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How Going on Undercover Boss Changed Me as Smoothie King’s Leader

Author: Wan Kim, Smoothie King CEO

As someone who prefers to stay out of the spotlight, taking part in “Undercover Boss” was way out of my comfort zone. Do I really want millions of eyes and ears focused on me disguised as a millennial hipster for nearly an hour of national prime time TV? This was not something I ever imagined doing as a CEO.

On the other hand, previous “bosses” who had gone undercover told me the experience and the resulting new perspective they gained made them better leaders, ultimately improving their respective brands.

At the time we filmed, we had recently introduced our Clean Blends initiative system-wide. I thought to myself, “Maybe going undercover is a golden opportunity to see for myself how our employees are adjusting to the new operational procedures, and even how guests are responding to the healthier options.” I also wanted to see if our brand’s vision, culture and guidelines are being followed.

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Considering all the positive outcomes my undercover journey could have for Smoothie King’s franchisees, team members and guests, it seemed almost selfish not to do it. So I sucked it up, got over myself and took the leap.

It was also the right timing. My goal is to grow Smoothie King to be bigger than McDonald’s, inspiring people to live healthy and active lifestyles around the world. When I bought the company in 2012, we were at 533 locations. Now, we have grown to more than 1,200 units.

At this moment, we are at a pivotal point. Going undercover provided a unique opportunity to make key discoveries, pinpoint problems and implement solutions now as we continue on our trajectory to becoming the world’s largest and best smoothie franchise.

My Key Takeaways

First, I must clarify that unlike some of the other bosses featured on Undercover Boss, I had walked in a franchise owner’s shoes. Before I was CEO, I was Smoothie King's first international master franchisee in South Korea. I grew the brand to 130 stores there and was extremely familiar with our day-to-day operations.

So, this wasn’t about training or learning how to make our smoothies or run stores. What I wanted to learn was much deeper.

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In the end, the previous bosses were 100% right. The lessons I learned, the new outlook I gained and the incredible team members I was blessed to “work” alongside were nothing short of remarkable. Getting a first-hand look at what Smoothie King’s guests see and what our team members and franchisees do daily was an incredibly moving and humbling experience.

Below is a sample of my main discoveries.

When introducing new products, communicate earlier and more clearly
Our introduction of Clean Blends was a wise and sound strategy for Smoothie King. During the undercover journey, I learned our goal and intention was not properly communicated to our franchise system prior to rollout. My big takeaway here was that we can’t assume franchisees and their team members are going to be as excited about our strategic decisions as we are at the corporate level. We need to work harder next time to more clearly explain the “why” behind what we are doing. We must do a better job of getting franchisees and their team members to embrace and rally around the vision – prior to execution.

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Staffing up for successful promotions
Promotions like $5 Fridays drive sales and are appreciated by loyal and new guests. Until Undercover Boss, I was not aware of how heavily some stories rely on these types of promotions. I also witnessed firsthand the physical and mental work they require. I saw how important it is that franchisees must ensure their stores are properly staffed to handle the influx of additional guests that turn out to take advantage of the promotion.

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The critical nature of “getting out there”
During the journey, it warmed my heart to discover the number of passionate franchisees and team members in our system who genuinely believe in our mission and are excited to spread the word and our products in their communities. I worked with one team member who gets up at the crack of dawn to prepare free samples to distribute where local sports teams are practicing or playing. The moral of the story here: Getting involved in the community and directly interacting with existing and new guests is a key component to fulfilling the brand mission.

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Ultimately, through this journey, I became a more humbled and better leader. But I was also moved. I saw how our brand is driven by our mission of inspiring people to live healthy and active lifestyles. It was amazing to see how we live out that mission inside a Smoothie King.

To watch the full episode, click here: https://www.cbs.com/shows/undercover_boss/video/MsEc1KxByV_J2q8C0IXuSJTWXJhDum3h/undercover-boss-smoothie-king/

To learn more about becoming part of the Smoothie King franchise family and inspiring people to live a healthy and active lifestyle in your community, download our franchise kit.