When a flood wiped out the garden carefully tended by a customer's late wife, Diana Rodriguez-Zaba's restoration crew replanted with fresh flowers.
Tending plants may not typically fall under the job description of the owner of a ServiceMaster by Zaba franchise in the Chicago area, but Rodriguez-Zaba says that an above-and-beyond focus on customer service, codified in her franchise's Act of Kindness policy, is one way she has been able to stand out from the competition.
Franchises are growing in popularity as a business investment. According to the International Franchise Association's Franchise Education and Research Foundation, franchises grew 1.7 percent in 2016, and are expected to grow another 1.6 percent in 2017, with employment by franchise owners growing another 3.3 percent this year. In all, there were 732,842 franchise establishments in 2016, compared to 697,943 in 2013.
Opening a local franchise comes with some pre-packaged business goods—logos already done, processes honed, name recognition often achieved, and often quarterly or annual business meetings or conferences. But that doesn't mean franchisees can let the home office branding do all the work. Franchisees have their own challenges—they have to work within a framework, they may be restricted to geographically small territories, they may find themselves competing with other franchisees who do business under the same name.
Navigating those obstacles holds lessons for all business owners. Learning to pivot, to meet changing customer needs and locking in referral business are things many good business owners must learn to do, whether or not they share logos with any other shop.
—Diana Rodriguez-Zaba, owner, ServiceMaster by Zaba
The franchisees interviewed below were willing to learn, and they share another key characteristic—a passion for their niche, often interacting with the brand or service before buying in.
For Rodriguez-Zaba, standing out isn't just about promoting customer service beyond what's merely expected. It also means understanding how her clientele has changed, and how to keep up with them. Much of her business, which cleans up after disasters such as floods and fires, comes from corporate ties to insurance agents, who refer her to their customers. But she still has to hustle.
“We started out as an independent restoration company," she says. “We were doing good, but we were also struggling a bit. […] When we franchised, we were able to learn a whole lot of things about running a company. Franchising gave us the opportunity to learn how to operate a business."
To be successful, “you have to be innovative, and adapt to change, and think outside the box," she says. “How do I stand out from other franchises? Right now, that's very crucial, given the new market, which is the millennials."
“When we first started, social media wasn't a big thing," she says. Customers “would find you in the Yellow Pages, or they'd call their [insurance] agent and say, 'I have a disaster, who do I call?' Now, millennials, they do their research. They buy differently. They'll look up five different companies and say, 'Do I like your Google reviews or your Yelp reviews?' A lot of them too are do-it-yourselfers, and they will try it themselves until they say, 'I'll call a professional.'"
As her clientele has shifted, Rodriguez-Zaba says she's had to learn about social media and web marketing. She's added younger hires to her marketing team for this reason. She says she invests more than some other franchise owners in website content, so people who find her via the internet will see her as a trusted, friendly resource. Much of this is her own innovation, but she credits the franchiser with giving her a solid business background.
"I really like what the brand does for you," she says. "It's a recognized name. People trust it, and once we're out there, people understand that we're not just a big name."
In upstate New York, Matt Yaeger fell into a Music Together license. The frustrated PhD student with a background in music was spending a lot of time with his infant son, and took him to a Music Together class. Before his son was old enough for preschool, Yaeger took over a Music Together business from a teacher stepping away from the business near his home in the Albany, NY suburbs.
Yaeger holds a license—he pays dues and buys materials from Music Together, which aims to build musical appreciation in young children with a curriculum for semesters based around seasons and specific instruments. It's different than a franchise agreement, which usually offers more training and support, but also demands the use of more specific business systems. There's a lot of flexibility in the Music Together license, he says. This winter he taught 18 classes, with eight to 13 students per class.
“This was my busiest season, but it looks like the new normal," he says. His enviable retention rate means he loses maybe five or six kids every semester (out of 130), and most of those have aged out of a program intended for kids too young for preschool.
At first he bought adds in local print publications, but since he started his business in 2010 has found that word-of-mouth, augmented by Google ads, are the key.
“I get more from people finding my website through Google adds and word of mouth, but that took a few years" to figure out, he says. The head office does provide support and guidance, he says. And while he typically adds his own twists to the curriculum, it's clear that the structure of the program, which includes CDs for participants and special songs, gives the class a welcome order.
He teaches demo classes at local libraries between semesters, and offers $20 off the class price of $205 for both someone who refers a new student as well as for the new student. But there are limits to such a labor-intensive business—teaching more than 18 classes a week is physically taxing, and while he knows some licensees in big cities who hire teachers and do the back-end work, the size of his area limits his growth. Taxes and insurance make hiring a second teacher cost-prohibitive.
But Yaeger accepts the limitations of his business.
“Singing, dancing and playing with kids always came naturally to me, but it's not for everyone," he says. "I have parents who come up to me and say, 'I don't know how you do this every day.' Even if it's a bad class, I leave with a smile on my face. I made a baby bounce up and down."