The franchise industry's shift from the paper to the electronic age has been slow and steady, with the lion's share of today's franchise organizations now operating their systems much like the rest of modern civilization: in real-time.
By now, most successful franchisors have realized the necessity of having technology that allows them to post information for franchisees in real-time, hold chat forums, and make advertising/marketing materials available 24/7 to every franchise owner in the system. They've invested wisely in intranets and other tools to save money on phone, shipping, and printing costs.
At long last, intranet systems have become the way of life in franchising. (For those who have been living in the stone age, an intranet is a private, password-protected website that the franchisor makes available to franchisees day and night. It puts valuable information at a franchisee's fingertips when they need it, using a simple process, without having to wade through extensive manuals or attend remarkably long training classes.)
As an applications service provider specializing in the development of fully integrated web-based management solutions for franchise organizations, I consistently poll my clients to find out what they see as the key benefits of having intranet and extranet systems to help them manage their communications and support operations. (An extranet allows access to parts of a company's intranet system by selected users outside the company, such as suppliers.)
Here's what they had to say about the benefits of the various features of their web-based management solutions, including modules to manage sales and royalty reporting, financial data analysis, franchise lead management, online ad creation systems, and website development/hosting services for franchise owners.
Benefits of intranet systems for franchisees
Simplicity. By far, franchisors say the best part of having an intranet system for franchisees is ease of use. All that's required is a PC with a major web browser (like Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer) and Internet access.
Information resource. Franchisors love the idea that, eventually, an intranet becomes a franchisee's primary resource for information 24/7, including training, marketing materials, and operations manuals.
Instant access. Who has the time or desire to send bulky envelopes with hole-punched documents and sticky notes for franchisees to insert into their operations manual binder? With an intranet, franchisees can look up a specific procedure or a supplier's price list immediately, searching by "keyword" to obtain instant results.
Organization. Again, saving time is a biggie. With an intranet, franchisees no longer have to spend valuable time searching for important documents, such as the most recent point-of-sale flyer, which always seems to end up in a pile of endless paperwork. Instead, using the intranet system, franchisees can search for documents and pull them up on screen in seconds, and in color. (Even more, they can view or print each document in whole or in part using an ordinary laser printer.)
Keeping documents current. Determining which supplier price list is the most current used to be a time-consuming and confusing task. With an intranet, franchisees can be sure that the document currently available online is the latest and greatest.
Time savings. Franchisees don't necessarily need to read every word in every manual. They just need access to specific information when they need it. This is where an intranet shines. No more flipping through hundreds of pages: a simple keyword and click saves hours of searching.
Reduced costs. "Show me the money." Intranets can significantly lower costs for franchisees and franchisors by virtually eliminating postage, printing, and paper costs and significantly reducing telephone and fax tolls.
Unique uses of franchisee support systems
Franchisors can apply their web-based management system technology in a variety of ways. Some of the most popular include the following:
Camera-ready promotional materials. These can include flyers, point-of-sale pieces, and advertisements. Previously, camera-ready ads were delivered to franchisees in large envelopes, often late or damaged in transit. With an intranet system, electronic versions are posted in seconds and available for immediate access by all franchisees worldwide. Franchisees can open the latest advertisements on screen and either print them in color, or download them and take them to a commercial printer. Many franchisors provide "insertion fields" where franchisees can insert their address, telephone number, and local pricing information automatically into the final advertisement. Franchisees who lose, damage, or need to update their downloaded advertisements can simply log onto the intranet and download a fresh copy.
Electronic submission of forms. These may include purchasing, royalty reporting, employee hiring, and local government forms. Finding the most current versions of these forms can be difficult in a "paper world." Posting electronic versions of current forms eliminates the risk of errors, misprints, or fax charges. With electronic versions, franchisees no longer have to worry about using the wrong form, the wrong calculations, or having to complete it by hand and submit it by regular mail or fax. With an intranet, franchisees can access the current version of any form, complete it online, and observe as the system performs the correct calculations and submits it electronically.
Latest news and operational updates. With an intranet system, franchisees can quickly and easily gain instant access to current business tips, pricing information, ad campaigns, and announcements from management. When I was a franchisee, I barely had time to read the entire monthly newsletter. However, with an intranet, individual news stories, announcements, and memos can be posted on a daily basis, in full color and with greater impact. Moreover, news items can be archived so new franchisees can read previously published information and get up to speed immediately-even before they've opened their first franchise unit.
