At some point, most customers have the unpleasant experience of walking into a quick serve, ordering food, and getting a less-than-warm greeting from an employee who seems disconnected from his work and guests. These diners may think the attitude is entirely the employee’s fault, but it may stem from a lack of corporate involvement at the unit level.

In fact, a recent study by Atlanta-based internal communications agency Tribe Inc. revealed that a disconnect between corporate and front-line employees can lead to poor customer service and low morale in the unit.

“A lack of communication creates employees who are less engaged than they could be, and creates an environment of a poor understanding of what the brand represents,” writes Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin, Tribe’s CEO, in an e-mail to QSR. “When someone does not have a clear understanding on the goals and values of a company, those delivering the service and interacting with the customers are not prepared to deliver the desired customer experience.”

The study also shows that when a corporate office can connect with employees, managers, and franchisees, it makes these stakeholders feel valued, on the same page, and loyal to the brand.

Many quick serves have learned the value of strong communication along the work chain and have integrated programs to connect the corporate office with franchisees and front-line employees. “Employees are our No. 1 brand advocates, and they face the gap every day in delivering our brand promise,” says Katherine Meariman, executive vice president of administration for Smoothie King. “We do a number of things to let them know we care about them and let them know they’re important to us.”

On the team member side, Smoothie King holds regular contests and awards cash prizes, limo rides, dinners, or special outings directly to employees who excel. While Smoothie King managers often act as a go-between for the corporate office and employees, the company encourages all team members to communicate questions and concerns. It also invites them to attend the annual franchise conference and take advantage of workshops.

Thomas McCord, vice president of franchise development at CiCi’s Pizza, calls franchisees, operators, managers, and the rest of the employee team “the backbone of what we do” and credits the brand’s success to their hard work.

“Our approach to communicating with employees or franchisees is really multifaceted. It’s a two-pronged approach that is people-based and process-based,” he says. “We have people working in the field who are very invested in leveraging relationships. On the process side, we do regular leadership exchanges and workshops, plus a weekly newsletter that goes out to everyone involved in the franchise and an online portal for people to share success stories.”

CiCi’s also offers a series of workshops throughout the country for employees that can help them rise through the system. Many franchisees are a product of this support, having started with the company as cooks or workers and moving into management positions, then ownership.

Brian Corsetti, franchise coordination director for Jake’s Wayback Burgers, says the brand is developed from the bottom up. “Constant education and communication are key, and it is something we focus on daily within the corporate office,” he says. “But it is just as important to develop relationships with the ambassadors so we can motivate them to assist us in growing our business.”

Its communication vehicles range from e-mails and newsletters to weekly system-wide webinars and podcasts broadcast via its Internet radio stations. “We recently started to invite franchisees and managers, as well as our staff, to attend conferences with us,” Corsetti says. “It gives us the opportunity to spend quality time with them and to allow them to see the bigger picture of franchising and the power of a brand.”

Corsetti says his corporate team acts as a concierge of sorts for any questions the franchisees, managers, or shift supervisors have. “We treat the franchisees’ business as our own, and it is our goal to know their businesses as well as they do,” he says. “If a front-line employee turns off a customer, or if one of us in the corporate office turns off a franchisee [or] manager, the result is a total breakdown of the very system and values we believe in and work toward.”

McAlister’s Deli connects with its team members by recognizing top franchisees, restaurant teams, and general managers every year at its annual conference. Additionally, the McAlister’s IT team has developed extensive front-line training, and is launching a new online training tool—McAlister’s University—that teaches restaurant basics and provides courses for personal development.

“When people are recognized for their hard work, it makes them feel proud and it gives them a sense of loyalty to the brand,” says Frank Paci, CEO of McAlister’s Deli.

Randy Wyner, founder of Chronic Tacos Enterprises, says its franchisees and employees must feel connected to the brand in order for the company to deliver the right experience to the consumers.

“The landscape of our industry is always changing, and we feel that we need to be in constant communication with our franchisees. When change comes, it is not something you just want to send a memo about,” he says. “We believe in including our franchisees in our decisions. We have created a Franchise Advisory Council to provide input on initiatives so that we are all a part of making our brand successful.”

To that end, Chronic Tacos uses a mystery shopper program; if employees hit key requirements, they are instantly rewarded.

“We feel the instant reward really sticks with the employee and can influence the rest of the team,” Wyner says. “Any time that we can reward people for being a part of ‘Taco Life,’ we do.”

While connections with front-line employees are critical, supporting franchisees is equally as important. To that end, CiCi’s Pizza created a special fund in May to break down the barriers of franchise financing. The Franchise Partner Investment Program allows the brand to co-own locations with franchisees. For any qualified new or existing multiunit operator who signs a development agreement, CiCi’s commits $100,000 of equity per store. The franchisee then invests $125,000 per store.

Geoff Goodman, CiCi’s vice president of national brand excellence, says the financing incentive program proves the company’s commitment to the success of its franchisees and their units. “It really shows a partnership—and a long-term one—and shows we are invested in the entire process,” he says.

Renae Scott, vice president of branding and marketing for Togo’s, says connecting with franchisees is critical to ensuring the brand is properly represented and that operators are living up to brand standards.

For its franchisees, Togo’s recently launched a portal that serves as a one-stop shop for all things Togo’s; they can order uniforms, do their online training, report sales, access the marketing website, and more.

“We developed the portal and made it a desirable place for them to go, and made it fun and interesting,” Scott says. “There’s a place franchisees can collaborate and share on a running blog, and it’s a model that shows that we are listening.”

Togo’s also reaches out to its crewmembers who are front and center with the guests. Each month a newsletter is put out with the top five things the brand is striving for.

“This year, we launched a scholarship fund for Togo’s crewmembers, funded by corporate, to further the education of the employees,” Scott says. “We leapfrogged the franchisees with this to show them that we consider them a valuable part of the team.”

Back of House, Denise Lee Yohn: QSR's Marketing Guru, Employee Management, Restaurant Operations, Story, Chronic Tacos, CiCi's Pizza, Jake's Wayback Burgers, Smoothie King, Togo's