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by Simon Lord,
last updated 23/07/2009

in this article:

Good relationships are going to matter more than ever in 2009

David Compton's acceptance speech at the Westpac New Zealand Franchise Awards last  November was an unusual one. ‘First, I'd like to thank my housekeepers,' said the newly-crowned Franchisee of the Year, who owns the Quest Serviced Apartments franchise in Newmarket. ‘It's a sh*itty job but they do it so well.'

David's appreciation of the people who work for him might set a theme for the coming year, when personal contact is going to be vital for businesses of all types as they strive to maintain profitability in uncertain times. It's a theme also reflected by the new Franchise System of the Year, commercial cleaning company Paramount Services, which moved from company ownership to the franchise model several years ago because its founders realised that they had become too far removed from their clients. Franchising allowed them to create small, manageable teams under individual control but in partnership with the franchisor.

Of course, all good franchises must be based on good, strong, effective systems, but it is how those systems are developed to support individual franchisees that makes the difference. Over the last year, I have reviewed some striking examples of the application of technology to franchises but it has been the ones that help franchisees achieve better outcomes that have been most impressive. Carpet One's combined laser-measuring and quoting system is one such example. This clever technology enables franchisees to measure a room quickly and accurately, calculate the most efficient way to cut a carpet to fit from the minimum length and deliver a printed quote to the customer on the spot. The Summa system developed with Columbus Coffee helps franchisees to understand their businesses better, with the relationship between volumes, product margins and speed of turnover constantly monitored and presented via a friendly graphical interface - all from standard till operations. The latest generation franchise support system from @Your Request handles everything from email to scheduling, invoicing, equipment maintenance and product purchasing. It even integrates with the Xero online accounting system to handle bank reconciliation and tax reporting. All of these are superbly helpful to franchisees - but they mean nothing if franchisees do not then use them to build and enhance their relationships with customers.

All too often, technology becomes a barrier between company and customer. Take my telecommunications provider, for example. Every time I need to contact them, my heart sinks because I know it won't be as easy as picking up the phone and talking to someone. When I try to phone them, I get such long wait times that I cannot afford to hold. When I want to respond to an email they send me, I get messages saying, "Unfortunately this email address is unmonitored and won't be responded to." That's not unfortunate - it's a choice they have deliberately made because it suits them, not because it suits the customer. And when I send them emails via their website, I get automated responses that bear no relation to the issues I raise. Small wonder that after my most recent experience, when I experienced all three of the above on the same day, I resorted to posting them a letter. All this from a company which is supposed to be a specialist in making communication easy.

Too many companies are using the apparent efficiencies of the Internet to put up barriers between them and their customers. No website can handle every type of enquiry so customers need to be able to talk to people, too. Try making a specific seating request for a group booking with Ticketek. You can't do it on line, but their website doesn't easily offer you their phone number to ring them - you have to go elsewhere to look it up. They don't want to talk to you because people cost money, websites don't. Well, actually they do, because unless you have a monopoly, websites can cost you customer loyalty. People with no loyalty shop around - and the web makes that very easy. Furthermore, only a very few websites can up-sell effectively.

Which is why 2009 needs to be a year when we put people back into business. That doesn't mean abandoning technology - it means ensuring technology supports people rather than trying to replace them. It means training staff in the basics of sales techniques. It means ensuring staff speak the same language as their customers - both literally and figuratively.

This is an area where franchises should have a natural advantage, because franchising puts people in power at a local level. As the reigning Franchisee Of The Year, David Compton, puts it in the latest issue of Franchise New Zealand magazine, ‘One of the reasons I enjoy my business is that although it operates 24/7 it is small enough for me to work closely with all my staff. I enjoy helping them to perform at the best level they can. That means working hard to develop their judgement and never cutting back on training.'

The combination of good people and good systems is a hard one to beat. It's why franchising has grown so much over the last 50 years - and it's why good franchisors and franchisees have less to fear in 2009 than many businesses big and small.



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