Franchises: A strategy to improve brand consistency

Yesterday, your clients chose to spend their hard earned dollars in one of your locations. But will they come back?

Most franchise systems are transactional in nature (that is the customers visit the location, make a purchase and leave – concluding the transaction) but to become truly profitable these businesses need to transform first-time visitors into loyal customers who return on a regular basis and/or brand advocates who tell others about the franchise.

For this to happen, they need to have an exceptional customer experience every single time. If you want them to leave with a positive image of your franchise, it is very important that you deliver a consistent experience – and your brand is a big part of that equation.

Hundreds of little details have an impact on a customer’s impression during their visit in your location… and that’s precisely what makes it difficult. It’s a continuous effort by your whole team – day in and day out.

If you don’t pay attention to the details, if you miss any single element, you risk transforming the exceptional experience to simply a good one – or worse, an awful one. Losing a customer is one thing – but creating detractors who tells others to avoid your business will kill it. What’s even worse in the context of a franchise is that all locations are independently owned: one bad apple in the system can negatively affect all the other innocent bystanders. This problem is compounded with social media which makes it trivial to quickly spread bad news on a global level.

Most franchisees get the big things right, but overlook some little things. It’s somewhat funny how trivial some of these little details are: but they are still important. If you forget to refill the catering menu holder, you’ll eventually run out of catering menus. How will new customers know that you offer catering? Catering sales will go down and, because of such slim margins, that minor oversight could have a big impact on your bottom line. Another example: if some of your employees are wearing worn-out uniforms from 2005 with your old branding, customers will subconsciously prefer to visit that new place across the street because everything feels fresher.

There are a few root causes to most brand consistency issues:

  1. Expectations are not properly defined. Everything is on a best effort basis.
  2. The importance of certain elements is not communicated. Some people need to understand the reason behind the work they are doing, or they won’t do it.
  3. When you see the same thing every day, you don’t notice issues. A fresh pair of eyes can work wonders.
  4. Resistance to change. Sometimes people resist for financial reasons and sometimes it’s just because they’re doing what they’ve always done.

How can we improve brand consistency?

Step 1) Plan: Define and communicate expectations

The first step to improving brand consistency is also the most obvious one: everyone needs to be made aware of expectations. When a system has been left to its own devices for many years, each location ended up creating its own set of standards. Someone needs to step up, analyze the current situation, formalize the expectations for the improved system and communicate it to all stakeholders.

As you know, getting everyone on the same page in the context of a franchise is a difficult endeavour. Competing interests sometimes transform simple tasks into one that is as difficult as herding cats. Therefore, it is important that all stakeholders be made aware of the rationale behind the standards. Not everyone may agree, but transparency and consistency in the decision making process help improve engagement. Of course, franchisors must provide leadership that franchisees are willing to follow.

Step 2) Measure: Compare yourself against the gold standard

Once you’ve established your expectations, how do you measure your current performance?

One way is to review customer satisfaction surveys and mystery shopper scores to observe issues which need to be addressed. The great thing about the information generated by customers is that they will tell you exactly what your weaknesses are and help you determine if the standards you established are sufficient and that you didn’t miss anything important. Customers visit the location every day and, if you’ve made it easy for them to communicate with you, they will alert you as soon as something is off. It is a continuous measurement of how a location meets or exceeds standards.

Still, the best way to measure the gap between the communicated standards and the actual results in the wild is via field audits. Franchises typically send franchise business consultants (FBCs) to every location to ensure compliance to operational standards and to coach the franchisees to improve performance.

Why is this the best way, you ask? The FBCs perform the field audits looking at both what customers see but also, and more importantly, what’s going on behind the scenes. Painting a complete picture (front & back) is what makes field audits so powerful. Someone with domain expertise will obviously give more insightful advice than a simple customer. Furthermore, when the team is properly calibrated, franchise business consultants will give consistent feedback. Anyone who visits the location should give the same feedback.

One key element to remember: your franchise’s culture is critical here. Everyone must understand that auditors are coaches, not police officers pointing out violations. It is a collaborative effort to improve performance.

The main drawback of field audits is that they are point-in-time evaluations. Most systems perform visits once every quarter and sometimes only once per year. Obviously, when your goal is to improve brand compliance, the more often you visit, the better. Systems who have continuous improvement at heart aim to visit every location once per month when geographically possible.

Combine the two approaches and you’ll be able to properly measure brand compliance.

Step 3) Improve: Put processes in place to quickly find and address issues

Even if we do our best, problems are bound to occur. To improve brand consistency across all locations, being aware of issues is not sufficient. Someone needs to be accountable for getting problems solved in a timely manner. Otherwise things will fall through the cracks and issues will persist.

This is where technology can play a great part to increase accountability and reduce the time it takes to respond to an issue. A good field audit system will not only track follow-up items on a per-audit basis but also help you quickly identify and address system-wide weaknesses via training programs. Furthermore, a good customer satisfaction program will broadcast an alert when an issue is reported and ensure someone addresses the issue as soon as possible.

Continuous Franchise Improvement

Put steps 1 to 3 in action and you’ve started the virtuous cycle of continuous franchise improvement. You’ve defined measurable objectives, have a process in place to identify the gaps between your current performance and your standards and have tools in place to address issues in a timely manner.

Improving brand consistency is a long term effort that requires continuous work on a daily basis. Exceeding customer expectations day in and day out is difficult but it is also very rewarding as it is a great way to differentiate your brand and ensure its future prosperity.

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