Rising to the challenge Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2008

When Mike Lassiter talks about how he solicits input from his employees, his examples are mouthwatering.

For instance, when the president and CEO of Rising Roll Franchising Co. wanted to gather input from the 130 employees of his Rising Roll Gourmet franchises, he held a contest for employees to submit new menu ideas based on feedback from customers.

One entry was a pimento cheese sandwich, and the company decided to roll it out and give it a test run.

“Then, this summer, we had a pimento cheese BLT that included our made-from-scratch pimento cheese, hickory-smoked bacon [and] Granny Smith apples on a seven-grain boule, and it was fabulous,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Lassiter about how to make sure your employees aren’t too intimidated to approach you and how to avoid being overwhelmed by feedback.

Q. How do you become an effective communicator?

First and foremost, you’ve got to provide a platform where the franchisees feel comfortable being honest with you and having good dialogue with you. You don’t want a corporate structure where there is an intimidation factor to speak to someone at the corporate office.

To do that, you have to be visible. You have to be out in the stores. You have to call the franchisees. You have to create a communication structure, which will allow them the opportunity to give you good, honest input. The platform of communication is crucial, and then secondly, you need to have structured communication.

We have monthly conference calls in which we’ll go over a variety of different topics. For a lot of people, that is a good way to reach out to us.

This structured communication plan allows our franchisees to be very strategic in our decision-making process. Then, we have a national meeting at the same time every year, and we have round-table discussions so franchisees can address specific topics and come up with solutions.

One of the points that has been helpful in making sure we have a good dialogue is I have given every franchisee my cell number. They know that they can call me after hours, they can call me on the weekend, and they have access to me. Because we’ve opened our communications that much, we have very strong communications in our organization.

If you talk to some organizations out there, it’s very difficult to get to the person you need to speak with to get an answer. You have to go through this maze of assistants and voice mail — it becomes very unproductive.

Whatever business you’re in, the CEO needs to reach out at some point each month to those offices, the regional managers, those franchise units, whatever the structure may be to make sure there is good communication.

Q. How could another CEO set up communications like that?

They would need to look at the most critical elements of their business. Then they would want to structure communications related to that.

If there are strategic marketing initiatives we want to implement and we want to communicate that to the group, you set up structured conference calls to help you do that. But first, look at the critical elements of your business, then set up the communication structure to be able to get employee input in those critical areas. If you do that, then you’ve given a platform to the staff — or, in our business, the franchisees — to really open up and share their communication.

That’s a big pitfall for a CEO, that they don’t take that communication as an opportunity to improve the business. The franchisees are on the front line. They are out there serving the customer every day. They have some of the most important input that affects how successful this organization is going to be. So we take it very seriously.

Q. How do you ensure your communications are structured?

We send out an agenda for the conference calls so it’s a very structured call. But you can also leave communication where there is open dialogue, too.

At the end of the call, we have open discussion. That’s where a franchisee can bring up a new topic, like, ‘Our new lids are starting to stick together,’ or, ‘Has anybody else had a problem with the new cups breaking?’

The buy-in for them is obvious. It’s an opportunity for them to give input that is very strategic in the decision-making process. They know that they truly can influence our direction with good input and good communication through the different channels.

HOW TO REACH: Rising Roll Franchising Co., (404) 816-9292 or www.risingroll.com