Got a qualified prospect interested in opening up a new franchise but who has never seen one of your stores?
No problem for Long Beach, Calif.-based It's A Grind Coffee House, which utilizes a web-based program that allows prospects with a password to get behind a computer screen, log on, and view real-time streaming video of the action inside a store. A camera located behind the counter offers online viewers a live feed of what's going on inside an It's A Grind Coffee House. Prospects can see the store's layout, decor, customers and employees engaged in transactions.
"It's a great tool and accelerates the process of signing up new franchisees," says It's A Grind Coffee House's senior vice president Steve Olson. That's just one way many franchises are relying more on web-based technology to help them not only recruit, but also to support their existing franchise structures.
"The real buzz right now in franchising is centralizing lead and contact information in databases," explains Dan Martin, founder and president of IFX Online, an information and technology solutions company based in San Diego. He says the increase in online advertising and recruiting is creating an enormous number of prospect leads that must be organized, tracked and evaluated by franchise organizations.
"Some franchises are generating e-mail responses from prospects that are being lost because of spam filters, or at best the incoming leads are not tracked and managed the way they should be," he says. Martin believes a good contact management system is necessary and, in addition to eliminating e-mail disconnects, can allow franchises to direct and redirect good leads to the proper sales people for timely follow-up. And it can all be centrally managed by web-based software programs.
"The centralization of this data is really revolutionizing the world of prospecting and customer service," adds Martin. Olson says It's A Grind Coffee House has taken the use of web-based technology in recruiting to the extreme by actually eliminating paper brochures altogether. "So much of our business is now coming to us via the web, and our online marketing materials were exactly the same as what was in our printed brochures, that I felt we were duplicating efforts and costs and so we simply discontinued our paper promotional materials," he explains. "We're always looking at questions like 'How does the buyer buy?' and 'How can we make the process easier?' and this was one way."
Olson is quick to point out though, that the personal touch should never be replaced fully by technology. "Your web-based products should augment, not replace, the human element."
The sophistication of web-based technology is quickly evolving. Whether considering its use for prospecting or supporting existing franchisees, web-based software programs are becoming much more efficient than the simple e-mail, Internet, and intranet products of the past.
"Once data has been logged into a central database in a web-based system, organizations have all kinds of flexibility," says Martin. He says there is much more than prospect and customer information that can be logged and tracked. "You can use these systems to enter sales data and then track performance and even create benchmarks for your stores."
Ian Moses is the CEO for Dana Point, Calif.-based Aussie Pet Mobile, a mobile pet grooming service with 140 operations in 24 states. The company has just launched a web-based lead management system, called the Aussie Customer Management System, for its mobile franchisees (www.aussiepetmobile.com).
"All of our marketing, including our mobile trailers, includes our 800 phone number. As soon as a customer phones in requesting grooming services, their information is documented and dumped into a database," explains Moses. He says the call center records all customer information including the type of pet, its age, the kind of service requested, etc. A mapping system then pops up on the screen and enables the Aussie Pet Mobile representative to enter the date and location for the service the customer desires.
Moses says the system helps organize the grooming services geographically, thereby maximizing efficiency. "They can tell the customer, 'We don't have a truck in the area on that day, but we will on the following day, would that work for you?'" says Moses. Once all of the customer information is in the system, the groomer can log in to get schedules for services and maps for customer locations.
All of the data can be analyzed to track performance, sales numbers and other important information. The company can also create benchmark figures and set goals based on the comprehensive data. Finally, says Moses, now that all of the customer information and history has been captured in a database, it can be mined for future marketing and mass mailing efforts by the company.
Nationwide Floor & Window Coverings (www.nfwc.com) out of Milwaukee, uses its web-based program in a similar fashion. The founder and president of the company, Greg Schmich, explains how the company's proprietary customer relations management system works: "Our owners and operators are out in the field all day, but they have laptops. The system allows the owners to manage appointments, schedule installations, and analyze a number of reports, all by remote access." The company's customized program is called BOB (Business Operations Backbone). Schmich says the franchisee owners, their salespeople and office managers can all access the same information in their own dedicated database and know from a color-coded calendar who's where and what's going on. That's key information, especially for the owners.
Franchise operators can also create purchase orders and track client payments information on the system. Nationwide Floor & Window Coverings' system captures data pertaining to the franchisees' referral sources-designers, insurance companies, home builders and general contractors-and also records data on the end user customers. It can also track annual revenue, product purchase records, and trends.
"Our business is based completely on referrals, so it's imperative to capture and track all referral information in our system," explains Schmich. He says the ability to generate reports for analysis is a key part of the system. "The data captured in the system allows us to examine closing rates, determine average gross margins, average tickets, total percentage of sales calls by week or by month. Our operators can even determine how much business they got from the presentations they made and determine which referral sources are sending them the most business."
As with other franchises utilizing centralized databases, Nationwide's follow-up marketing can also be facilitated by the program. Schmich says the BOB system even offers a mail schedule function that allows franchisees not only to create customized marketing and mailing pieces, but also to schedule mailing of these pieces for an entire year.
Franchise operators for Gymboree Play and Music (www.gymboree.com), can access and customize their marketing materials online as well, according to Anne Brenning, Gymboree regional field consultant. The Burlingame, Calif.-based company has 343 locations throughout the U.S. and Canada, and, like Nationwide Floor & Window Coverings, the company has created a proprietary web-based software program that allows field representatives to, among other things, track customer information, access marketing materials, and evaluate their stores online.
"It really serves many purposes, but definitely one of the most important is that it creates a database that can track sales information, churn out marketing reports, examine customer retention trends and produce benchmark statistics," says Brenning. Like most, the system is password protected and can even distinguish among users, allowing some more access than others, depending upon their needs and level of clearance.
The system has been designed to encourage and utilize feedback from franchisees. "The system is live software and as a result, we can make changes to areas of the system almost immediately," Brenning explains. That "live" component allows corporate executives the ability to see franchise activity "on demand," she says.
The Gymboree system provides franchisees with downloadable files and even allows vendors access to the system. Local printing vendors, for example, can log into the web site to grab all kinds of Gymboree graphic files and images that are to be used in printed marketing materials. But all of that comprises only Gymboree's B-to-B side of the system. There's also a consumer side. Consumers can log onto the web site to view upcoming play and music class schedules, sign their kids up for classes, and even pay for the classes online. Of course, all of that customer information is captured and imported straight into the database.
The idea of remote store management for franchisees is certainly a part of the It's A Grind Coffee House system-but the company has taken that concept a step further. Operators can log onto the system remotely and, thanks to a camera mounted near the cash register in the store, actually view transactions live as they happen.
"It's a great security tool," says David Wetzel, chief operating officer for It's A Grind Coffee House. "You can view your store live and see transactions as they happen. And your employees know that you could be watching." The security function will even provide operators with a split screen-one side showing the customer and the employee, the other side showing the transaction at the register. Wetzel estimates more than half of all It's A Grind Coffee House franchisees are using this part of the system, which was just introduced last fall.
Rapidly evolving web-based technology is greatly enhancing the efficiency and the effectiveness of marketing, communication, data collection and analysis within the franchising industry, but It's A Grind Coffee House's Steve Olson says it's only a tool that helps with the real customer transaction: "Instant information is great but technology should never replace the real touch."
Kerry Pipes is a Texas-based business writer.