Think Fast!: For Franchise Recruitment, Quick System Response Wins The Day

In this tech-obsessed world, franchisors seeking to recruit the next generation of top-tier franchisees are engaging prospects through a constant flow of communication. The goal is to give those prospects the information they want, in the form they prefer and as quickly as possible, because in 2012 they have to.

"The one who responds the quickest gets the business, especially on leads that come in through your portals and websites," says Kevin Drudge, who manages franchise development for Maaco Collision Repair and Driven Brands. "Our goal is to get back to them within 24 hours, preferably sooner. The prospects who are serious will stick with the first couple of systems that demonstrate interest in them, and we want them to be ready to make a decision within 30 to 45 days. It's important to keep them on a clear path, because as soon as you relinquish the process, you lose them."

One more thing to consider, says Drudge, is that you can't reach prospects before your competitors do--unless you are where your candidates are, with what they need when they want it, which often is on the move. "You've got to be all over making sure that the collateral material in your process is clearly defined and formatted to be read easily on the BlackBerry, iPad, and smartphone," says Drudge.

Franchisors also must be prepared to respond quickly when new prospects contact them. That's why development teams must be sure they have the "right people in the right positions," says Brian Sommers, vice president of franchise development for Jersey Mike's Subs, based in Manasquan, N.J. "We have two people who field all the calls and all the Internet traffic. You prequalify by talking with a live person, not just completing a form, and very quickly you're on to meetings with our area directors and executive team."

And, since you only get one chance to make a first impression, "The front end of the process needs to be well orchestrated and directed," says Dick Mueller, vice president of franchise recruiting for Austin, Tex.-based Sport Clips. He says his company relies heavily on the dedicated franchising website it built last year.

"It takes prospects to a virtual brochure window, a self-driven to find out about Sport Clips. At the end of the is a request for a single-page confidential profile. They can fill it out and submit it, and the sales rep covering the territory they live in contacts them that day or the next," he says.

Lori Merrall, national director of franchise sales at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Massage Envy, says that for speed and efficiency her company relies on a good franchise-oriented CRM system. "It's a fast world today," she says. "That's why we try to get back to a prospect within a couple of hours of the initial contact."

Las Vegas-based Nothing Bundt Cakes has a "secret weapon" in franchising director Jenna Barber, according to Debbie Shwetz, company co-founder--and Barber's mother. "Jenna is passionate about responding within a few hours of an inquiry. She's always on calls and never reschedules," Shwetz says. "Franchisees at our final meeting talk about that again and again, citing her interest in them, her follow-up, and her dedication to their role in the company as reasons for their commitment."

Barber, 30, who has been involved with Nothing Bundt Cakes since she was 14 and has a college degree in communication, jokingly agrees that she's a "responsive girl" who is "in love with her job" and has a phone attached to her hip at all times. She even gives strong leads her cell phone number so they can find her 24/7.

Barber has developed a sort of sixth sense about prospects and their pace. "I've learned when not to crowd prospects and when to give them more time," she says, adding that she always gives them two weeks for franchisee validation. "Another thing I do that makes a big difference is to tell them up front that I'm here to educate them and to facilitate the investigation process. They're immediately more comfortable when they don't feel like they're being 'sold.'"

In addition to her conversational style, Barber says she takes a "very real" approach with prospects. "I'm not here to paint a rosy picture. Running a is hard work, and I want them to have a complete and realistic picture of what it's like. If having heard that, they decide it's not for them, then that's a good thing for both of us."

Develop a process

At Nothing Bundt Cakes the recruitment process has evolved into a more effective system in recent years, says Barber, who managed a company bakery before moving to franchise recruitment. One of its most important assets is the company's partnership with Process Peak, she says. "Process Peak helps me facilitate the communication process. They created our branded virtual brochure, which divided a lot of information into manageable chunks. Most important, they help me engage candidates in a process that will show me from the start whether they can follow a process at all. Since that ability is what franchising is all about, it offers me good insight."

Process Peak also sends candidates 24-hour reminder emails before their phone appointments with Barber, as well as reminders when they have tasks to complete. "It means I don't have to babysit or hover," she says.

Barber begins her relationship with prospects immediately, calling within a few hours of their initial inquiry. (She offers prospects in the Las Vegas area an early face-to-face meeting.) After pre-qualifying prospects and completing the application and nondisclosure agreements, she begins the educational process, setting the first appointment time for going through the six sections of the virtual brochure. Those one-hour appointments are usually set up five days apart. Between sessions, Barber sends emails or other messages letting the candidate know she's available for questions and conversation.

"These sessions set expectations for the rest of the process, and I make sure to let them know that these are mutual interviews. They want to know the company they choose to work with just as we want to know them," says Barber, who asks candidates their preferred form of communication and uses it whenever possible.

