The Internet has become an integral part of American life, and forward-thinking franchisors are gearing their marketing and customer service strategies with this in mind. Today, more franchises are seeing the Internet as a tool to attract and educate potential customers, as well as offer perks to existing ones.

"The volume of regional and national [online] advertising generated for franchises is certainly increasing," says Dan Martin, president and founder of IFX Online Inc., a San Diego firm that helps franchises develop their intranet and extranet systems.

IFX's clients, such as GNC and McAlister's Deli, are using the Internet primarily as an advertising tool. "More companies are finding that certain Web-based marketing programs are very effective in terms of cost, and they can be targeted toward customers of a certain local franchisee," Martin says. This includes promotions such as direct e-mail campaigns that let customers know about upcoming events and specials.

But Martin warns that, even if a franchise focuses its marketing efforts on the Web, non-electronic promoting cannot be ignored. "Once a franchisee has a presence on the Web, we encourage them to promote the heck out of it, so all their printed materials, vehicles, business cards, every type of specialty ad they run advertises the Web site," he says.

The Internet can also be used to attract the attention of casual customers. Internet directory go2 provides wired and wireless Web users with menus, coupons and turn-by-turn directions for a number of companies, including Blimpie and Burger King.

"The franchisors typically register all their locations in our directory, so people using the directory applications have access to better information," says Lee Hancock, CEO of the Irvine, California-based go2. "The franchisees benefit, because we're able to publish in-depth, accurate information about each location."

With go2's system, customers log on to www.go2.comand look up the nearest fast-food, service or retail business by name or category. Once they select a location, they're given turn-by-turn directions and can even get coupons. "It helps franchisees increase their traffic, which presumably will increase their sales. We also focus on increasing customer satisfaction and loyalty," Hancock says.

Meanwhile, service franchises are using the Net to maintain relationships and improve communication between customers and franchisees. For example, MaidPro, a residential cleaning franchise, enhanced its Web site to allow customers to check service dates, move and cancel appointments, view their billing history, write notes for future service and comments on past jobs. This information is available 24/7 and eliminates phone tag between customers and MaidPro.

"Every morning, our managers would have a whole rash of e-mails and voice mails from customer calls that came in overnight, and they'd spend an hour calling everyone back," explains Mark Kushinsky, MaidPro's CEO and founder. "Of course, by then the customers weren't at home, so we'd have to disturb them at work."

Kushinsky conducted a survey throughout the organization to find out the most requested information from MaidPro customers. Now, all a customer has to do is log onto the company's site, www.maidpro.com, with their e-mail address and password to find the answers to their questions.

In the three months since the company began offering this service to its clients, the response has been positive. "We've had about a 30 percent decrease in the number of customer phone calls," Kushinsky says. "Our staff is able to spend that time doing other things, like train our staff more or provide better service to customers who do end up having to call in."