Of all the tasks that befall the new franchisor, perhaps none is as important as the role of training. If the brand is the heart of any great franchise, training is the physical conditioning that keeps that heart beating strongly and consistently.

And just like keeping your heart in shape, training is something you may be tempted to push to the back burner, while you focus instead on everyday business. But in doing so, you run the risk that someday your heart may seize up on you.

The First Step: The Operations Manual

The most important piece of any training program is a strong operations manual. While the operations manual acts as the franchisee's textbook during training, its most important function is to serve as your quality control mechanism. And since its table of contents is typically included in your Uniform Franchise Offering Circular, the creation of the operations manual is generally one of the first and most vital steps in the development of a new franchise program.

Typically, the operations manual is written as if the franchisee has absolutely no experience in the industry and no prior skills. This is because the operations manual acts as an extension of the franchise agreement and, therefore, is a legally binding compliance tool that must incorporate all the standards a franchisor will require of each franchisee.

Every single step in the development of a new business should be documented, starting with the most basic: finding a site, opening a bank account, obtaining a federal tax identification number and even implementing good business practices in general. The operations manual should also include legal discussions on issues such as wage and labor laws, EEOC, sexual harassment, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and a variety of other laws affecting small business. And, of course, the franchisor must include very specific instructions on the operations of the business, reporting requirements and expected standards of performance.

Because of the complex and highly detailed nature of these operations manuals and training programs (not to mention the fact that these training materials are your means of controlling brand quality), you're well advised to hire professionals to help develop these materials. And while this may be expensive, the alternative of having inadequate brand protection may be much more costly. This is an area in which it is generally unwise to scrimp, even if you're operating on a limited budget, as a poorly written operations manual may easily find its way into a courtroom.

The first area of potential exposure occurs when you try to enforce system standards. Without this operations manual, such standards are virtually impossible to quantify. More significant exposure can occur when a consumer lawsuit tries to attach you to one of your franchisee's actions. Generally speaking, the franchisee, as an independent contractor, is responsible for its own actions. But enterprising attorneys may try to use a poorly written operations manual to attack the franchisor--by claiming that it created an agency relationship or that it was negligent in addressing certain issues.

With the operations manual completed, you must then develop a strong training program to impart its contents to franchisees. While the operations manual must be very detailed, training programs can presuppose a certain level of knowledge or ability. Thus, in order to develop a good training program, you must start with an understanding of who the new franchisee is. Is this new franchisee someone with industry-specific knowledge? With specific skills, such as sales or management abilities? Or do you need to treat this franchisee as if he were learning absolutely everything for the first time? Ultimately, the training program must be good enough to ensure that the least skilled new franchisee will represent the brand to the standard of quality associated with the concept.

Next, you must decide how to do the training. Generally, this training takes the form of headquarters training, onsite training and ongoing training.

Headquarters Training

One key element of almost all franchise training programs involves training at the franchisor's headquarters. Prior to launching its franchise program, a good franchisor must develop a formal training agenda for its pre-opening training course at headquarters. While the operations manual should serve as the primary textbook throughout the training program, the agenda should contain the broad list of topics that will go beyond the scope of the manual itself.

Generally speaking, this training starts with a tour of the prototype operation, corporate headquarters and an introduction of staff. Once the formal training session begins, most franchisors focus on subjects best taught in a "classroom" setting. Among the dozens of topics included in this portion of training, you should address corporate history and philosophy, pre-opening procedures, daily operations, insurance requirements, vendor relationships and reporting requirements. This segment of training often involves hands-on training within your franchise prototype (or perhaps a special training prototype constructed for that purpose).

As the final training agenda is prepared, be sure to keep the training sessions lively and interactive. A mixture of training formats such as video (for example, showing a key supplier's facility), lecture, discussion and hands-on work (such as product preparation) creates an inviting training environment for franchisees. Moreover, various studies have shown that franchisees retain more information when the trainer uses various training methodologies combining visual, auditory and tactile learning methodologies.

We also recommend that our clients involve some of its management staff in the headquarters' training session. Exposing multiple staff members to franchisees energizes the process and helps build franchisee relationships throughout the organization.

Onsite Training

The next step of a franchise training program generally involves several days to a few weeks (depending on the complexity of your operation) assisting franchisees and their staff at the franchisee's location.

As with headquarters training, you should develop a detailed training agenda for this program. Depending on a franchisee's prior experience and sophistication, the onsite portion of the training experience differs markedly from one franchisee to the next. Consequently, you need to be more flexible in terms of both approach and content during the onsite training session.

Given that the onsite session will take place at the franchisee's location, training should focus on topics that assist the franchisee to become more familiar and comfortable with the day-to-day operation of the business.

Franchisees new to the industry will have different questions and expectations during the onsite portion of training than franchisees with prior experience in related businesses. One of the key objectives of the onsite trainer is to identify and prioritize the franchisee's needs during the first day or two of training. Tailor the remaining training schedule to best meet the needs of these individuals.

