As a franchisor, how can you ensure seamless, high-quality customer support when your end users are ‘shielded’ by your franchisees? Abhay V. Acharekar reckons he has the answer
Professionals in the franchise business need no introduction to branding. The brand is what differentiates a franchisee from an independent standalone small business. When franchisees sign up with a franchisor, they are hoping to jump-start their business by leveraging the franchisor’s infrastructure, economies of scale, training, and branding.
A brand is a result of the reputation of the franchisor. Reputation is a result of how products and services of the franchisor are perceived in the markets they operate in. Once franchisors set their standards for the product, service and process, they typically translate this to consistency in their marketing effort. Next, for their branding effort, they include messaging, logos, color schemes, fonts to be used in various displays, etc. The franchisor projects all these aspects as branding in the target market. Proper branding reflects the business vision for the franchise. But there’s more to the brand than just how the franchisor defines it: there’s customer perception.
Quality in product, process & service
Branding begins with quality in product and service. There was a time when quality was described just as, “I know it when I see it.” Over the years, however, quality metrics and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) were developed. Quality related to the product may be measured with KPIs in the specific domain. Quality related to the overall processes within the company is generally defined based on standards such as those from ISO. A classic definition of “quality” from a classic company (General Radio) sums it up as, “Quality products are those which meet customers’ expectations. Quality products do what customers want them to do, at a price they’re willing to pay.” Cost, schedule, and quality must, therefore, strike a delicate balance.
What happens when the franchise starts interacting with the customers? The franchise must maintain standards for dealing with customers and establish processes for resolving problems that may arise when their products and services are used. In the context of the franchise model, the franchisor is a level away from direct customer interactions typically ‘shielded’ by the franchisees. Unless the franchisor has company-owned stores, the franchisor must rely on customer feedback from franchisees. This level of indirection can be frustrating for the franchisor.
Customers expect their experience to be seamless. Only when there is a problem, the customers notice how efficiently and effectively it is handled. If the customer feels that the problem is not handled as per expectations, there are chances of not only losing the customer but also getting negative publicity in the market or on social media. This is especially serious if the problem is inherent in the offering. This can be detrimental for the franchise brand. So, the franchise must have a streamlined plan for customer support management.
Customer support and the franchise
There are many aspects of customer support: direct human interaction, phone interaction, email, mail, trouble ticket (case) management. The best way to interact with the customer is to have direct human interaction. However, it is not always possible nor is it scalable. When employees (of the franchisor or franchisees) interact with customers, they represent the brand. Training improves consistency in these interactions. Politeness, professional language, and knowledge of the company’s offerings are key for improved customer service.
To track customer problems, franchisors can deploy SaaS technology to streamline customer support in addition to direct interactions. An online Customer Support Management System can be used to register, track and resolve problems. Such a system consists of creating cases (also known as trouble tickets) and tracking the cases until the problem is resolved. A customer, a franchisee employee or franchisor employee can create a case with a priority and severity defined. Each case is then assigned an “owner” (franchisor or franchisee employee) who is responsible for problem resolution through collaboration with the appropriate persons in the franchise.
Priority and severity for the case get translated directly into a service level agreement (SLA) for that case based on pre-determined standards for the franchise. For example, if the case is of a high priority, the time for resolving the case is the shortest. The actual time can be configured by the franchisor. Some customer support systems let customers log-in and add notes for inputs to their case besides viewing the status. Giving customers access to their case can reduce the cost for phone support and can provide transparency for customers about the case. The franchise can also maintain privacy if the customer support system allows the employees to add notes for internal use only.
Customer support systems give the franchisor direct visibility into ongoing field problems. Franchisors can view the KPI dashboard of a customer support system to determine how many new cases were opened and how many cases were closed during a certain period. They can also track the amount of time taken for problem resolution. Additionally, they can know:
a) what customer requests are not met,
b) what complaints customers register,
c) how customers express their dissatisfaction.
This information allows the franchisor to mitigate future problems encountered. A good customer support system builds up a history of solutions that can morph into a powerful knowledge base for future use. Since consistency is the most essential ingredient of branding, having a knowledge base of solutions can result in enhanced quality of products and services in the long term.
Customer support system is preventive care for avoiding deterioration of a brand that is built over time. Online Reputation Management (ORM) after a problem gets escalated in the market or media is remedial. It is important for a company to also have an ORM and a strong presence on social media to counter negative or false reviews. However, focusing on customer support can reduce the cost for ORM and can minimize lost revenue.
Branding is aligning customers’ perception with what you want them to perceive your company as. Brand promise, perception, expectation cannot be managed without a customer support system in place. Actionable service data based on KPIs can result in improved customer retention as well as improved organizational efficiency. Positive customer support interaction can even generate revenue increase through up-sell opportunities during the interaction itself. For franchisors, the brand eases selling a business proposal to potential franchisees convincing them that it unlocks profitability.
Brand management requires a multi-pronged approach: brand vision, positioning, executing the marketing plan, advertising, ORM, social media management, and most importantly, a robust customer support system.ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Abhay V. Acharekar is the CEO of AppDesQ Inc. He has US patents in the areas of Business Process Management and User Interface. He has managed software products in large corporations as well as startups for the past three decades. AppDesQ offers a complete SaaS suite (FranDesQ®), exclusively targeted for the franchise model.
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