OK, Maybe You Should Run Your Franchise Like a Circus

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Recently I wrote an article called “Stop Running Your Franchise Like a Circus.” I used circus acts as metaphors for counterproductive behaviors that limit franchisee performance. “Juggling” referred to doing too much yourself. “Lion taming” meant focusing only on problems. You get the idea. 

The day after it published, I received an email from Chris Barltrop, professional circus ringmaster and founder of the Centre for Circus Culture in England. He took issue with my use of the circus metaphor, defending not only the dignity of the circus arts, but also the ways they exemplify

Image credit: Dan Foster Photography

“I would suggest your readers START running their business like a circus!” he wrote. “To run and continue running, a professional circus has to be among the tightest of organisations…Your headline is (I regret to point out) an inaccurate cliche, insulting to those involved in the circus arts. Please take a deeper look.”

Related: Stop Running Your Franchise Like a Circus

So I did. I reached out to Barltrop to learn more about his industry. I discovered that the circus does, in fact, offer franchisees many lessons on how to run a successful business. Here are a few.

Be a ringmaster 

“My job as ringmaster is to ensure what happens in the ring is the very best,” Barltrop explains. He manages the performers, hosts the audience and keeps the show running smoothly. He must charismatically inspire everyone in the tent. He needs to demonstrate this in adherence to the vision and standards of the circus owners.

Franchisees must also manage their employees and delight their customers. They need to maintain a smooth operation. The must offer inspiration and support to everyone their business impacts. They own their franchise, but they must still work within guidelines set by their franchisor. And they need to make sure that what happens within their four walls is the very best.

An owner’s job isn’t to perform work; it’s to lead it. Play the necessary role no one else can. Every ring needs a master. Create an inspiring, nurturing space for employees and a warm, hospitable environment for customers. Faciliate greatness. 

Build your troupe

Barltrop describes how collaboration is necessary for a circus to thrive, explaining, “The contribution made to the whole by each individual troupe member is exemplary — all for one, and one for all. Everybody helps everybody else for the common good, surely the aspiration of every business owner, unless they still believe in top-down order-giving.” 

Barltrop adds that even if performers speak different languages and eat different foods, “The minute they come out of their trailer, they become part of a tight community.”

A franchisee must build a culture of employees who understand how their individual role fits into the larger operation. Each must see themselves as part of a greater whole. They must do their job while helping others do theirs. That doesn’t just happen. Management must actively value, encourage and instill a troupe mentality into every team member, every day.

Please the crowd

Ernest Hemingway wrote in a three-page essay for the Ringling Bros. program in 1953 stating, “It is the only spectacle I know, that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.” Barltrop echoes this sentiment, saying, “We create an inspiring experience that helps the audience escape the outside world. Then we draw them into ours. There is no message — just pleasure. We just want them to sit back, relax and enjoy the show.”

Customers come to your business for a product, service or solution. What makes the biggest impression on them, however, is how the experience makes them feel. Were they welcomed? Rushed? Surprised? Disappointed? Was the transaction dreamlike, or was it a nightmare? What they get is less important than how they feel. Make it your mission to elevate their emotional state. If even for a moment, help them escape the stressful world they live in, and treat them to an awe-inspiring encounter layered with service, attention and excellence. That’ll ensure they give rave reviews and return for repeat performances. 

Practice, practice, practice

There’s no such thing as perfection in the circus. Performers constantly practice what they do and work to do it better. They push themselves to develop new ways to amaze and impress. It’s not enough to be great. They want to be greater. 

So do top franchisees. They relentlessly push for higher sales, lower costs, better reviews, etc. They’re always searching for ways to tighten operations. They study their P and L statements looking for opportunities to improve the numbers. They focus on personal growth by reading books and listening to podcasts. They know if they don’t push themselves forward, they’ll slip backwards. Continued improvement is critical for longevity.

Respect the tradition

Audience members have expectations when they come to the circus. Sure, they want to be surprised with something new, but they also come to relive something old — to enjoy the traditions that have defined the big-top experience for centuries. These are the elements that make a circus a circus. 

uniformity is important for franchise systems. Customers want a consistent experience in every location. It’s what defines the franchise, and it’s what’s been proven to work. If you deviate from the system, you weaken the brand and take on unnecessary risk.  

At the same time, it’s important to embrace the changes implemented by your franchisor. This is often a source of tension within franchise brands. No one likes change when things seem to be working. Chances are, there’s a good reason for the new approach. And not changing is much more dangerous. The circus industry is proof of this. Barltrop describes the circus as “a living tradition that’s always changing.” Those that have lasted have had to. So will franchises

Image credit: Piet-Hein Out

Be the greatest show on Earth

The image of the circus is as important as the performance. When the show rolls into town, it does so with a flourish. Its arrival is loud, colorful and impossible not to notice. It calls out to every lady, gentleman, boy and girl. It promises something spectacular, then it delivers something even better.

Your business needs noticing. That means consistent, aggressive, unavoidable marketing. You need to outshout the competition. You need to promise something big, then deliver something even bigger. If you do, soon your customers will be shouting on your behalf, drawing even bigger crowds. Be loud. Then be great.

Related: In His Day, P.T. Barnum Was More Popular Than Gates, Musk and Jobs, Combined

I’ve come to appreciate the sophistication of a circus operation. There’s nothing chaotic or haphazard about it. It’s a well-planned, brilliantly organized production relying on the highest levels of talent, collaboration and commitment you’ll find in any industry. A franchise business owner would be wise to learn from it and operate accordingly. Those who don’t are just clowning around. (Just kidding, Mr. Barltrop.)



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