Computer Moms franchisee Gordon Bridge, now president and CEO of CM IT, has spent a lifetime in information technology. After college, he spent 20 years with IBM, rising to vice president, vice president of marketing, and vice president of national accounts before moving to AT&T in 1988 as vice president of worldwide sales and marketing. After retiring from the corporate life in 1995, he CEO of three venture-backed firms, one of which went public and became part of software giant Oracle Corp.

After trading in the long flights and longer hours for his own franchise, Bridge became fascinated with franchising. Franchising is "huge," he says. "I had no idea how big it is." On January 1, 2004, he became president of CM IT, and in May 2005 also became CEO.

From his Austin, Tex. headquarters, Bridge oversees 120 franchisees in 32 states. While he has enjoyed the transition from the corporate to the franchise world, he's had to make some adjustments. "Franchisees are fiercely independent," he says. "I've softened out a little, rounded out. They don't work for me, I'm there to support them. Our success is completely dependent on their success."

The market CM IT pursues spends $300 billion a year on computer software, and services--yet often views IT as a necessary evil, not as an integral part of their business, Bridge says. That translates to opportunity for CM IT, which bridges the gap between technology and business.

The typical CM IT owner is not an "IT black belt," he says. "We attract former sales and management folks and former CEOs. What really attracts them is the market is so under-served. They can hire the technical and sales people."

Three things you should know

Bridge points to three areas that he sees as the most vital for the smart communicator in today's rapidly changing commercial environment.

"The first is online meetings," Bridge says. One type, known as a "webinar," is similar to video conferences, but significantly less expensive, requiring simply a PC, microphone, camera, and the software to make it work. VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) keeps phone expenses to zero. With large screens in a conference room, they offer as close an interpersonal experience as you can get without leaving the office.

CM IT holds "town hall" meetings once a month. The agenda typically includes success stories and Q&A sessions. If users don't have a microphone, they can type in a question or comment. Bridge also holds a Wednesday morning session each week with franchisees. "All businesses with remote locations should do this," he says.

Second on Bridge's must-have list for savvy communicators is an intranet, a private, password-protected place for posting documents, meeting schedules, company policies, and for hosting discussion groups. Whenever a new document is posted (whether for internal use or for dissemination as a marketing tool), email alerts can be generated to franchisees. "By us providing it to our franchisees in a common format, everyone knows where it is and can download it," he says.

Third, Bridge recommends Internet telephony (VoIP) as an alternative to traditional, analog phone service. "You use the Internet as a transport for telephone calls," he says. "In business, that means the phone is replaced by digital phones. In a franchise system, everyone is on the same network and is only a four-digit call away. And every call is free." The cost to franchisees is about $20 to $25 a month.

The phones function like a land line or cell phone with voice mail and email on the PC, but the service is far superior, Bridge says. The only issue is that the local connection must be cable. Bridge says that while no technology is 100 percent effective, he wouldn't be incorporating VoIP into his business if he thought it was ahead of its time.

On the less technical level, one arena many tech-savvy communicators agree on is the rampant, out-of-control use of cell phones. Bridge says he is bothered by people who take their cell phones everywhere and feel obligated to take every call. "It's just common courtesy," he says. "I do a lot of traveling and am just amazed at the phone use. I just shake my head, and if they really bother me, I stare them down."

ZeeWise's Batchelor agrees. "When you have new technology, you have to make sure it doesn't replace something that's important, whether it's the handshake and in-person meetings, or being focused and not taking calls when you are with someone."

But you'd better take the call if you're on the clock with Manuel Solorzano--if you value your job.

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