Expanding overseas is always exciting but it brings a whole host of new challenges for a franchise. Thankfully, there’s plenty of tech to give you a helping hand
Even for an established business, launching a franchise in a new territory can be a daunting prospect. A move abroad is a step outside of a company’s comfort zone; it’s a decision that can entail dealing with new languages, new laws, business practices, time zones and physical distances. However, franchises are utilising technology in ways that can help them overcome these obstacles. “It’s incredibly difficult to imagine how we would have managed this business 20 years ago,” says Frank Stanschus, chief operating officer of Little Kickers, the children’s football franchise. “We completely rely on technology to stay in touch and work with our franchisees.”
Little Kickers employs 1,500 people across a network of 240 franchisees in 18 countries and its football classes are attended by 40,000 children every week. The company has come a long way since it was founded in 2002 yet Stanschus still refers to it as a “small organisation”, explaining that technology is enabling it to do things that “only big corporates” could have done 20 years ago.
Improved communications are one of the main advantages of digital, especially for franchisors that need to contact and offer regular guidance to franchisees. Little Kickers cuts down on the cost of international phones call by using Voice Over IP (VoIP). “We use Skype for all of our verbal communications; it allows us to stay in touch with all of our franchisees on a regular basis,” says Stanschus. “It also allows us to create a very informal way of working with each other, which makes the company much more intimate than our international presence would suggest.”
The company also used cloud-based technology to create an intranet system for shared documents and utilises Google Apps, which helps pool knowledge and experience. “We use Google Apps for Business for all of our operating manual materials, as well as our company intranet,” he says. “All 240 franchisees are connected through this set of applications and it gives us a tremendous wealth of shared experiences.”
Stanschus says interaction is key, adding that it’s important for the whole company to feel and act like a single unit. He also points out that running your own business can sometimes be a lonely affair and franchises should try to mitigate that with technology. “Many of our franchisees work entirely from home, which can definitely get lonely sometimes, and to know that there are many like-minded people that you can reach out to for a chat is very useful,” he says. “Skype and Google Apps are used mainly for business discussions but they also act as our virtual watercoolers where people can socialize with each other. This should not be underestimated.”
When customers require information about a business, their first recourse is no longer to make a call but to go online. Indeed, if they pick up a phone at all, it’s likely to be a smart device that gives them instant access to the web. This is a gift for international franchises because it means they can centrally organise their communications and control their key messages online. “Customers can ‘self-serve’ online if they wish,” says Stanschus. “This could be as simple as gathering information about our classes, our coaching philosophy and where their nearest class might be, right through to signing up for classes online.”
Creating an online presence that’s fit for all devices can also extend a franchise’s global appeal. “Our website is fully mobile-enabled, which means that customers around the world can connect with us via website, mobile or tablet and have access to the full set of functions from any device,” adds Stanschus.
Ultimately, franchising is all about combining the personal nature of a small business with the resources of a bigger company. Customers should therefore feel a personal connection but also have lots of choice and using the right technology is key to achieving this. “We try to make it as easy as possible for our customers to interact with our franchisees,” says Stanschus. “From a franchisor’s perspective, we want to allow the franchisees to run a local business with the backing of a global infrastructure. But they also have the opportunity to talk with our franchisees if they have questions. In both cases, the customer and the franchisee have access to the same underlying system.”
Business meetings can be difficult to organise when everyone is busy. It’s hard enough getting space in everyone’s diaries when they are in the same building but when they are in different countries regular meetings are impractical. Autosmart International, the vehicle-cleaning products franchise, overcame this problem by installing a video-link programme in its offices. “It is incredibly useful as it improves the quality of communication,” says Sophie Atkinson, managing director of Autosmart International. “It’s much better than a phone call because you can share meeting documents on the link, you pay attention exactly as you do in a face-to-face meeting and it saves the cost and time of having to travel.”
However, installing the link at Autosmart’s Staffordshire offices was not without problems. “To make it happen we had to have a superfast broadband infrastructure put in Staffordshire, which cost about £20,000,”says Atkinson. “It took ages for the local council to agree to us digging the road up.”
Since then, Atkinson says the benefits have been substantial: the company has gone on to expand into France, Australia, and Sweden, with over 100 franchises joining its international network. “We talk to these countries in this way all of the time because it saves travel time and travel sickness too,” says Atkinson. “It also helps to resolve field-based queries really quickly.”
So with a touch of tech, any franchise should be able to manage its global growth with relative ease.