How Intranets Keep Franchise Owners Plugged In
Printed in USA Today
by Nancy Rathbun Scott
Bill Gates himself has seen the potential. In December, Microsoft unveiled the "franchise Extranet solution." That's what Microsoft is calling its new configuration of "stuff"-core Internet technologies, applications, platforms, and push technology-all of which promise instant dialogue among franchisors and franchisees.
Intranets may be heavily wired on the inside, but-to the outside user-an intranet looks like a friendly computer site where like-minded people can gather, trade stories and chat-all without outsiders eavesdropping.
John Reynolds, executive vice president of the International Franchise Association, thinks intranet/extranet technology will be huge. "This solution enhances the most critical facets of franchising and will revolutionize the way we do business."
No wonder. A well-configured intranet facilitates conversation and information exchange in a way heretofore impossible. Franchisors communicate instantly with franchisees, who communicate instantly with one another, all of whom communicate, as desired, with vendors and suppliers.
Who's getting connected?
"It seems that everyone is moving toward some form of Intranet system," says Teri Hill, director of advertising for Steamatic, Inc., a residential and commercial cleaning franchise. With about 40 percent of Steamatic's 400 franchises in 21 countries now interlinked, Hill says, "Our Intranet is really connecting everyone and everything."
Uniglobe Travel (International), Inc., the largest travel franchise system in the world, links nearly all of its more than 1100 outlets through a tailor-made intranet system, "Uniglobe Net News." Uniglobe franchise owners enthusiastically plug in. "This will be the primary source of information for everyone within the Uniglobe enterprise," says Nolan Burris, Uniglobe's director of information technologies.
Adventures in Advertising just got its system up and running in the last year. "We were really surprised by our franchise owners' response," says Allison Wildes, director of marketing. "The number of people online is really tremendous and those who are getting it are really enthusiastic."
Intranet's warm welcome by franchise owners is not surprising. The advantages are tremendous.
Intranet exchanges boost business
In franchise companies like Adventures in Advertising which sells promotional products to businesses, the bulletin board is the most popular feature of their developing intranet system. "We're using it as another brainstorming tool," says Wildes. "A franchise owner slated to make a presentation to a company they're not familiar with can now send out a message to all franchisees asking for ideas. Fifteen or twenty owners have already sold that same program and they will send back information on the vendors, the pricing, the products." The result is more targeted marketing.
Steamatic's director of advertising saw the intranet's marketing advantages right away. "I wanted all my franchisees talking to each other, problem solving and sharing information," says Hill, who designs Steamatic's system. On Steamatic's intranet bulletin board, franchisees trade tips for landing cleaning and fire/flood restoration contracts with school districts, hospitals and government agencies. The response? All positive, says Hill. "They love it."
Information sharing spurs productivity
Intranet conversation makes sense for far-flung franchise owners. Steamatic, for example, schedules monthly meetings in its chat room. "It's another way franchisees can get together to share information and solve problems," says Hill.
Security concerns still inhibit full use of Adventures in Advertising's chat room because franchise owners' discussions involve a lot of vendor information that needs to be protected, but eventually Wildes expects Adventures in Advertising to offer training via the chat room.
By contrast, Uniglobe's password-secured Intranet "Forums" invite franchisees to an open discussion of topics categorized into primary areas of conversation among travel agencies, such as sales and marketing, technology automation, and proprietary accounting systems.
The account networking function enables a franchisee who has an account with a branch in Philadelphia to link up with a franchisee in Philadelphia. "It's not live chat yet, but Uniglobe is looking to add that feature and to incorporate voice technology into all this at some point," says Burris.
Uniglobe's "Open" function, by far the most popular forum, also can provoke the most controversy. "Freedom of speech applies. It requires a commitment from top management to watch what is going on and to respond to criticism or controversy," says Burris. "The beauty is that everyone gets the whole picture. We'll often find that it's not just corporate replying [to a complaint], peers will reply as well."
Online options save money
Franchise owners applaud the intranet's convenience and efficiency.
