What's the Mystery?: Technology Matters, but Effective Franchise Development is still Personal
When it comes to franchise recruitment in the digital age, first impressions count--now, more than ever. With so much information already online, from recruitment websites to customer reviews, today's prospects know more about a brand than ever before--long before the sales team even knows they exist.
Yet, while technology may have taken center stage for many brands in their franchise development process, the personal connection remains critical to closing the deal and finding the best matches for both the potential franchisee and for the long-term success of the system. Business is still about people.
"It's not rocket science," says Art Coley, CEO of franchise development company CGI. "It's the things that were happening more often before technology was such a big component of the process. Now that we have technology, and all these automated tools, video, and content, I think we have forgotten some of those basic fundamentals. Therefore, the brands that do them now really stand out."
Adds Coley, "In franchising, we talk about systems, about predictable, quantifiable, and measurable results with your franchisees and units. Sometimes we do everything but that with recruitment."
A renewed focus on the fundamentals was just one of the findings of the 2017 Mystery Shopping survey. The annual review and analysis of the best (and sometimes worst) practices of franchise development programs and teams was presented in October at the Franchise Leadership & Development Conference in Atlanta. Mystery shopping was conducted on most of the 150 franchisors attending the conference.
Along with Coley and Jenny Langfeld, CGI's chief operating officer, mystery shopping and research was conducted by Todd Owen, owner of Alpha Omega Franchising; Jack Monson, director of digital strategy at Qiigo; Keith Gerson, president and chief client advocate of FranConnect; as well as by FranchiseGrade.com (FDDs), Franchise Business Review (franchisee satisfaction), and Landmark Franchise Network. The researchers mystery shopped brand responsiveness by telephone and website, and also examined the social media components of the recruiting process.
One change franchisors must adapt to, and many already have done so, is the predominance of inquiries coming from people on the move. Mobile searches from prospects are up 50 percent since 2014, according to a study by Landmark, whose research found that 63 percent of investment inquiries now come from mobile devices, up slightly from the previous year, and a rise from 42 percent in 2014. Being mobile-friendly can be critical to making those all-important first connections with potential franchisees. Smartphones have become today's communication form of choice for many prospects, and franchise brands must be prepared to respond appropriately.
The bottom line? On the whole, brands are doing a better job of franchise development from start to finish, but the results are uneven and there is still much room for improvement for too many franchise companies.
We went to the researchers to uncover the key findings and recommended solutions resulting from what they unearthed in this year's mystery shopping survey.
Telephone mystery shopping
This was the second year that CGI evaluated how well brands responded to telephone inquiries from potential prospects. Posing as qualified leads seeking information, Coley and Langfeld called 137 franchise brands.
Methodology. They employed a three-step approach: find the right number to call, telephone the franchise, and follow up. The task of Round 1 was simply to search for the franchise development telephone number on the main franchise website. If the number was found in no more than three clicks, the brand moved to Round 2. Four out of five (81 percent) of the brands made it to Round 2, a big jump from last year when just 52 percent of participating brands passed the first test.
Round 2 was all about the call. The CGI team phoned the 111 brands that passed Round 1. A sales rep picked up the phone for a live conversation at 44 franchises (40 percent). Another 35 brands (32 percent) returned the call within 24 hours. The focus of Round 3 was to follow up with these 35 brands. Brands were awarded points for gathering basic information from the would-be franchisees. They earned a higher score if they inquired how the caller heard about the franchise, or provided information or education on the process of becoming a franchisee of the brand.
Franchisors did a much better job in the follow-up phase than in the previous year, says Coley. Mystery shoppers connected live with 43 percent of the brands on the second try, up from 25 percent during the same phase of the study in 2016.
"It was interesting to us that, with the second call, we still connected with someone live in 15 of those 35," says Coley. "It begs the question, where were they in Round 1? It is back to consistency, and making sure that things are happening and functioning correctly on a daily basis."
Last (and worst), 25 of the 137 brands never called back. That's 18 percent, nearly 1 in 5!
Coley and Langfeld noted the following as positives:
- The majority of franchise development phone numbers were readily visible on websites this year. Only one brand required the shopper to click more than three times.
- About 4 in 10 (43 percent) of live contacts mentioned the discovery process.
- Overall, people who first picked up the phone were more knowledgeable and open to answering questions than last year.
On the flip side, Coley found brands repeated many of the same mistakes as last year.
- The person who picked up the phone didn't communicate with the director or sales person. As a result, the person who returned the call had no information on the prospect.
- Connecting with someone live, only to be sent back to the website to fill out a request for information.
- Generic or nameless voicemail messages. Whether from an increased use of sales development outsourcing or employee cell phones that don't reflect the brand, this can be perceived as unprofessional and confusing to the caller.
- Data dumping, i.e., too much talk about the brand and not enough questions for the caller.
"When they do finally pick up the phone and call, we have to appreciate how big a deal that is," says Coley. His advice?
