The Maids Home Services, the pioneering cleaning company with double-digit annual growth, communicates with 130-plus franchises across the United States and Canada. With weekly mailings that were continuously getting lost, tied up when crossing borders or sometimes even never mailed, the company faced a serious dilemma that was thwarting effective communications.

Now, with the help of an off-the-shelf product and good, strategic planning by the company, The Maids Home Services franchises are benefitting from successful business intelligence implementation in the form of a proprietary intranet communication site. The result is a completely transformed and enhanced communications process that has changed communications between the company and its 130 franchise owners and more than 500 service locations throughout North America.

In addition to improving company-to-franchisee communications, the solution has provided a forum for franchisors to communicate in a non-competitive environment to improve their own business practices.

From the start, executive buy-in was critical to the success of this project. High-level executives, including representatives from Franchise Services, the vice president of Franchise Operations, the manager of IT and the president, first identified the problem and engaged in reviewing possible solution scenarios. The group first considered the option to build a solution in house but instead opted for an off-the-shelf solution that did nearly everything the company was seeking to accomplish, including e-mail, library/archive of old newsletters and other information, news postings, open forums and subject-specific forums that allow the company to choose who has access rights to view and participate in the communications.

Technically, the solution –­ which really was more of a process integration than a technology integration –­ was implemented quite simply and easily. The Maids Home Services adapted the product in order to produce information and post it to the intranet site, integrating the product with current Adobe and Office tools. No other integration was necessary. Franchisors were able to access the intranet through a password-protected link from The Maids Home Services public home page.

For 60 days, the group worked internally to define the solution. Then it took another 60 days for the internal employees at The Maids Home Services to get acclimated to the new system, including deciding how to set up the forums, selecting data to post, determining access rights and so on. To get all the franchises, which were brought on regionally (one group at a time), running took approximately 90 days.

Initially, the main issue the company faced was that some of the franchises still did not have Internet connections ­– a situation that has since resolved itself as more and more have come online. A lingering issue is the varying comfort levels with technology, which the company continues to work through. In the beginning, the company had a lot of lookers and very few participants; however, in the two years that the solution has been running, both numbers have grown.

While The Maids Home Services has not tracked the solution's success in a way that provides direct ROI quantification, executives concur that it has been highly beneficial for the company and its franchises.

Indicators of this include the results of a franchise survey sent out once a year, which has indicated extremely positive data about the intranet. Executives also report that the flourishing conversations between franchisors are the most real evidence of the project's success. At any given time, the company is reaching a continuous acceptable activity level of approximately 70 percent of the franchisees using the intranet to help one another and get their questions asked and answered ­– an invaluable benefit to the company. Franchisees learn from each other, and the company learns from them.

For example, questions posted are guaranteed an answer within 24 hours ­– and they're usually answered in just a couple of hours. Franchisors can enter forums focused on regional issues and new products. An international forum is a completely open place for anyone to post any question. There's even a forum where The Maids Home Services provides answers from independent insurance representatives to aid with any insurance- related questions about workers' compensation and other issues.

One other key measure of success has been The Maids Home Services executives' degree of comfort with the solution –­ specifically that they don't think they would have done it differently if they had to do it again. The solution solved their communication problems –­ and then some.

Additionally, paper mailings stopped. Before implementing the IFX Online solution, The Maids Home Services sent out at least 150 packages a week at $3-plus each. Eliminating that cost continues to be beneficial.

IFX Online provided The Maids Home Services with a secure Web site portal to provide and track access to documents, applications and Web mail, and online discussion forums. IFX Online is a full-service ASP specializing in the development and administration of intranet/extranet systems and localized Web site programs designed specifically for franchise organizations.

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