Outstanding in the Field Support
What Franchisees Need From Their Franchisors
When Mark Plomaritis opened his first Colors on Parade automotive repair franchise almost 25 years ago, the franchisor gave him two weeks of training. The newly minted franchisee embarked on his new business venture without much else to support the endeavor. "You lived or died on your ability to stick it out," he says today. Plomaritis did stick it out, and is now an area developer for the brand in Orange County, California.
Over the years, support for new franchisees has evolved. For brands with a strong support system, it has become a competitive advantage so important that a good number of prospective franchisees look closely at what kind of support they can expect from a franchisor--and then choose a brand based in no small part on the quality of that promised support.
Still, prospective franchisees should not expect every franchisor will provide top-quality support. Younger brands won't necessarily have a fully developed toolbox of support or staff and may encourage its first franchisees to become actively involved in creating a support system most useful to them. Larger, more established brands may distinguish themselves and enhance their vitality with outreach to franchisees as a preventive against stagnation and as a way to increase AUVs and system growth.
One way or another, however, franchisees appreciate the kind of support that's dependable, interactive, and that raises the odds of their success. More than just data and training, the best franchisor support, franchisees say, is also characterized by relationship-building that recognizes and builds on the brand passion shared by both parties.
Jim Hannan joined the RTM Restaurant Group (once Arby's largest franchisee with nearly 900 units) early in his franchising career, shortly after earning his undergraduate degree in management. He was disappointed with the brand's level of support back then. But its absence raised his awareness of its value.
"We did a lot ourselves--and we were paying royalties," he says. Arby's support has improved greatly since those earlier days, says Hannan, now vice president of operations for Team Schostak Family Restaurants. His recent work at Schostak has included the turnaround of 62 Burger Kings and the expansion of the company's Del Taco and Mod Pizza holdings.
Mod Pizza had operated for about 10 years, he says, developing just 15 restaurants, all company owned. But by 2013,when the brand had grown to 380 locations, owned by just nine franchisees, it was time to scale up the support.
Over time, Hannan says, Mod became more collaborative and open to listening to the more experienced voices coming from Team Schostak. The advantage of that exchange is beneficial to both franchisee and franchisor, he says. "We can all learn from each other, and we have leveraged some of our brands with what we've learned from other brands."
Egg and chicken
Jake Alleman, COO of the Cojak Restaurant Group, a franchisee of Another Broken Egg and Chicken Salad Chick, has seen franchisor support from both ends of a brand's stage of development. Alleman, who worked at the first Another Broken Egg in Mandeville, Louisiana, nearly 20 years ago, was the brand's first franchisee and part of its learning curve as its franchisee support system evolved. Today he operates 13 locations.
"Looking back, I learned a lot from that," he says. "I knew how to run a restaurant, but there's a difference between working there and owning the business. The first day was not easy."
His experience with Chicken Salad Chick was, understandably, very different as the brand was more mature and had extensive support systems in place when he considered becoming a franchisee. "On their discovery day we got to meet everyone in charge of their prospective fields, including site selection, marketing, operations, and ongoing support. You had all these people in the room who took you through what an average day was like. You get that support every time," he says.
"People are smart, but they may not know how to run a restaurant," says Alleman. "They have a program in place, a guide to get us started. That was one of the reasons we invested in Chicken Salad Chick."
Now, with a decade of franchisee experience under his belt, Alleman has come to appreciate the depth of support a franchisor can provide. Chicken Salad Chick runs a "university" to train workers with ongoing updates, in addition to operating a social media platform with live information about improvements customers want.
"I won't say it's all done for you, but there's someone walking along with you," he says. "We also have regional field consultants who come to the store and we can pick their brains. It's boots on the ground and very informative."
Beyond these very practical tools, though, Alleman likes the feeling that his franchisor thinks of him as more than just a cog in a large business machine. "I can call the CEO. And when my dad passed away, someone from the company came to the funeral. That was above and beyond."
