Validation Calls to Franchisees: Beware of Songbirds

Making validation calls to a system’s current franchisees is a critical part of researching that business. It enables you to compare what you’re hearing from the franchisor with what the current owners have to say. Listen carefully but also read between the lines. In addition to what the franchisees tell you, you’ll also want to pay attention to what they’re not saying.

A franchisor is required to give you a list of their franchisees. But in utilizing this list, be sure to speak with a true cross-section of the system’s franchisees. It’s common for a franchisor to point you towards particular franchisees in an attempt to give you a place to start. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in some cases the franchisor may point you only toward those who paint a rosier picture (or sing a prettier song) than the system-wide reality. These overly positive validators are known in sales circles as “song birds.” They sound harmless enough, but their melodies can pose a danger to your research process.

Here are 5 ways to protect yourself from being too easily charmed by songbirds:

Make Your Own Choices

Do not rely entirely on calling franchisees who the franchisor has specifically recommended. Make sure to choose a well-rounded sampling of newer vs. long-time franchisees, differing market sizes, and varied geographical regions. Speak to owners of differing ages, gender, and prior occupational experiences.

Take Charge of Your Conversation with the Franchisor

You may want to ask the franchisor for information that will help you decide who to call. But don’t make it easy for the franchisor to steer you to the song birds. The key is to ask the franchisor the same questions about many franchisees on the list. Select 20-30 current franchisees and ask questions such as: What was their background prior to entering the business? How long have they been in business? etc. This will only take a few extra minutes of your time yet it provides you information that will help you decide who to call. In contrast, if you simply ask the franchisor for a certain category of franchisees (e.g., those with over 3 years of experience), you’ll likely receive names of the song birds who fit that description.

Speak With a Few Strugglers

It’s invaluable to hear from franchisees who are struggling or have a beef with the franchisor. There’s not a system out there with all of its franchisees in perfect alignment at all times. There are usually a few in each system who are struggling or upset about something — keep calling until you find them. And pay close attention when you get a grump on the phone. You’ll need to decide whether you think their complaints/issues would be relevant to you (not always the case) if you become a franchisee.

Go Beyond Conference Calls

Many franchisors, especially newer or rapidly growing systems, use scheduled conference calls to facilitate the validation process for prospective franchisees. This is not a bad thing; it can be an efficient way to give prospects access to busy franchisees. But keep three things in mind. First, the franchisor should not be participating on these calls because it will influence what the franchisees feel free to say. Second, you should have the opportunity ask questions of the franchisee during the call. Third, make sure to contact additional franchisees — who have not been included in the scheduled calls — to ensure you hear a variety of viewpoints.

Take it with a Grain of Salt

Although one purpose of these calls is to find facts you can use to evaluate a franchise system, that’s not the only objective. You’ll also want to get a sense of the system’s culture and the attitudes within the system. But take each call with a grain of salt. The franchisee you speak with could offer opinions that are skewed due to something as arbitrary as his/her interaction with a customer (either pleasant or unpleasant) just prior to the call. Don’t overreact or give too much credence to a comment from someone who may simply have woken up on the wrong side of the bed.

Two Caveats

Here are two final thoughts to consider. First, validation calls to owners in fairly new franchise systems are a little different. New systems don’t have as large a number of franchisees for you to call. And the franchisees they do have will be relatively “green” — with less experience in the business than owners in an established franchise system. There may not be enough of a track record in a newer franchise system to provide clarity during validation calls. Be aware of this risk as you evaluate young systems.

Second, take your time and do a thorough job during this process. Spend at least 10-20 hours on the phone, making initial calls and also follow-up calls to owners you’ve already spoken with. Taking the time to do this right can pay big dividends. It will help you avoid costly mistakes and maximize your likelihood of selecting a franchise that’s right for you.