Franchising a Health Network

When Hamlet asks “To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles’ he could have been referring to the Franchising dilemma that today’s health and wellness providers are grappling with. To Franchise and grow quickly vs own and grow in a measured way.
Probably there is no right answer without a strong context. Franchising is basically a form of ownership. In a franchisee driven business such as Pizza Hut – the brand is owned by the company – in this case Yum foods and outlets are owned and managed by independent franchisees. So no matter which Pizza Hut or McDonald’s you visit the product, pricing and service experience is always similar and consistent.
This works because the franchisor and franchisee agree to the fundamental premise that each franchisee will always follow established brand and operational guidelines. This way of working allows the Franchisor to focus on ensuring compliance while the franchisee builds the local business.
While this framework works well in several types of retail businesses, in health and wellness it posts several challenges:
The right partner – Most successful franchising business owners will tell you that agreements and compliance aside, the trick to franchising is to find partners that agree with your brand philosophy and your style of working. For example: When you go looking for franchisees for a clinic you can either choose a doctor who knows how to manage a business or a businessman who knows a bit about healthcare and can find the appropriate assistance.
Both sides have their associated problems. Independent medical practitioners have typically not been exposed to Franchising in our country and find the demands and restrictions of running a franchise too cumbersome. On the other hand if you happen to choose a businessman as a franchisee you may end up spending a large amount of time in educating him about the requirements from the medical side.
Ongoing training – The challenge therefore is training and education to bridge the gaps that arise on an ongoing basis. While some could argue that wellness related businesses such as Gyms and Spa’s are easier to Franchise as compared to complex hospitals, there can again be arguments that highlight difficulties in a fast growing, disparate market like India.
Customers visiting Gym’s have been regularly complaining about the apathy of Franchise owners to customers. Several franchisee businesses have invested in great looking buildings and state of the art equipment while not focusing enough on the need to personalise a fitness regime for customers. Spa owners and customers echo the same problem – great ambience but lack of consistency and personalised attention.
It is interesting in this context to note that the beauty business – Lakme and L’Oreal- have managed to successfully roll out franchise Salons with regularity. After analysing this closely my conclusion is that complexity of business processes or lack thereof is not really an issue – if hotels can be franchised so can hospitals. It is instead the rigour with which the franchisee finds the right people and trains them, that makes the difference!
Developing a strong, distinct Brand – While good partners and continuous training inputs will help you run an efficient business, unless your brand has a strong identity you will suffer from lack of consumer pull. A strong healthcare brand will actually go beyond your logo and visual communication to deliver consistent and distinct experiences whenever a patient visits any of your business locations:
1. The challenge of branding is to go beyond the product features. Most healthcare providers today compete on price or the mode of delivery “the doctor”. The loyalty of the customer then, stays with the doctor, and as the doctor moves so do they. The concept of “unique distinctiveness” prevalent in other businesses – McDonald’s burger or the Mont Blanc Bag don’t seem to exist here.
While I join tertiary care providers in turning up my nose at branded surgeries, surely branding programs for groups of customers such as the elderly or mother and child are not such a bad idea. Similarly one is yet to hear of unique or distinctive Spa therapies or Branded fitness programs.
Those who have implemented these have seen significant benefits. However, mass communication of programs that extend beyond the company owned establishments is actually where the marketing gap lies.
2. Distinctiveness of the brand can also be delivered through service processes that support the medical processes. The customer admission process, waiting rooms, handling attendants and post operative care can all be branded to deliver uniqueness that your customers will appreciate and ask for.
3. Ambience always adds to how you are delivering the brand. Easy to read signages, soothing music and a relaxed atmosphere all add to an environment that speaks wellness without having to say a word. When extended to several franchisees just make sure that maintenance standards and costs are always factored in.
4. Demonstrate care – Expansion always leads to the influx of people into the system, it is important that each one of them understand your brand values and actually live the brand through action and words. Most healthcare businesses make their backend processes so intense that at times they forget that the first priority is customer handling. A clearly laid out customer handling procedure, standard phrases and behaviour guidelines will genuinely help in delivering your brand.

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