Reinventing a 25 year old business in three weeks

I hope that the impact of the pandemic on you, your loved ones and your franchises has been and continues to be minimal. The roller coaster of emotions it has already taken us on is unprecedented in the 27 years of my franchise.

Reinventing a 25 year old business in three weeks

I hope that the impact of the pandemic on you, your loved ones and your franchises has been and continues to be minimal. The roller coaster of emotions it has already taken us on is unprecedented in the 27 years of my franchise.

For Monkey Music, which has been developed around social interaction, COVID 19 had the potential to be catastrophic and while health is unquestionably the most important thing, we also have a duty to our franchisees and their families.

As I write this we are a fortnight into lockdown and it all feels raw. The pandemic is causing anxiety, suffering and misery and it will doubtless get worse before things improve. But it has also brought out the best in people. Hopefully, my sharing our experiences and learnings with you will help you better navigate the months ahead; moreover I hope it helps you take stock of what you’ve already achieved – writing it has certainly given me perspective and pride. 

Catastrophe drives innovation

At the beginning of March 2020 (it feels like a year ago not a month!) we had just had the results of our customer satisfaction survey back and were revelling in the fact that 98% of the several thousand customers who responded would recommend Monkey Music to a friend. I was having meetings about taking the business to the next level. Ten days later our whole team and our franchisees were working flat out to save our business.

As the social distancing recommendations emerged we knew it would be irresponsible to run toddler music groups for the foreseeable future and that, like many franchises, we urgently needed a new business model. We figured we had three weeks to create a new business model that ideally wouldn’t compromise the existing one when normality returned but would keep our customers engaged and franchises running. Within that time franchisees nationwide launched the re-imagined proposition. Here’s how:

Reimagining the proposition

We stripped our business back to two fundamental elements:

  1. Our core product (a tested music curriculum for babies and toddlers) was as good today as it was yesterday: we just needed to change the delivery mechanism.
  2. We have great franchisees, so if we could create a viable product, we knew they could deliver it.

Going online

Normally for a project of this size and complexity research, financial planning, strategizing, product development and testing would take around 24 months. When faced with catastrophe, mindsets and acceptance of risk shifts and everything happens faster. Instead of looking for problems, people (staff, franchisees and customers) look to make things succeed.

These are the decisions we prioritised to achieve what we thought would be the virtually impossible:

  • Cash flow – Without money the business (be it individual franchises or the group) will fold. However, failing to refund customers immediately for cancelled classes would lead to irretrievable loss of goodwill that would simply delay the business’ demise. As franchisor we produced online class content for customers whilst franchisees got themselves up on their feet and we also gave franchisees a “payment holiday” to help compensate for the time lag in getting their new classes launched.
  • Pricing – We calculated that if we were to change our price point for our online classes that decision would be irreversible. Given we anticipate returning to our face to face business model once it poses no risk to customers or franchisees instead we instigated a loyalty voucher system – for example, customers who had already booked for the summer term got a loyalty voucher worth the equivalent of some classes that they could use on future classes. We also brought forward our planned investment in the customer area of our website giving customers more free resources as part of their online experience. We also developed two different types of online product, both with added value in terms of customers having content which they could re-visit throughout the week.
  • Subscriptions – With only a few classes left in the term, we needed to show customers the new product urgently to give them the confidence to sign up for the summer term. So, we aimed for each franchise to deliver at least one online class before the end of the spring term even though this felt uncomfortably fast.
  • Delivery, quality & distribution – Potentially there was an easier route MM could have recorded just one teacher and distributed that recording to all customers across the UK.  However, it recognised that the relationship between teachers and their classes was incredibly valuable especially right now and so every franchisee, and indeed teacher, was brought on board.  We developed guidelines and instructions that enable all franchisees to continue to the deliver the classes themselves (or via their usual teachers) to a quality that customers would expect. The live, interactive element of Monkey Music gives a sense of immediacy that is very different to a recorded session (think of the success of “P.E. with Joe” and “Cooking with Theo” over the last few weeks). However, with schools closed we needed to provide franchisees with the flexibility to either live stream or record their classes depending on what their home lives allowed. This dual product involved a significant amount of new IT website infrastructure and intense Head Office ongoing support.

The importance of a roadmap and communication!

A crucial difference between normal projects and crisis management is the lack of control over the timeframe, along with testing and consultation with the franchisee network. Normally you line everything up before you press play and the customer or franchisee is swept along on a (hopefully) seamless journey. With crisis management stakeholders will have questions and if you cannot get ahead of them then either they will abandon you or you will become swamped responding to them.

Having created an outline roadmap for delivering our reimagined product we initially focused all resources on executing to meet almost impossible time frames. However, questions from franchisees and their customers quickly mounted up and we realised that not only would the trust and goodwill we had earned disappear if we didn’t become proactive in our communication, but franchisees might feel the need to fill the communication vacuum themselves and make commitments that could damage the brand so we adopted the following rules:

  • Communications are as important delivery and need to be prioritised accordingly
  • Anything we can’t explain clearly and concisely in an email needs to be made simpler
  • Where we don’t have the answers we need to say so but say when we will
  • We would draft communications for franchisees to avoid any false promises to customers
  • Communications should be human not corporate reflecting the relationship we have with our franchisees and that they have with their customers.

By spending more time drafting communications we ended up spending far less time answering queries, freeing the team to deliver and reducing knee jerk decisions.

Re-energising our franchise family

I have stared down the barrel before but the last three weeks has been the most draining in the 27 years I’ve been building Monkey Music – and that’s before worrying about two of my grown  up daughters who are on the frontline, another daughter whose had her degree finals thrown in to disarray, another daughter whose has her GCSE’s cancelled or trying to home school the youngest one…and then there is my 80 year old mum, living alone. 

But even if there is a short term hit to revenues we will come out of the other side stronger and re-energised. This crisis has really brought out the best in people. The love, support and understanding we’ve had from loyal customers as we’ve found our way has been overwhelming. Our franchisees have bent over backwards to make the new product work as seamlessly as possible and have repeatedly told us how much they appreciate what HQ has been doing to keep their businesses alive. The often unsung heroes at HQ have given everything they possibly can to support our franchisees and ensure they still have a business to run.

Over the years, day to day gripes and admin wear all of us down but when you’re faced with losing it all it brings into focus what a fantastic family we have built; the difference we make to the lives of young parents and minds; and why we want to continue on this journey. The storm cloud is still hovering but the sunshine isn’t far away.

This article comes courtesy of Monkey Music, a leading light in pre-school premium music education in the UK.  With over 25 years of experience, the brand continues to support over 50 franchises – through the good times and the not so easy ones!

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