From franchise sales to operator
Mike Walls, co-founder and executive director of CNM Homecare, a franchisee of Caring Senior Service, was the brand's franchise development manager from 2009 to 2016, responsible for managing the entire franchise award process. However, as a franchisee he soon discovered gaps in his knowledge about operating his locations--and that his needs changed as his ownership continued.
In the beginning, franchisor support to accomplish the strenuous licensing process was crucial, but he knew he could count on that support to keep him on track. Then other tasks took on importance--tasks he didn't know much about.
"As we began to grow, our challenges changed. I was in sales, I was fluent in CRMS and tracking leads, and all of a sudden there's billing and payroll and bookkeeping, things I didn't have to worry about before. Your support needs change."
Later, when one of his locations was not doing well he knew he could count on his franchisor's help. "I reached out to the CEO and said 'Here's what I'm up against, and here's what I'm thinking I should do.' He said to close it. So here's the CEO, who derives additional income from each franchisee, saying 'We're afraid that if you continue down this path it will jeopardize your core business, and we don't want to put it at risk. We can always go back and re-launch at some other time.'"
It was tough, says Walls, but it was good advice. And it reminded him that it's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day--and helpful to have a support team with a big picture perspective to back you up.
"Even if the franchisor takes a short-time hit, I feel good at the end of the day that they are looking out for my interests," he says. And for Walls, that sealed the deal. "When you know the franchisor has skin in the game like you do, that speaks volumes."
Got it covered, thanks
TJ Schier had developed a going concern as president and founder of Incentivize Solutions and SMART Restaurant Group, building a portfolio of exactly the kind of support materials that franchisors and franchisees need. When he decided to buy his first franchise, Which Wich Superior Sandwiches, he didn't need marketing support from the franchisor. In fact, he was happy to build all its training materials--and he knew where to focus his energy.
"The great franchisors have far more effective teams around marketing and planning," Schier says. "The franchisors that struggle are the ones that don't have the right people out in the field working on the right stuff. You must have field and operations consultants who can truly build. Those are the ones that have great training tools beyond the initial first unit opening."
Franchisors also must understand that support for franchisees must keep up with the rapid changes in technology across all lines of the business, Schier says. For instance, much of employee training can be done online--and marketing research can be done much more quickly. "You can walk in with a tablet and get instant feedback," he says.
The brands that have figured out how to leverage technology to get the right information out and keep things updated are the ones that succeed today. Finally, he adds, franchisors must figure out their financial model and how to make their franchisees successful by following that model and providing strong support.
Support from the start
Support from her franchisor is what got Debra Sawyer through her early--and very ambitious--days as a new Sport Clips franchisee. When she started, Sawyer had a day job and two young children, yet managed to open four stores in 18 months. Sport Clips gave her a checklist. It was detailed and followed a logical order she says. "It definitely helped and it moved things along." It was designed for a first-timer, too.
"The list let me make sure I wasn't overlooking anything--like do I have the bank account, federal ID number, phone service, and Internet," she says. "There were things they were telling me that were obvious, but some things were not, like a list of recommended sources."
Along with the list, she had phone time with the franchisor's support team, who would ask her about any issues she was having. She also found that her feedback to the franchisor was listened to--and respected.
By the time she was opening her 21st store more than a decade later, that support had changed. "The material on the list was more technology-driven because everything is so much more computerized," she says. "One item used to be a clipboard, but you don't need a clipboard for people to sign in anymore." And marketing recommendations for the salons no longer include magazine subscriptions. "Everyone uses their phones now," she says.
Sawyer also likes the classes the franchisor offers for her team members, especially a core class that targets new employees. These classes do more than just tell what those new employees what to do, she says. "They explain who we are and why we do what we do. It is important for new team members to understand the franchise--even why we vacuum up hair instead of sweeping--and that these aren't things someone just woke up yesterday and decided."