"The system enables our franchisees to order equipment and supplies 24 hours a day," Hill says, adding that intranets also help franchise owners view new advertising materials. "People had a hard time conceptualizing a new ad piece when we sent it to them in black and white," Hill says. "Now they can see the ad pieces in full color instantly before ordering."
Uniglobe's Burris says, "Our franchise owners like having instant access to information on such things as the latest specials, what we're advertising, and training dates, without having to make phone calls. They just go and retrieve what they need at their convenience. They also enjoy instant access to special reports that we have programmed for their accounting system."
Intranet creates economic efficiencies, too. By July, Adventures in Advertising's online software program will handle all franchisee accounts receivable and accounts payable automatically, eliminating manual accounting. "It will make royalty reporting easy," Wildes says.
Likewise, company operating manuals, policies, and newsletters are going online, giving franchisees real-time access to vital information. Wildes says that print versions of Adventures in Advertising's newsletter will be obsolete in the next five to six months and, in addition to newsletter information, Uniglobe is making all artwork, logos, advertising slicks available on its intranet.
"Uniglobe's intranet system has saved us time, money and energy, without a doubt," says Burris. "Every year we published a nice four-color brochure listing our preferred vendors and suppliers. That cost us $50,000. We don't do the brochure now-it's all online and can be up-to-date right up to the minute. With the same amount of money we can work miracles on the Web site," he says.
Plugged in with a competitive edge
Franchise companies already envision how this state of the art technology can propel them to the top of their industry. Take Steamatic, for example, which works with insurance agents and adjusters. "We just started getting laptop computers with built-in cameras with which a franchisee can photograph fire or flood damage onsite and figure estimates for the restoration job," says Hill.
"We will be able to e-mail this information or put it on our site, creating a centralized data base of all the estimates from all the franchisees around the world. Corporate headquarters can look at it and any insurance agent location can pull up information to monitor how the job is progressing, compare with the original estimate, and review the project completion date. As restoration proceeds, the franchisee can update the file daily with new photos, project completion date, and how the work is progressing."
How Microsoft's Extranet Handshake Joins Franchisor To Franchisee
Combine the communications power of the Internet with the distribution and marketing strength of a franchise system and what do you get? The Microsoft Franchise Extranet Solution and one giant leap in competitive advantage for franchise companies.
Last April, Microsoft Corp. began working with members of the franchise industry to create a system that uses Internet technologies to simplify communications, reduce costs of business transactions, and streamline franchise business processes. Such major players as Mail Boxes Etc., Marriott International, RE/MAX International, and the International Franchise Association see Microsoft's Internet/Extranet solution as a logical route to serving franchises both big and small. Why? Because technology like Microsoft's Extranet addresses the most critical functions of an industry that depends on rapid, cost-effective distribution of mission-critical information. Once plugged into an intranet, franchise companies can speed up communications by light years.
Microsoft says its vision of "electronic communities"-with all information sharing and distribution processes automated-translates into productive, efficient, and cost effective franchise systems, with immediate cost savings on telephone, fax, mailing services, and even travel expenses.
Inherent in the Microsoft Internet/Extranet solution are such capabilities as:
· Up-to-the-minute communication and distribution of information;
· Reduction or elimination of operating costs associated with printing, mailing, faxing, phoning;
· Streamlined paperwork, such as royalty reporting, equipment and supply ordering, order fulfillment, and personnel and database management;
· Secure interactive communication among franchise licensees and corporate headquarters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year;
· Increased system flexibility and value to franchisees;
· Tailor-made features leading to improved franchisee satisfaction, retention, and growth.
Not surprisingly, the Extranet solution transcends international boundaries. Microsoft already has an agreement with RE/MAX International, Inc. to build and launch an international-member intranet community. The password-protected Extranet site will enable RE/MAX to deliver flexible, real-time, secure information to franchisees and real estate agents worldwide.
Want more? Imagine incorporating computer-translation technology to facilitate international communication via Extranet? It's coming...

® copyright 1999 Nancy Rathbun Scott
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