Used intelligently and with care, brokers can provide value. They
can be a source for new franchise prospects, and while they add
a significant cost to the sales effort, one can argue that they
earn their compensation only when someone closes on a deal. Brokers
also can bring franchisors franchise candidates that for some reason
were not attracted to the franchisor's advertisements or other marketing
However, in these days of the Internet, with the abundance of lead
generation sites and other techniques, not only can a well-structured
and professional in-house franchisee sales force do as well for
franchisors as brokers can, but it likely will do better at a lower
cost and certainly at a significantly lower risk. Putting that debate
off to another day, brokers can be a crutch for a weak inside salesperson
who requires a presold candidate before he or she even can contemplate
closing a sale. Equally, brokers can be a source of candidates to
help a franchisor fill in a particular market.
Risks of Using a Broker
There are certain risks associated with using a broker. The risk
most often mentioned is the possibility that commissioned brokers
will improperly share unit financial information with a prospective
franchisee and make an illegal earnings claim. That risk, however,
is not unique to third-party sales agents alone and can just as
easily occur with in-house salespeople.
The rules governing the disclosure and registration of outside
sales agents are reasonably clear and not new to franchising. The
two main requirements are that:
- Brokers must be disclosed in Item 2 and, if necessary, Items
3 and 4 of the UFOC and,
- In certain states, brokers must be registered.
Many brokers and some of the franchisors that use them do not follow
the rules. Part of the problem likely stems from the nomenclature
used today in the industry. Few brokers refer to themselves as such
any longer. They refer to themselves as coaches, advisers, sales
consultants, lead generators, referral networks and the like. Indeed,
a major brokerage firm's web site proclaims in capital letters to
prospective franchisees that it is not a broker.
Neither the regulations nor the regulators share that position.
In an informal staff advisory opinion in November 1999, the FTC
said, "there was no question" that a major consultancy
that had asked for an opinion qualified as a broker under the rule.
According to the FTC's Guide to the FTC Franchise Rule "A 'franchise
broker' is defined as any person who 'sells, offers for sale, or
arranges for the sale' of a covered franchise (Part 436.2(j)), and
includes not only independent sales agents, but also subfranchisors
that grant subfranchises (44 FR 49963).' "
Based on my firm's discussions, some franchisors that use brokers
often disclose only the brokerage firm and not the individual brokers.
Others are unaware that relevant litigation and bankruptcies by
brokers are subject to disclosure. Many franchisors are unaware
of the requirement to include information about the brokers on their
state cover pages and on the receipt to the UFOC, and several brokers
are neither registered where appropriate nor have they registered
a consent to service of process, where required.
The rationale for not abiding by the rule varies. Some franchisors
believe that since the brokers do not hold face-to-face meetings
and therefore are not required to provide prospects with a UFOC,
they merely are providing leads and are not subject to disclosure.
Others feel that including a long list of brokers in their UFOCs,
especially when they may periodically change during the year, is
a burden, and so listing only the brokerage firm should be sufficient.
Still others are concerned that the change in the cadre of brokers
might be considered a material change and thus might necessitate
the suspension of franchise sales for a period of time in some states.
Conflicts of Interest
The reason that disclosure and, where necessary, broker registration
is required is to protect both the franchisor and franchisees. Regulatory
burden aside, the rules regarding disclosure of brokers and whether
these lead generation firms are brokers and subject to disclosure
and, where required, registration are no longer subjects of significant
Using brokers raises other issues clearly less rooted in the law
but possibly more important, since they are based on integrity,
ethical practices and fairness. The problem is how some brokers
practice their craft.
It is important to point out that not all brokers practice their
craft the same way, which highlights the fact that obfuscation is
not an essential element of franchise sales. Each of the major broker
networks, while disclosing that it is paid by the franchisor, in
one form or another represents that it provides no-cost, beneficial
services to prospective franchisees. On some of the web sites, though,
a prospective franchisee is led to believe that the broker is its
coach, adviser or consultant. Indeed, some brokers describe prospective
franchisee as their clients, even though they are paid and are agents
for the franchisor. An assertion that the prospective franchisee
is the client when the broker is a paid agent of the franchisor
is totally unsupportable. The conflict of interest and the unfairness
to a potential franchisee are apparent.
Brokers' sites include promises to inexperienced prospective franchisees
that their recommendations are unbiased and that their role is to
help the prospect find the perfect franchise. Some claim that they
are not trying to sell the prospect anything and that they have
no reason to recommend any particular franchise or a more expensive
franchise. They include claims of doing the necessary research on
the franchisor that minimize the prospective franchisee's risks.
Add to that the fact that many brokers are not disclosed in the
franchisor's UFOC, might not be registered where required, may have
a conflict of interest and may pressure the prospect to make a rapid
decision, and the risk to prospective franchisees is clear.
