For Wild Birds Unlimited Founder and CEO Jim Carpenter, listening is a major part of his leadership ethos.
That’s why he decided that 2018 would mark his first Listening Tour, which involved him traveling around the country to different cities to meet with brand franchisees.
“About a year ago, when we were doing budgets for 2018, we were talking about how sometimes we do these regional meetings that are highly organized and attended by both franchise store owners and a handful of Franchise Support Center staff, but we tended to direct the agenda and made most of the presentations,” he said. “I told my team ‘I don’t want to do that this year. I want to do listening tours.’”
Jim decided that he would visit a number of cities for four hours each and franchisees who wanted to go were free to attend. He went to Chicago, Illinois; Carmel, Indiana (which he visited twice); Eustis, Florida; Denver, Colorado; Columbus, Ohio; Fort Worth, Texas and Toronto, Canada. He will do another meeting in Las Vegas in January, and likely three more different cities in 2019.
This tour complements what Wild Birds Unlimited already does in terms of acquiring franchisee feedback.
“Every year, I write a strategic whitepaper which describes how things are going and how we’re going to improve relationships with and better serve our franchisees and customers,” Carpenter said. “That comes out in the spring. We follow up on that with our annual conference called ‘The Enterprise Leadership Conference’ because that’s what we want our franchisees to be…Enterprise Leaders. At those conferences, we have community forums, as well as four one-hour sessions in which store owners can come and discuss whatever they want with me.”
That conference also involves franchise advisory council meetings in which anyone who wants to listen in can do so.
With the listening tour, Carpenter alerts franchisees as to where he’ll be and they can come and talk about anything. There is no set agenda.
Listening is a major leadership value for Carpenter.
“I believe in listening, and I would say that in my 30-plus years of being a leader, there have been times when I could have listened a little better, so I’ve learned my lesson,” Carpenter said. “As a team, all of us here try to listen better and it definitely helps us improve as retailers and who we are as franchisors.”
The listening tour also gives Carpenter a chance to make sure franchisees are implementing best practices passed down from the WBU Franchise Support Center team.
“I would spend four hours in a session, and in the first half we talked about things that are currently best practices. What I wanted to find out is if they’re using them, and if they are using them, whether or not they’re working,” Carpenter said. “In the second half of the session, I talk to the franchisees about what’s coming down the road that they may have questions about.”
For Carpenter, it’s important that franchisees have the opportunity to speak directly with him and hear directly from him about the company’s plans. He is especially interested in hearing how franchisees view their relationships with their retail customers and how they lead their staff members to create “an incredible customer experience that keeps those customers wanting to come back and tell their family and friends that they’ve got to shop at Wild Birds Unlimited. He said, “That’s a big deal for leaders and staff members and one of the hardest things for people to do especially if they didn’t have that experience prior to having a franchise.”
Carpenter also used this Listening Tour as a place to discuss initiatives that franchisees wanted to change. One example of this is the brand’s loyalty program.
“I had thrown out a suggestion last spring about changes I thought we could make to our loyalty program, which we call the Daily Savings Club,” Carpenter said. “As I started talking to store owners back in August and September, I quickly realized I ought to change that a little bit as I listened to what they were saying. I changed my mind on how our loyalty program ought to proceed. During the rest of the tour, I was able to share my thoughts on what would be different than what I had said in the spring and the franchisees were able to comment and generally were pretty happy with how I changed my mind on how the loyalty club should work.”
The timing for this particular franchisee feedback was perfect.
“That was a pretty important one because we were building a point-of-sale system that’s cloud-based and we had to figure out how that was going to work for the Daily Savings Club,” he said. “It was extremely important to make that decision before programming the POS system, and it was a major decision that is now vastly better because of the Listening Tour.”
It’s important for Carpenter and his team to become an organization that can win as both franchisors and retailers.
“We’re sharing that with store owners and we’re hoping they can lead by example,” Carpenter said. “One of those things is we teach our franchisees to run an enterprise instead of a mom and pop shop, and an enterprise is where they can delegate. We’ve been training them in the skills of hiring and training and delegating so that they can grow their companies in the coming age of retail.”
Of course, the Listening Tour was also a major validator for Carpenter as far as the brand’s impact on the communities franchisees serve.
“One of my takeaways from the Listening Tour is that I was able to experience first-hand the intensity for and love of this business by our franchisees,” Carpenter said. “They love going to work, they love their customers and our customers really love us. Everyone enjoys working together as a community and they like to share successes and failures and learn from each other. I got to hear details in a way that I normally just don’t. It was a real thrill for me.”