- Slow down. Ask questions, educate, and establish your brand's sales process.
- Match your sales process with a predictable buying process. If a prospect expects to get a personal email, educational video, or drip marketing, the franchise should deliver.
- Use the CRM system and/or email to provide information that will move the sales process along and facilitate and enhance the experience of the prospect, who is often making a life-changing decision.
- Voicemail messages should be both professional and brand-related. Require contract sales employees to have a designated franchise line.
- Answer the phone and keep it positive! Don't just do a data dump. There's a good chance you are giving them information they already have.
Franchise brands are paying attention to the findings from previous mystery shopping surveys, says Coley. He found significant improvement by brands to make their recruitment phone number visible and provide information and education on the process of becoming a franchisee. Once connected, however, there remains a "big separation on how the call was handled," he says. "About half didn't get what we considered to be the basic information, or not all of it--name, address, email address, and phone number."
Overall, franchise brands should analyze the role of the phone call in franchise development. Fewer phone calls does not mean the telephone is a less effective strategy, even though more people tend to do their initial research online long before they pick up the phone.
Website mystery shopping
Todd Owen, owner of Alpha Omega Franchising, was charged with evaluating the website responsiveness of franchisors in the recruiting process. His mission was to submit an inquiry through a brand's website and "do my best to present myself as a viable candidate."
Methodology. Owen set up separate email, telephone, and voicemail accounts. Using a fictitious name, he contacted franchisors through their website and expressed interest in becoming a franchisee. Each avenue of response was tracked and scored on a variety of objective and subjective factors.
Owen distilled the following aggregate information from his mystery shopping:
- 55 percent returned the web inquiry with a phone call.
- 45 percent never called.
- 90 percent of brands used email solicitations and drip campaigns.
- 10 percent never responded at all.
These days, potential franchisees can discover and request almost anything about a franchise with just a couple of clicks. The ways brands responded varied widely, and could be the difference-maker between a qualified investor making a deal or moving on.
"Organizations, by and large, have a pretty good grasp on some form of communication--90 percent had some form of communication with me," says Owen. "But 45 percent did not make a phone call. They may have communicated with me via an email drip campaign, but a significant number did not ever actually reach out and make a call."
Those who did call also were analyzed subjectively. For example, did the person sound engaged and enthused? "There were a number of respondents where I thought, 'Were you watching TV or eating something?," says Owen.
"This is the first impression they have of this potential franchise investment. First impressions can be about the quality of the website and content in the emails," he says. "Much of it was impressive, solid, and beneficial. But if that conversation you have with a prospect is negative, how do you think that is going to affect the sales process?"
Owen also found more franchise brands using text messaging to communicate with potential franchisees. Text campaigns are fine, he says, but because this method implies a level of intimacy, make sure the prospect gives the green light before communicating this way. Most franchise development websites didn't address the issue of texting in the form field of the CRM. To be certain of a prospect's preferences, an opt-in check box is an easy solution.
Based on his experience as a mystery shopper this year, Owen offers the following suggestions for better sales team performance.
- Understand how the technology you use to attract franchisees interacts with the potential buyer. Three weeks into the project, he discovered a flood of franchisor emails in the "Promotions" folder of his newly created email account. "You do not want to be in that folder," he says.
- Use a web-based appointment calendar to reserve a time with the sales director for an initial informational call. Owen was impressed with the number of call scheduling programs he found. Some companies, however, offered callback times two to three days out. An effective strategy offers an engaged lead a quick connection.
- Look for ways to separate your brand from the competition. Although most of the franchise inquiries followed up with some type of content or an e-brochure, one franchise caught his attention by sending him a physical brochure in the mail.
Finally, he cautions, franchise brands should avoid being overconfident in relying too much on technology in the sales process. And when it comes to responding, he says, "Some people want to be communicated with in certain ways, and we have more communication methods than ever. Depending upon your personality, age, income, and business sophistication, different methods will be effective for different people."
Social media recruitment
Online content has shifted from being a research tool for prospects to a tactic for touching potential franchisees much earlier in the process, says Jack Monson, director of digital strategy at Qiigo, the digital marketing firm that handled the social media side of franchise recruiting this year.
Paid social media, particularly on Facebook, is at the top of this strategy. "We are seeing the biggest increase in lead generation when it comes to digital marketing as retargeting people, specifically on Facebook after they visited the website," he says. With that in mind, Monson focused some of his mystery shopping on seeing if brands were taking advantage of this growing trend.
Methodology. Initial points were awarded to brands with active consumer pages on Facebook and LinkedIn and, to a lesser extent, channels such as Instagram, Twitter, and others. Credit was given for having an active consumer presence that a candidate could easily find for validating the brand. Points were not awarded for "vanity metrics" such as number of likes or followers.
Some of the numbers from Qiigo's research include the following:
- 4.7 percent retargeted franchise website visitors with Facebook ads.
