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How to talk to franchisors

Got a complaint? Be strategic about making it


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Remember that old saying about honey versus vinegar?

Experts say franchisees can be more successful in having complaints heard by the franchisor if they view the process as a marketing strategy.

It's safe to say that the franchise sales process is typically positive and upbeat. Both the franchisor (sensing a franchise fee and additional royalties) and the franchisee (certain that he will make a boatload of money) are wearing their best faces and treating one another with kindness and respect.

"I had an English Lit. teacher in high school who said, 'You go through your entire life looking for a person you can be yourself with. And the way you go about it is to put a mask on and pretend to be someone other than who you are. Then you take the mask off,'" said Bob Purvin, chairman of the American Association of Franchisees and Dealers. "In franchising we are doing that all the time."

So, at least according to Purvin, the franchisees who keep that mask on when they have a problem with their franchisor are far more likely to get their issue resolved successfully.

Experts say that communicating a problem with a franchisor isn't as simple as calling the office and griping over the phone. It's frequently a strategic process that can begin even before there's anything to complain about. "I try to convince franchisees to be more strategic in their attempts to communicate with franchisors - not to appear as registering complaints, but as being constructive," Purvin said.

Franchisors are less likely to go out of their way to help franchisees whose only comments are in the form of loud complaints. "When franchisees isolate themselves from forums, they tend not to be as respected by their peers or their franchisor," said Mary Ann Pilotte with Gallagher Consulting who had previously spent 20 years with Wendy's, often dealing with franchisees.

When they do have a complaint, Pilotte said, franchisees should first consult with other local owners to determine if the problems are common. "Pick your battles," she said. "Is it a big one? Do you want to go to battle on it? Doing your homework, getting input from other franchisees, asking questions, getting a good understanding of the situation, putting facts and figures together will give you credibility when you go to your franchisors."

Purvin said the communication process should go like a marketing campaign, with the franchisee marketing itself as a way to encourage the franchisor to respond to its needs. "If you go to the franchisor and say 'You hurt me,' you're probably not going to get the kind of hearing you want," he said.

In fact, he said, the communication of the actual problem shouldn't even come until the third visit.

"My advice is to pull back," Purvin said. During the first conversation with the franchisor, he said, the owner should instead ask what he could do to advance the vision of the company. The second meeting should be a follow-up on the first meeting that discusses goals. "If you do those two things, then you will have won a friend for life," Purvin said.

It's at third meeting, he said, when the franchisee can begin speaking about its problems. "You will in most instances have the most receptive voice you've ever heard," Purvin said. "It's about marketing yourself, so that when you go try to sell what it is you want him to buy, or deliver what you want delivered, he gives you those things because he likes you."

In other words: A franchisee that gets involved, and that the franchisor likes, is much more likely to have its requests heard and its problems solved.

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