A Thing of Beauty: How to Orchestrate Exquisite Communications in Your Franchise

by:Evan Hackel

Evan Hackel

By Evan Hackel

Imagine a well-run franchise as an orchestra. All of the musicians are attentive, working together and following the conductor’s lead to make a beautiful piece of music. Next, imagine what it would be like to be conducting the orchestra – unlocking all the passion, energy, focus, cooperation and beauty.

Now think about your franchise. Is it a well-coordinated orchestra? In my experience, very few are. I have managed more than 20 multiple franchise systems with more than 3,000 locations, and very few of them started out performing like well-coordinated symphony orchestras. It takes a lot of fine-tuning to get them there.

In most franchise organizations, communications are fragmented, inefficient, repetitive, or worse. Franchisors are frustrated because franchisees do not seem to listen to their messages. Franchisees feel overwhelmed by the quantity of messages that are coming at them, yet paradoxically have a hard time understanding what they are expected to do.

Because communication is so dysfunctional in organizations like those, it has become more and more difficult to get things done. As a result, the entire franchise system has become less ambitious. Why even try to do big things when it has become impossible to execute at the most basic level?

When ideas become dumbed down and oversimplified, the true benefits of being part of a franchise system are all but lost. In a franchise, after all, both franchisor and franchisee should be able to enjoy the best of both worlds. Franchisees benefit from the size, scale and branding power of a major company. And from their side of the equation, franchisors benefit by having businesses that are operated not by hired managers, but by stakeholders who have a huge vested interest in succeeding. When those two forces are working in harmony, a franchise system is unstoppable. But when communications break down, the benefits are lost. Everyone in the system is pursuing a different mission and a different set of goals. The marketing managers in headquarters just want to get everybody to use the latest Facebook initiative, the training people want franchisees to use their programs, the IT managers want franchisees to use the new systems they’ve developed. They’re trying to be heard, so they turn up the volume. Everybody stops listening to anyone else and starts playing their instruments as loudly as they can.

The people in the audience – the franchisees but actually everyone who is within earshot – hear nothing but a big honking noise. It’s so overwhelming that they put their hands over their ears and stop listening. It’s like trying to drink water from a fire hose. Everyone’s looking forward to a nice cool drink, but they get knocked over by the volume of water that is coming at them.

You know those problems. Perhaps you are living with them every day. But you don’t have to, because there are cures that can turn the situation around.

Communicate the “What’s In It for Me?” (WIIFM) and the “Why”

When departments at the franchisor are turning up the volume in an effort to be heard, they often forget to tell franchisees what they stand to gain from what is being offered. The marketing executives just say, “Put this content up on your Facebook page” instead of saying, “If you use this, you are going to get more customers.” Or the training director says, “We want you to enroll your salespeople in this training program” instead of saying, “Customer satisfaction levels and repeat business have improved by 15% or more at stores that have used this training, and that will happen for you too.”

When you stress the WIIFM and the “Why,” people listen. To help identify what those factors are, think about why people should care to listen to what you have to say.

Have a Plan for Communication

Email communications are constant and haphazard in many franchises. Managers in headquarters have the ability to send email blasts to all the franchisees whenever they want. But there is no internal central control, so franchisees feel overwhelmed by a constant boom boom boom of messages coming at them, like the sound of a big drum that never stops.

There should be a central plan that addresses questions like, when should we communicate, what should we communicate, who should get different kinds of communications, and how should we deliver our information? And one person should be in charge of communications.

Let the Listener Know His or Her Role

Executives at the franchisor level sometimes provide information (“We are offering a new display to support a new product”) without explaining to people what their role is (“Please set up the display after it arrives next week and install it inside the entrance of your location”). How can franchisees know what they should do unless someone explains?

Another benefit is that when you explain next steps in the first email you send, you will avoid triggering a stream of emails from franchisees who need to ask “What am I supposed to do . . . when am I supposed to do it . . . what is expected of me?” But when you explain those things up front, you reduce emails and make communications more efficient.