Enhanced communication and support. Intranets can bring franchisees and franchisors together in chat rooms or group discussion forums. Sharing information and tips is critical to success. Most franchisees report that they benefit greatly from attending their national convention, mainly for networking purposes. But with an intranet chat room or group discussion forum, franchisees can network with dozens or hundreds of other franchisees every day online-not just annually at the convention. Ideas are proposed and refined, and questions are posted and answered by other franchisees. Suppliers also can get into the act by conducting online seminars and informational sessions for groups of interested franchisees.
Franchisors using a group discussion format on their intranet report significantly reduced time for developing ideas and campaigns. Instead of the franchisor faxing or telephoning individual franchisees to request their input, everyone is free to post ideas and comments live, in any number of online forums on their system's intranet. Franchisees find intranets an invaluable tool to talk amongst themselves to share ideas, thoughts, questions, and solutions for everyday operating situations.
Franchise companies that have implemented online support systems have done so to enhance communications and support for their franchisees. The technology is easy to use, and it helps franchisees run their businesses better. In the end, all parties benefit from this technology, which is simple, straightforward, and cost-effective.
Intranets: More than Information
Beyond the time savings, enhanced communication, improved support, and more efficient operations, intranets also can have a "fun" side, which further strengthens their benefits system-wide. Here are a few ways franchisors are using their intranets to provide more than the basics to franchisees.
Individual franchisee recognition. Many franchisors have started spotlighting successful or creative franchisees as "Franchisees of the Month." These franchisees appear right on the intranet home page, for all to see immediately upon logging in. These recognitions not only highlight the achievements of certain franchise owners, but also allow other franchisees to learn what their successful peers are doing. Feeding on the human desire for fame and recognition, the process triggers a competitive drive within the system to be the next franchisee featured on the home page. The selected franchisees also gain pride and confidence in the business they are running as an integral part of their franchise community. They also may be invited to contribute to the daily tips and quotes, or to offer insights and humorous daily anecdotes to fellow franchise owners. As the owners begin to know one another better through their use of this technology, a tighter franchise community is built.
Daily comics and quotes. Featured on the main page, these can be updated daily and often refer to the specific field a franchise serves. A quote can be related to the comic of the day, but also can relate to the business sector the franchise is focused on. Together, the comics and quotes will draw users in and provide them with useful daily advice and inspiration for their day-to day business activities. Franchisors will quickly find that franchisees will log onto a system more often, simply to check out the daily comic and quote. This increased comfort with using the site will translate to more overall use of the system tools.
Daily tips. Franchisees will be more willing to log on and use the tools provided by an intranet and extranet system if they feel they are getting valuable information. Daily or weekly tips on business, marketing, public relations, or advertising can help franchisees become more informed about their own business, and how to boost their bottom line with free, expert "outside world" advice.
Fun contests. Contests are an effective way to draw franchisees in and also to have fun with the technology. Companies can run contests ranging from the "Most Log-Ons a Month" to "Name the Yearly Convention" and "Name the Intranet/Extranet." What makes these contests both funny and fun is that many franchisees will post hilarious submissions, so franchise owners will log in more frequently just to get a good laugh-proving that humor is a great motivator to keep franchisees consistently coming back to the site. Prizes can be used for additional motivation. For example, the franchisee who logs on the most can win a $200 gift certificate. To make the chance of winning just for entering more enticing, all submissions to a contest can be put into a drawing, with the winner receiving dinner or drinks at the upcoming convention.
Weather reports. A highly popular and often used tool is a current weather update, customized for each franchisee's city. This easily accessible resource will draw franchisees to sign in. Once they check the weather, they are more prone to access additional information on the system.
Headlines. Give franchisees the information they crave. Soon, instead of heading to newspaper and TV websites, they will simply log into their personalized intranet site to find out the news of the day. The automatic news feeds can be customized to personal preferences, such as local or national news, sports, entertainment, or specific industry information.
Moderated "mentor" forums. For franchisees, peer advice is often heard the loudest. Franchisees seeking solutions to problems or looking for other kinds of advice are more likely to trust a fellow franchisee than a corporate executive who is not in the field running a franchise like they are. A successful franchisee can be asked to serve as a moderator in an online discussion, leading and addressing topics important to the franchise community. The nominated moderators will gain the confidence and pleasure of being asked to lead and participate in the discussions, while other franchisees will gain yet another source with distinct insight into their business. Often, topics will stray from all business to humorous events and anecdotes they have acquired in their franchise experiences.
Dan Martin is president and CEO of San Diego-based IFX Online, an application service provider specializing in online management systems for franchise organizations. Since debuting its first system in 1996, IFX has produced and hosted solutions for more than 160 franchise organizations worldwide. Martin has 22 years of franchise structuring and management experience, including hands-on experience as an area developer.
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