If these sessions are to engage candidates, she adds, she must bring her A game every time. "I have to remember that no matter how many times I've had this conversation, this is their first time hearing it. I can't seem bored or dispassionate. It takes a lot of and there are times when I don't feel it, but they're never going to know it, because we want them to feel like part of our family. Candidates have told me how much my enthusiasm for the concept and the company has helped them through the process. I believe that's one reason our conversion numbers are so strong."

When a candidates reach the final stage, they to Las Vegas for what the company calls the "final executive review day," says Barber. "We don't call it Discovery Day or Meet the Team Day. We want them to know this is an important, serious business meeting with our executives."

A need for speed

Jersey Mike's has also developed a recruitment system that's strong on speed, efficiency, and good communication, according to Sommers. "Most of our prospects are already well informed and have done some due diligence. They've already been into our stores and have checked out the website," he says. "As soon as they fill out our first form, our prequalification representative contacts them. Our rule of thumb is that the contact takes place in under 24 hours." In most cases, he says, it's within one to three hours.

In addition to working with prospects to complete applications and financials, the sales rep begins screening each one for the Jersey Mike's culture. "The reason our system works so well is that we're all on the same page here. The prequalification guys are looking for the same things the development VPs, area developers, and CEO are looking for," says Sommers. "In addition to having the capital and business experience, prospects have to be passionate about our brand--and they have to be aligned with our core values, which include giving back and making a difference in people's lives."

After a complete application with financials is in the hands of the franchisor, prospects meet with a development vice president and then an area developer in the local market. "At this stage, we have an FDD review and lots of questions are fielded," says Sommers. "We've given them the document very early on and provided any information that isn't already on our website so that they have all the information they need to fully understand the agreement. We do this because we know the only surprises people like are birthday parties."

This phase of the process can be completed as quickly as in a few days, he says, depending on how responsive a prospect is in filling out forms and providing financials. "At the same time, we're very selective. We're looking to protect our brand."

Prospects who pass muster with the vice president of development and area developer are then placed in a store to give them a better idea of what a day at Jersey Mike's is really like. "At this point, it's a two-way street. They're evaluating us, and we get to evaluate them to see if they're a good fit. They can work in the store for a couple of days or more than a week. It's up to them. We want them to take as long as they need to see if this is what they want to do," he says.

Once a mutual decision has been reached, the franchisor and the new franchisee discuss areas and contracts. If everyone is in agreement, this step can be fast-tracked. The most time-consuming part of the process is the prospect's due diligence, says Sommers. An important part of that due diligence, he says, is "finding answers to questions we can't answer" about earning power and sales. "We give our prospects a complete list of our franchisees and their contact information. We tell them to talk to or visit as many of them as they can. We want them to get the full story and to know what they're getting into."

In the end, "What's unique about our system is that by the time candidates reach the top level of our company, they have already been screened on three levels. We call that top level a final folder review." Also, he says, every candidate goes through an in-depth interview with the founder and the CEO before a contract is signed." He says Jersey Mike's is not afraid to engage strong candidates by letting them know that the company is "excited" about them.

A new breed of buyers

Marc Kiekenapp, president and founder of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Kiekenapp & Associates, advises franchisors to modify their sales processes and to be more flexible to accommodate a new breed of prospects. "I'm seeing more sophisticated buyers, with whom the research process has almost doubled from three to four or five months," he says. "Buyers have changed to more of an investor looking for an opportunity and are often still keeping their primary jobs. They're not in a huge panic to buy a franchise tomorrow. They also need time to line up and wait for their financing to clear."

Scott Haner, director of franchise recruiting for Louisville-based KFC, says it sometimes takes several months to reach a signed contract. And that's fine with him. "We're talking about 20-year agreements, so it's more important to me to have qualified candidates going in with their eyes open about both the opportunity and the challenge," he says.

"Ultimately, we want a relationship that lasts," says Haner. "We want them to take care of our brand today and in the future. Pete Harmon, our first franchisee in 1952, still has 300-plus stores. By the time we get through our recruiting process, we know that candidates are qualified and that their mindset fits with our culture. It's no win to have someone get into the business and go upside down a few months down the road. It costs us more when that happens."

At Maaco, Drudge believes flexibility is important. However, he says, there's a time, in the name of efficiency, to back off from a prospect who seems indecisive. "If we ask a prospect to fill out a questionnaire and we're still waiting for it three weeks later, we wonder if they're serious. We explain that talking six months before they're ready to make a decision would be preliminary because the market and the availability of territories can change. If they're ready to make a decision in three to six months, we suggest setting up a time closer in to talk further. Unfortunately, we've had to streamline our staff and with how busy we all are, sometimes that's the most efficient way to handle things."

And at Sport Clips, Mueller says he also has learned how to separate the "wheat from the chaff" early in the process. "We talk to them and learn about their goals and objectives. We're not selling white socks at Walmart. One size doesn't fit all. Bringing the wrong person into the business does no one any favors. As an industry, we've got to get away from the idea of selling franchises and focus on the recruitment role."

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