Communicate Strategically to The People who Need to Know

I have seen many franchises where all communications from headquarters are directed only to the franchise owners, who are then expected to communicate that information to everyone in the franchise locations. And the fact is, that might not happen. It is better to email detailed information to the specific managers within franchises who need to know it – the sales managers, marketing managers, and so on – and to send just a summary to the franchise owner.

If you structure communications that way, you can enjoy another benefit too. When people receive communications from the CEO or from headquarters, they feel more engaged in what is happening, more valued, and more in the know. And they often enjoy hearing directly from the President or CEO.

A few weeks ago when I was at the cash register at an office supply store, I asked the cashier, “What’s it like to work here these days?” I knew that it is a chain that has been closing locations recently. She replied, “I don’t know, I just gave my notice.” Then she added a telling comment, “They never tell me anything.” The way to prevent communication lapses like that is to identify and communicate to individual managers throughout your franchise structure, not only to the person on top.

Communicate to Outside Consultants too

If your organization is using consultants of any kind – trainers, marketers, IT consultants, whatever – it is wise to communicate to them, just as you communicate to the people who work within your organization. When they understand your current activities and priorities, they will be better able to help you and you will get more value from them.

Communicate to Appropriate Internal Staff in Headquarters Too

In many franchise headquarters, all the communications go outward to franchisees and very few managers communicate with other managers in-house who really need to know. The result is often anger, frustration and statements like, “The exec in the office next to me launched this program, but I had to hear about it from one of our franchisees?” It is important for the right executives to know what is going on so they won’t be broadsided by questions that they cannot answer.

Have an Internal Communication Hub where All Information Resides

There should be a central point for all communications on your company intranet. A communications manager should maintain it, coordinate communication activities, and assure that people are posting to it. Here are some strategies that will help you enjoy the most benefits from a central communications portal/hub . . .

  • Be sure that the hub contains all the information that everyone wants and needs. The goal is for people to discover that all the information they need resides on the hub, not in hundreds of email messages that are hiding in their inboxes. And remember that email has flaws – messages can go missing or be deleted or overlooked.
  • Use “teaser” emails to drive traffic to the hub. Instead of sending out long emails that contain detailed information about initiatives and news, send out “teasers” with embedded links that impel people to visit the hub to learn the “full story.” Remember that if you feed people all the information they need in emails, they won’t see a need to access the central hub and that they will fail to notice information, absorb it, or put it into action.
  • Customize communications. Not everyone needs to get the same teaser alerts. Your communications manager can design a distribution plan that considers questions like, who will need to act immediately on the information you are sending, who needs to know the information for operational reasons, and who merely should know the information in order to be informed. And again, communications should drive everyone to access full information that resides on the hub.
  • Incorporate feedback loops in your hub so people can let you know how your communications are working and where they need improvement. Also, install a virtual suggestion box on your communications portal, so people have a convenient way to give input and share ideas.

Create Structures that Encourage Face-to-Face Communications Too

Not all communication takes place online. In fact, some of the best communication – the kind that transfers knowledge and motivates people to excel – happens when people sit down together face-to-face. Here are some strategies that I have seen work beautifully . .

  • Set up regional networking groups for franchise owners. Franchisees can get together to share knowledge and solutions, brainstorm about current challenges, and more. I have noticed time and time again that if you let them, franchisees will educate each other – often more effectively than the home office can.
  • Create a franchisee communications advisory council made up of franchise owners. This council can communicate with your central communications director about improving your overall communications strategy.
  • Hold town hall-style meetings in different locations. Invite employees from one or several franchise locations to share ideas, explore current challenges, and brainstorm about solutions.
  • Make use of the survey and other tools that you will find in Franchise Business Review. You don’t have to “invent the wheel” and devise your own systems for surveying franchisees about what they are doing, how they are doing it, or the success they are enjoying. FBR has lots of excellent off-the-shelf tools that all franchises should take advantage of.

The Result? A Thing of Beauty

When your great new franchise orchestra performs, every player will be responsive to instructions and suggestions from the conductor. Everyone will know just when to come in and just what to do, without interfering with the parts that others are playing. Everyone will be clearly heard, even when playing quietly. And everyone will know they are witnessing something of remarkable quality and beauty.

I believe that the communications strategies I have spelled out in this article can help make that happen for you. I wish you every success.