Chris Escobar, Senior Manager, Member Experience at Planet Fitness joins us on this week’s episode of Support Ops Simplified.

You will learn:

  • About how to manage executive stakeholders
  • Chris’s current view of customer service operations
  • Chris’s opinion on the role of AI in support

Connect with Chris and Planet Fitness:


Sid: Okay. Alright, we’re live. Chris, really good to meet you. I’m really excited to hear from you about your thoughts on customer experience and how you view the industry. I come from a tech background myself so what I’m really curious about is how customer experience is one of those things that transcends industries into some common elements that we can all congregate around and share war stories and learnings on. Maybe as a starting point, if I can get you to introduce yourself a little bit and talk about how you got into the industry, to begin with.

Chris: Yes. Absolutely. Thanks for having me. I know I was super excited when I got the invite for this. As I build my professional career and I’m coming up through the world, it’s having to find ways where I can get recognized do these type of things, which is awesome. I’ve been in call centers. I’m a preacher, if you looked at my background, LinkedIn or anything, and you hopefully didn’t get Pablo Escobar or anybody else, you found the real me. I’m definitely not the Cuban drug Lord or anything like that, nothing crazy. Even though I get that all the time.

Sid: I think you have the same influence though, so that’s good.

Chris: I get it all the time. It’s like, “All right, maybe I can use to my advantage one day.” I’ve been a creature of call centers and a member experience versus industries. I span financial insurance, healthcare for a brief time. My last company was a real estate company. I did a small product company for four years were that four years was a very pivotal point in my career. Taught me a lot, my mentor is actually, when I met him there as well. It’s been this weird- early on in my life, I wanted to actually be a teacher in high school. I thought that was really stupid because they don’t get paid a lot, so we moved on. I thought about being a psychologist, which I love the talk but then I realized I probably become an alcoholic because there’d be too many things I’m talking about, so one of those two is going to happen. No offense to the therapists or psychologists out there, you are doing an amazing job but I just figured out there’s no way I could do it. Then I was like, “All right. I pick up a job wherever and just go from there. I started early on in retail. You’re talking early 2,000s[inaudible 00:02:23] for a clothing company, then Best Buy. I was recruited at Best Buy and my freshman [inaudible 00:02:34] it was Homier, was it? With Washington Mutual bank, I can’t remember the name there for a second. If you’re familiar with anything with the US banking industry, back in the early 2000’s, the banks failed, real estate plummeted, the whole market crashed [unintelligible 00:02:48] I was recruited out of Best Buy by somebody I sold a laptop to [inaudible 00:02:53] We want to take you, we want to mold you. Washington Mutual was a very first introduction into the professional world that I had into call centers. I latched onto it. I latched onto it like a leech. It captivated me. In retail, you can affect the member experience but it’s for only the demographic you handle within the region that you handle. For example, Best Buy location, you can only really affect the experience for the customers who are around that area who are going to go to that location. A different location could be different. Yes, it’s good brand name but even location. Like you run out Planet Fitness. Every club you go to should feel similar, but depending on who is there and the mood they’re in, you can get a different greeting.

Sid: There is a consistency aspect to it.

Chris: You can get [crosstalk] Exactly. Whereas a call center you can control it from end to end, for the most part. Granted, I always relate to running a call center like running a daycare. All little kids out there, and this is not a slight to anybody in a call center position, but it’s emotional. Emotional-based driven decision. If I have a great day, their quality is really good and things go well. If they have a bad day or a bad call, things go south. It’s this constant balance of keeping them up. I was like, “What I want to become a teacher.” So great, that fits.

Sid: That’s a very poignant observation. There’s a couple of things you said that I want to pick up on and drill into a little more. One was, you wanted to be a teacher and then a psychologist. If you really think about customer experience aficionado, or whatever you want to call it. It’s a little bit of patience and trying to understand where people are coming from. It’s the perfect mix almost. Then you start comparing it to a daycare, and now you’re talking about being able to control people and be able to work with them. You and I are pretty similar in terms of the way we connect in terms of soft skill aspect of things, in terms of, yes, customer experience is about understanding people, understanding where they’re coming from, being patient with them and helping them really get to the crux of the problem to help them solve it. One of the things that’s really interesting to me is as we are in this day and age, what’s the tech stack that enables you and your people to be able to do that, and how important is that for you really?

Chris: Yes. I would say that if you put me back 10 years ago and now what I know today, I don’t understand how I survived back in the day without the technology that I have today. Part of that is knowing the process, knowing how to use it. If I go back to my early days at- if I’ll even go back not even 10 years ago, the USAA, they were very prestigious company. They pride themselves on being technology advance, always pushing the envelope to find new ways so they can service their members. It’s their whole bravado. It’s great. When I was there, they still were missing some of those things that I was like, “Look, if you gave us this information, if you built these fields, if you track these things, we can have more meaningful conversations. Without the right technology or the right partner to do that it’s a moot point. If I want to build here a Planet Fitness, a report that shows me buy cancellation reason so I can speak to very specific customers a certain way I would have to go through six or seven different platforms right now.

Sid: Interesting.