Nowhere on any of the brokers' web sites is the prospective franchisee
informed that the broker represents a limited number of franchisors
or even which franchisors the brokers represent. While some brokers
claim to have evaluated hundreds of franchisors, they do not disclose
who their clients are, although the impression given is that the
list is extensive and that only the best franchisors are selected.
The perception created is that the brokers are selecting from hundreds
of leading opportunities, when in fact their selection may be limited
to only a handful of lesser opportunities.
The conflict of interest does not end there. None of the web sites
that my firm reviewed disclosed that the commission and fees paid
by franchisors on the sale of a franchise may not be uniform. The
truth is that fees often vary, and, contrary to written assurances,
brokers do have an interest in which franchise is selected by a
prospect. A franchisor may be the "best fit" simply because
the franchisor pays a higher commission or has a track record of
closing franchise sales more quickly. If the "perfect"
franchise pays a low fee but another client pays a substantial fee,
it would need an Olympic leap of faith to believe that the prospect
will be introduced to the franchisor paying the lower fee or no
fee. It is important to remember that most of the largest and most
attractive franchisors do not even use brokers. The proposed change
to the FTC rule eliminating the first personal meeting requirement
will only exacerbate this concern.
On some sites, the prospective franchisee is taken back to a time
when unsupportable claims about franchising's success were widely
touted. Several brokers quote statistics on their web sites that
have long been discredited, such as "[A]fter 10 years, franchises
have a 90 percent survival rate. Compare that to just an 18 percent
survival rate for other forms of independent businesses."
Few franchisors today include these claims in their promotional
literature. The reason is that the validity of the methodology used
in reaching some of these statistics has long been under a cloud,
and since there are no recent studies supporting those claims, they
are misleading at best.
Brokers include claims on their web sites that they carefully select
the franchisors to which they refer prospects, and some claim that
those franchisors must meet the brokerages' exacting standards,
including "return on investment, litigation, failures and other
factors." However, these types of claims imply that these franchisors
are the best of the best and that the prospective franchisee will
have little financial risk. Indeed, one of the brokers promises
to "minimize the risk." Some of the regulators and attorneys
with whom my company has spoken felt that these claims, when taken
together with information in the UFOC, might constitute an illegal
earnings claim. For franchisors that use these brokers, this could
be a problem.
Others felt that while an improper earnings claim was possible,
it was more likely that the prospective franchisee had relied on
an actionable promise made on behalf of the franchisor by its agent.
This would be equally problematic to those franchisors.
Finally, of the major brokerage firms, one is a franchisor, while
the others are not. However, there is a question concerning the
impact on a franchisor should its broker be an inadvertent franchisor
and in violation of the rule.
What should a franchisor do when working with a broker? Here are
- Disclose the individual franchise brokers in Items 2, 3 and
4 of the UFOC, including all the required personal and historic
information, as well as that required on the state cover page
and receipt. The individual brokers can be listed in an addendum
to the UFOC.
- Keep its legal counsel informed about changes in the broker
network, as those changes, depending on their materiality, may
require changes in the UFOC.
- Require the broker to notify it immediately of any changes to
the broker's network or of any individual broker who would affect
the franchisor or its disclosure requirement.
- Require that each franchise broker in the network complete a
Uniform Salesperson Disclosure Form as required by state statutes
and also complete a registration application, as well as a consent
to service of process in the appropriate states. Further, the
broker should provide copies of all the applications and approval
documents to the franchisor.
- Require the brokerage firm to certify that it has conducted
a thorough and independent due diligence on each broker in its
network and has verified the information in the registration application.
The brokerage network also should indemnify the franchisor if
it is found that information that should have been disclosed in
the franchisor's UFOC is not provided to the franchisor. Since
brokers are agents for the franchisor, I strongly recommend that
franchisors require both the brokerage firm and the individual
franchise brokers to indemnify them for their activities.
- Require brokers to obtain errors and omissions and broad liability
insurance coverage from the broker, listing the franchisor as
an additional insured.
- Require a broker to notify it immediately if there is any pending
or threatened litigation or regulatory action taken against any
of the broker's other clients (current and former) or any broker
in the network (current and former) as it relates to the sale
and offering of franchises.
- Provide to the broker network any standards it has set for conducting
the sale of franchises, require the brokerage to abide by those
standards and certify in writing prior to closing on a franchise
sale that it has done so.
- Require the broker to provide it with a list of its other clients
and update that list on a regular basis.
Requiring brokers to follow the existing rules and also providing
additional disclosures and assurances to both franchisors and prospective
franchisees are small prices for preserving the reputation that
franchising has fought so hard to earn and keep. Insisting that
future franchisees be treated fairly and also that trust, truth,
honesty and integrity be required of outside sales agents is the
only sensible course.