- 13 percent retargeted franchise website visitors with other ads.
- 87 percent had consistent branding on local Facebook pages, up from 64 percent in 2016.
- 14 percent communicated the franchise opportunity somewhere on their Facebook profile.
- 69 percent had a LinkedIn brand page.
- 92 percent had a least one executive active on LinkedIn.
- 57 percent had multiple executives active on LinkedIn.
During the awareness and consideration stages of a buyer's journey, paid social advertising is one of the most effective ways to reach qualified prospects. Monson awarded the highest scores to brands that created awareness through social ads and, more importantly, retargeted their website visitors with ads on social media. Of the brands participating in 2017, only a small minority are currently retargeting on social media.
"The good news is that there were a few brands that did--and they did a tremendous job with terrific ads that were engaging," says Monson. "Some of them even used the new Facebook form fill and hit me with good video. I was really pleased that the ones doing the retargeting did an excellent job."
Additional credit was given to brands that retargeted website visitors with display ads in other places across the Internet. While technically not a part of social media, these ads complement the Facebook ad campaign and provide a strong early touch point.
Based on his findings, Monson offers the following recommendations for franchisors.
- For engaging potential candidates, social media is not a storefront or a portal. You can't build it and hope they will come! Brands must engage with potential candidates where the candidates live online and draw them into the conversation.
- Make it easy for prospects to engage through social media. People are engaging online more and more, so don't make it hard for them to click on an ad and then require them to fill additional forms with their personal information. You must make it easy--and quick--or they will move on.
- Use LinkedIn as a forum for your franchise by focusing on the executives of the brand, rather than just the business. Company leaders and sales development and marketing executives publishing about their brand, industry, or franchising on the largest professional networking site can be a gold mine for recruitment. The result can cascade into a ripple effect spread through the connections of executives' own networks, says Monson.
"It all comes back to retargeting," he says. "Anything we can do to get someone to the franchise development website is important, because just getting there is really half the battle." And, with the ever-growing number of franchisors drawing from the same pool of potential franchise investors, retargeting will become increasingly important for franchise development programs.
"Even if they don't fill out a form or call you to talk to you about owning a franchise, they did lean in at some point to show interest in your brand or in owning their own business," says Monson. "To me, that becomes more important than just about any other thing you can say about a lead."
Mystery shopping veteran Keith Gerson took on the task of analyzing the websites of 136 franchise brands. Gerson, president and chief client officer at FranConnect, scored the websites in four areas: technology basics, search engine optimization tools, website usability, and key content. Top points were awarded for a franchise-specific URL; unique franchise or business opportunity SEO title tags; a clear step-by-step learning process; and effective use of technology, particularly videos, Flash, social media, and advanced technology. Gerson also gave big points to websites that featured strong franchisee testimonials and a detailed Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section.
In his analysis, Gerson found the following:
- 51 percent provided unique starting points on their franchise site (66 percent last year).
- 65 percent provided a process for learning (68 percent last year).
- 65 percent had video on the franchise site (60 percent last year).
- 31 percent had financials on the qualification form (49 percent last year).
- 92 percent of franchise sites were mobile-friendly (74 percent last year).
- 58 percent did not provide franchisee testimonials (60 percent last year).
Winning franchise recruitment websites do what they do best--sell. Make sure your brand's online experience includes:
- Strong and easy to find talking points that outline why your franchise is a good investment opportunity, and better than the competition.
- A comprehensive FAQ section, video, and franchisee testimonials. On a recruitment website, the FAQ section is where prospects expect to find specific answers to their questions (and where you want to entice them to progress further in your process).
- A map of available territories that can act as an early filter.
- News a potential investor can use. Prospects are looking for more current and relevant information earlier in the sales process than ever before, so give it to them. Include a news feed that is kept up to date.
- A call to action (CTA) on every page.
- Search engine optimization for every page.
Mystery shoppers agree that franchisors should pay attention to who is on the front lines of franchise sales; invest in training and coaching; and regularly practice ongoing quality monitoring of both their people and their process. Do you mystery shop your own brand? Researchers says you should.
"Put yourself in the shoes of the potential franchisee," advises Owen. "The vast majority do a great job, are very professional and thorough, and I'm proud of my industry and the franchises. But this also is saying there are some out there that don't seem to get it, or don't monitor the quality of what they are doing."
There is no silver bullet or single formula for franchise development success, says Coley. But as more brands find difficulty achieving their growth and unit opening goals, a little self-reflection can go a long way.
"If you are determined to win and are continuing to struggle to have that victory, it can sometimes force you to do a deeper level of soul-searching," says Coley. "I think there is a deeper level of maturity in franchising today; that the brands are realizing it is not just about having a fancy logo, or the right SEO, the right PR firm, or a neat automated drip email campaign. The truth is that it is about doing a lot of little things correctly, more consistently, and being more disciplined--day in and day out."
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