It's important to remember that a franchisee can forget everything he has learned during training the moment the doors open. Like a deer caught in the headlights, the franchisee and his staff can panic and freeze--thus, the importance of the opening team.

Dave Hood, my partner at the iFranchise Group and the former president of Auntie Anne's Soft Pretzels, tells of a situation where the Auntie Anne's opening team assisted a new franchisee at his grand opening. And what an opening it was! Lines everywhere, with people clamoring for pretzels and lemonade. Of course, the team was overjoyed, and served pretzels as fast as they could make them. Then Dave noticed that the franchisee was nowhere to be found. Now for those of you who have been to an Auntie Anne's shop, you know there is not a lot of room to get lost. Five minutes passed. Finally, Dave walked into the back storage area, only to find the franchisee lying on the floor, curled up in the fetal position. Dave got him to his feet and back on the firing line, and today, that same franchisee is among the most successful in the system.

It is easy to become overwhelmed and to momentarily forget everything we learn. Therefore, it is imperative that you help the franchisee get on his feet--in some cases, quite literally. Sending an opening team to help the franchisee during the first critical week of operation is often the best way to accomplish this. An opening team helps franchisees break into day-to-day operations slowly, so they don't feel they're jumping into the deep end alone, without assistance from the franchisor.

Within several days following the completion of onsite training, you should provide the franchisee with an overall written evaluation of the training program. The evaluation should reference both the franchisee's areas of strengths and areas in which the franchisee needs additional work. Include a specific action plan with this evaluation--as well as a clear list of objectives for the franchisee to focus on in the coming weeks and months.

In the weeks after onsite training, effective follow-up with the franchisee helps provide a seamless transition between your initial and ongoing support phases.

Ongoing Training

While most franchisors provide extensive training to new franchisees, many fail to ensure that franchisees and their managers receive ongoing and refresher training. New managers and employees of the franchisee need to be properly trained as they are hired. As a result, in some systems, franchisees and their managers are often inadequately trained in new policies and procedures regarding system standards, and the franchisor does not have a clear understanding of what training the franchisees are providing to their new employees.

To minimize the erosion of system standards over time through lack of training, you should develop an effective training program that requires ongoing certification on core competency issues for franchisees and their key staff members. Such a program includes periodic refresher training for these top positions, as well as detailed training for any new products, services or procedures that are introduced over time. In addition, for any key ("certified") positions within the franchisee's organization, you must establish policies as to how any replacement individuals are to be trained (e.g., when training must be completed, and who will provide it) once they are hired by the franchisee.

Train, Train, and Over-train

One question I'm frequently asked about training is, "How much is too much?" And I am always tempted to answer, "You can never do too much training," but the fact of the matter is, there are always trade-offs involved.

For franchisees, who are eager to open the business and are carrying the out-of-pocket costs for themselves and perhaps their managers, the longer the training, the more expensive it becomes. And since the franchisee is not earning money during this training, this "time away from the job" can be a significant financial drain.

Likewise, for the franchisor, time spent training is time not spent selling. As you grow, you'll need dedicated training staff--and the more training is provided, the more staff is required. So training has a cost.

Thus, it becomes incumbent on you to attempt to measure these costs--both for you and the franchisee--against the complexity of the system, the potential for error and the importance of the brand both now and in the future.

My quick rule of thumb for making that assessment is my "keys to the shop" test. When making this assessment, I tell the franchisor to imagine they are going on a cruise down the Amazon for a month. No cell phones. No internet. And then I ask them, "How much training would you want someone to have if you were going to let them run your company store for that month without you?" Add startup training (site selection, lease negotiation, etc.) to that number, and you'll be getting close to an adequate initial training requirement.

Test for Competence

Training without testing assumes two things that may not be true. First, it assumes that you, as the franchisor, did a good job of training. Second, it assumes that your franchisee did a good job of learning.

Franchisees should be given a number of written and practical tests (for example, on customer service procedures) throughout the headquarters training program. A final exam covering a broad range of topics covered during the training process should also be part of this testing process.

While the majority of franchisees successfully complete the franchisor's training program, some franchisees (or their managers) may struggle with the training or display traits during the training (e.g., rudeness, lack of sales ability, lack of focus, etc.). This could raise red flags as to their potential success as a franchisee. In such cases, it is important that you give your training staff the authority (and responsibility) to address deficiencies with trainees and, if necessary, fail them from the training program.

While the goal of the training program is to assist new franchisees in their transition to your system, not every franchisee or manager attending the training session will demonstrate the ability to succeed. It's much easier to deal with such problems when they occur during initial training than after the franchisee returns to their location and opens for business.

There are only two ways to find out if your heart is healthy: Test it or have a heart attack. We recommend the former.