Playing your part
When he opened his first Dunkin' Donuts franchise in 2013 in an Omaha suburb, Bryce Bares did not begin his franchising career with years of business experience under his belt. Far from it. Instead, Bares, founder of QSR Services, came armed with a B.A. in music theory and composition from Amherst College and a J.D. from Boston College Law School.
He's since grown to 11 Dunkin' stores and has signed agreements to expand further. But, he says, his growth would not have been so smooth without what he calls "excellent support in both operations and site selection." And that level of support is what drove his choice of Dunkin'.
"For my first few stores, the brand was heavily involved in training and provided a lot of guidance in identifying target trade areas and feedback on specific sites, such as potential access issues," he says. "The Dunkin' Brands operations team flew out to Nebraska to support my first store opening, and I can safely say it would have been a train wreck if they hadn't been there."
One of the advantages of a large system like Dunkin' is that they have accumulated tons of data on what works and what doesn't since their founding in 1950. But it's still up to the franchisees to listen and take advantage of the franchisor's advice and experience. "After my first few stores opened successfully, the brand started to trust us and gave us more independence and leeway, but I'm sure they would have provided more support had I needed it or asked," says Bare.
Like many established brands, Dunkin' has an online training system for new employees, manuals that cover every facet of restaurant operations, and full national and local marketing support, he says. Bare also appreciates that the relationship is not just one way: Dunkin' has a system where franchisees choose representatives to meet regularly with the brand executives to provide feedback on what's working and what's not.
"Dunkin's support is fantastic, but it's important to remember that in franchising it is the franchisee's role to run the business," he cautions, noting two common mistakes he's seen his fellow franchisees make: "They ignore the collective experience of the franchisor, and they expect the franchisor to run their business for them," he says.
"Franchisors certainly make decisions that affect franchisee operations and profitability, but it's critical for franchisees to remember that, ultimately, it's up to them to run a good and profitable operation."
Wendy Skaalerud, an area developer for Orangetheory Fitness in Colorado, offers a set of questions for prospective franchisees--and some of her own thoughts about the best answers. Her perspective also includes more than a decade as co-founder of Capital Lending Solutions, a consultancy focused on franchise financing. The company has worked with more than 200 franchisees and facilitated more than $135 million in capital.
Purchasing your first franchise is quite often an intimidating process, says Skaalerud. Franchisees, she says, should ask, "What concept is right? Which are fads versus staples? How much investment will it take? Will I lay awake at night in fear of failing?"
Two additional and important questions to consider: What is your level of passion for the concept? And what is the integrity of the franchisor and its management team?
Skaalerud compares signing an FDD to signing a marriage license. It's a long-haul relationship, she says, so take the time to get to know your potential partner. She believes the best support from a franchisor should include:
- credibility of the brand through commitment to compliance and maintaining consistency across the network
- clear expectations and accountability for all franchisees or area representatives
- a strong training program with ongoing, continuing education
- a commitment to innovation and market relevance
- effective time management in new product and marketing promotion rollouts
- a team of advisors for legal, site selection, and site development
- human resources support (which could be an HR department or part of an intranet) that includes employee handbooks, compensation guidelines, all HR supporting documents, a termination letter template, and other key personnel material.
In addition, technology should also be up to par, kept as current as possible, and include the following:
- a POS system that is streamlined and easy to use, with an excellent customer-facing mobile app
- an easily accessible intranet allowing for easy internal communication, marketing documents, archived documents and materials, brand logos, etc.
- reporting platforms that allow quick operational snapshots and comprehensive applications to assist owners in driving KPIs.
Skaalerud also recommends that a franchisor's marketing and creative department support is geographically relevant and brand consistent. Social media and PR support are also critical to overall success--and when it comes to marketing today, perhaps the largest factors in the success of each local franchisee.
Last and far from least, she says, potential franchisees should look for real-time support from a franchisor help desk that can respond to low-level needs in 24 hours or less--and with quicker support for high-priority issues. "I can't stress enough the importance of availability and accessibility of the corporate office in time of need," says Skaalerud.
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