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Tools | By Karon Warren

Getting Connected
Intranet sites provide franchisors and franchisees with a user-friendly way to communicate.
Ben & Jerry's Rolling Cone intranet

In the past, communication among franchise corporate offices and their many franchisees consisted of costly telephone calls, mass mailings, and time-consuming facsimiles. Thanks to the information superhighway, however, these groups can communicate almost instantaneously using custom Intranet sites.

Set up similar to traditional Web sites, Intranet sites feature a wealth of options franchisors can use, usually through password-protected access, to pass information on to and/or talk directly with their franchisees. “As a franchise system, communication with your franchisees is paramount,” says Paul Steck, president of Saladworks LLC in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. “Growing as fast as we have, this communication is extremely important. Our franchisees need and deserve all of the resources of the home office available to them in real time. That’s why we decided to develop MySaladworks.”

Specific uses of an Intranet site for communication include: document caches, which house forms that all franchisees use in their day-to-day operations; forums, wherein franchisees can discuss a variety of topics; training videos for new employees; pricing guidelines; marketing materials; sales figures; and online chats, allowing users to talk in real-time. Intranet sites also provide a way for franchisors to reach franchisees with urgent news.

For example, Vince Rosetti, owner of two Saladworks units in Philadelphia and Bensalem, Pennsylvania, said when the salmonella outbreak occurred this passed summer, the Saladworks corporate office immediately e-mailed all the franchisees information on what was going on and followed it up by posting related news and information about the situation on the company Intranet site. In fact, the company even posted a sign on the Web site that franchisees could print and post on their salad case that explained why they weren’t using tomatoes in their menu items.

While posting information to a site can be quick and easy, developing and launching an Intranet site requires attention to detail. “So much time is dedicated to research and planning to make a system successful,” says Peter VanRysdam of 352 Media Group in Newberry, Florida. “Defining user roles and identifying common tasks allows the developers to customize a user interface that is tailored to the user. This is accomplished through conference calls, user studies, focus groups, and a lot of trial and error.”

Also crucial is feedback from franchisees, the target audience of the Intranet site. “For us, it was important to get input from our franchisees on what type of communication tool they would be most likely to log onto and use regularly,” says Jennifer Shewmake, communications and community programs manager for Ben & Jerry’s. The company spent four months working with 352 Media Group to create its Intranet site, The Rolling Cone, which launched in February.

Pete Zimek, who owns two Ben & Jerry’s stores in Gainesville, Florida, worked with the corporate office to develop the site and sees great improvement in how the franchisees relate to the home office. “When you log in, you have a dashboard, which keeps us up to date on what we need to know,” he says.

Another key element to a successful Intranet site is making sure the information is updated on a regular basis. “Just like with a public Web site, an Intranet needs to stay current to encourage repeat visits,” VanRysdam says. “If an employee can’t find the latest content on the Intranet, they’ll be less likely to use it again in the future. If you’re going to invest the time to develop a custom Intranet, you need to commit to maintaining it.”

Companies with existing Intranet sites say the technology is worth the investment. For instance, VanRysdam says the Ben & Jerry’s system cost about $80,000, but would pay for itself many times over. “The old system was an ‘out-of-the-box’ software component that carried with it a large annual fee based on the number of user licenses,” he says. “By investing in a custom solution, they own the code 100 percent. This alone means the site has paid for itself after just a few years of no license fees, regardless of the other intangibles.” In addition, the system increases efficiency when sending mass e-mails to franchisees, which had to be done manually before but can be done with simply one click today.

As with other areas of information technology, there are a number of technology providers offering software solutions to build an Intranet site. The Rolling Cone was deve-loped using Microsoft’s .NET platform in C#, a simple, general-purpose programming language. While Steck declines to name specifics, he will say that MySaladworks was written with PHP, a computer scripting language originally designed for producing Web pages, and uses a dedicated SQL server, which refers to the database management system. Since these are quite common programming options, finding which one works best will be a matter of examining all available products as well as their costs and offerings.

Once an Intranet site is up and running, companies will often experience some hits and misses along the way. Zimek says the development team at Ben & Jerry’s was pretty flexible and changes requested by the franchisees were implemented quickly. As a result, Shewmake says Ben & Jerry’s saw an increase in usage over the usage rates of the company’s previous site.

Steck’s MySaladworks site also has been an effective tool for the company. “We developed the system for the franchise community at Saladworks to get information on demand,” he says. “This system has been incredibly successful and appreciated by our franchisees.”

As a franchisee, Rosetti agrees. “I like the information,” he says. “It’s up to date, and it’s thorough. They do a good job of getting us what we need. And it’s all in one place.”