Hope Katz Gibbs

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Harvesting Successful Businesses [Verizon UPDATE]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Verizon UPDATE
Photo by Steve Barrett

In the competitive marketplace, it’s difficult for small franchise businesses to get ahead. The odds aren’t exactly on their side. Dr. Scott Shane of Massachusetts Institute of Technology surveyed 138 firms between 1983 and 1993 and found that about 15 percent of franchises went out of business within the first four years. Within 10 years, more than 75 percent went out of business.

So how can franchise owners avoid being a statistic?

“Incorporating technology into a franchise is a great way to grow a business,” says Kara LaGrassa, spokesperson for the International Franchise Association. Good communication and innovative technologies __ key to a company’s success. “By making communication between customers and franchisees faster and easier, a company gains a competitive edge in the marketplace.”

Who is among the successful? Great Harvest Bread Company and ComputerTots are two success stories that incorporate technology and connect their companies to innovative choices in an effort to improve business.

A Slice of Life

It was just before Christmas 1997 when Jack Corkey, co-owner of Great Harvest Bread Company franchises in franchising Herndon and Vienna, VA, introduced his customers to the “Ugly Gift Redemption Box.” In exchange for donating “ugly” Christmas gifts, Corkey would give his patrons a free loaf of bread.

He came across the idea for the fundraiser on the Great Harvest corporate intranet bulletin board, an internal “Internet” system that is password-protected and only for the eyes of franchisees.

Bill McKechnie, owner of a Great Harvest franchise in Alexandria, VA, says he recently used the intranet to poll his fellow franchisees about the benefits of allowing customers to pay for their bread with credit cards.

After getting feedback from a dozen other owners, he decided not to move forward with plastic payment. These were some of the many ideas and tips that Corkey, McKechnie, and many of the other 123 Great Harvest owners have retrieved from the intranet since it was set up in 1995.

ComputerTots: Spreading Tribulations and Jubilations

Corkey and McKechnie compare their company’s intranet to a virtual front porch, a place where owners from around the country gather at their convenience to share the tribulations and jubilations of operating a Great Harvest franchise.

They are not sitting on that virtual porch alone. From Burger King to Berlitz, the majority of U.S. franchise companies are integrating intranets, web pages, e-mail, and other cutting-edge technology into their companies. ComputerTots, a 238-worldwide Extra franchise operation based in Great Falls, VA, is another company that has gotten more competitive by integrating technology into its day-to-day workings.

The company makes its money teaching children ages 3 to 12 to use computers, and
Cynthia Perkins, co-director of ComputerTots’ franchise services and wife of CEO Larry Perkins, more than 10 percent of its business leads come in through its two Internet websites.

Before moving to Virginia, she owned a ComputerTots franchise in Minneapolis and laments the days before 1995 when she lived without an intranet and e-mail. “Now the amount of work my company does online is amazing,” she says, pointing to the following time-savers:

• Instead of talking on the phone, employees log on to the Internet for daily information feeds.
• They respond to numerous e-mail messages in minutes.
• When the need arises, the company sends out an all-points bulletin on the intranet describing a troubling dilemma and often within minutes the intranet enables employees to get valuable advice from other experts.

“I am amazed at the terrific support the other franchise owners give me,” Perkins says. “Without technology, franchisees like ours would be forced to reinvent the wheel. With it, though, we are able to work together and everyone benefits. Technology just makes doing business more efficient—and fun.”

HOW AN INTRANET SYSTEM CAN WORK FOR YOUR BUSINESS

Educate and communicate with your franchisees by giving them access to an intranet system, says Roger Gerdes, a business development manager at Microsoft Corporation. ‘Large or small, your business will benefit from practical, affordable electronic services.” He suggests:

• Turn to companies that specialize in website and intranet development to help you develop the most effective, efficient system for you.
• Thoroughly examine and enhance every aspect of your communications. Send out memos by e-mail, instead of by mail or fax.
• Make your policy, operations, or training manuals available electronically via the intranet system so franchisees can quickly find the up-to-date information they need.
• Develop your intranet slowly. Target a few processes that will save time and money immediately, such as creating a document library, including product and marketing information, frequently asked questions, and company contacts.
• Conduct training seminars. “Make sure your franchisees know how to use these tools to their fullest benefit,” Gerdes insists, and suggests executives create manuals and make assistance available right on your intranet. “Always include user-friendly interfaces and multimedia clips to talk and demonstrate to users in an engaging way.”

*****
Hope Katz Gibbs is a freelance writer in Alexandria, VA, who specializes in writing business articles for corporations, newspapers (The Washington Post and USA Today), and a variety of business magazines. She can be reached at hope@hopegibbs.com.

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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