Chris: I’d have to probably take a cut up Excel documents left and right, which is a pain. I can’t dedicate that amount of time. My business size is 40ish agents. I have a couple supervisors. I had a call center analyst but he recently left in the last couple of weeks. I’m not going to backfill it. I really don’t have the manpower to do that. I need something like a CRM that’s going to be able to collect all this data. Now a CRM can go so far. Everyone thinks like Salesforce, for example, not dogging a name, but they can collect all this data. Great. They can do that, they’ll cut it up in reports, but then are they really going to be proactive in the sense of creating flags for different things? Hey, if one member is emailing you and they’re cussing, are we picking up verbal cues that lead into well, what’s the word?

Sid: The action that you want to be able to take on that.

Chris: Yes. Why I’m I blanking on the word, sentiment. Is Salesforce looking at sentiment and going- there’s two different paths because if I’m upset, I can be upset, for an instance, or I’m upset you’re going to lose me.

Sid: Yes.

Chris: The two different things I need to be able to break out. I can’t sit there and listen to 5,000 calls, or hope my quality scorecards that are coming in from the teams have comments that lead me to that.

Sid: That’s a very interesting and very perceptive way of looking at it because a lot of ways where people are looking at experience today, they’re looking at KPIs and you started there, but quickly, you evolve into what are those the right measures? Okay, I got your call within five minutes and I handle it to a way that is appropriate for my business. How did that leave you feeling? In that sense, let me ask you, how do you as a person not as a company, what’s your philosophy on measuring customer experience on a whole, and what are the components that fall into it?

Chris: Yes. I did the interview Alice not too long ago. If you have to put KPIs behind it, there’s a couple different things you can obviously do, customer satisfaction and things like that. That only goes so far because what if I’m the lazy customer who gets a see sat survey, and I’m like great, “10, 10, 10 I don’t care”. Or it’s the opposite. It’s like, “Oh, I just don’t care” being that the example here for Planet Fitness would be people hate that they cannot cancel over the phone. You have to go into the club. We’ll give you all the right information. We’ll tell you exactly what to do, what to bring so you’re prepared. When you go, this is what’s going to happen. If I were to give you a see sat survey and I go, “How do we do today?” You’re going to be like, “You suck because you didn’t solve the problem.”

Sid: Yes, and you can’t cure apathy.

Chris: We gave you the information. We told you exactly what to do but you suck because you didn’t handle it. So am I fairly grading this? No, not really. The way I start to look at is going okay, if I have metrics in front of me such as call quality, which just sounds like it’s one-sided to the agent side but there’s the secondary piece of this is knowing the agent themselves. Then I can go, “Okay. Is there something wrong with the experience or the IVR?” Then there’s other things like IVR time because what I don’t want to do is front-load an IVR, then you have to go through seven past and you’re already upset by the time you hit an agent.

Sid: Exactly. Yes. By the time we reach an agent

you’re already upset. That’s already an experience that you’ve created without even engaging with them, and now you have to recover from it. Right?

Chris: Yes and I get it. The world’s going self-service and we’re talking AI’s and all that, but there’s a point where you have to go, “If the experience we want to create is that, then fine. Have a five to six minute IVR time and put your SLA in place with that standard.” Boom. Done. If you’re lucky [inaudible 00:10:28]

Sid: Hey Chris, I’m [crosstalk] Sorry. I think there was an issue with the connection there. I got to the point where you said if that’s what you want to have your KPIs as, boom, we are there. Can you just repeat your sentence [crosstalk]?

Chris: Yes, absolutely. So it’s a situation as a business if you want to be geared towards, we want say five to six minute call time or IVR times because you want to be full self service and have an agent there as a fail-safe. Fine. Do that. That’s not a problem, but then curve your expectations to that. Set that experience up from the start.

An example would be cable companies. When you call in and you want to get through somebody, almost everybody just says customer service operations, customer service, customer service. It’s just like if that’s what’s going to happen but you want them to self-service [inaudible 00:11:41] you should be telling them you’re just going to go to crap because then if they get to an agent, they’re already going to be pissed off because they had to say customer service seven times.

There’s means upon means about customer service [crosstalk] on this. Go out and just type, customer service IVR memes and boom, they’ll pop up everywhere. I saw one the other day it was “I said customer service and got sales.” [inaudible 00:12:14] All right. A good example on the opposite end of this is USAA, and I’m using this, I worked for them. I will always use them as very high standard. It’s very obvious when you call that they are going to push you self service but it’s not the only option. You can go through everything on your account but at any time you can get through quickly to an agent. It’s this healthy balance.

Here, our focus is speaking to the member, making sure that they feel confident with what we’re doing. I want to reduce the number of options in our menu. I don’t want seven layers down 21. I want to go four wide down, then I’ll come into two or three and then you get to an agent. That’s as simple as it can be.

Sid: That makes perfect sense. Let’s shift gears a little bit though, because I think one of the things that we’ve always relegated ourselves to on the customer support and the customer experience side has been the speed to service. It’s how fast can you get to people and how fast can you get answers. Let’s take it a step further because from my perspective, one of the things that has been a big learning for me in my career has been the fact that the customer service operation has always been the entry point where we learn a lot from customers about their feelings, about the way they feel about a product, about feedback and so on and so forth.

How do you feel about being in a position where you are the sole receiver of such gold nuggets and having that responsibility of making sure that that gets filtered through the right people in the organization? Because there’s a certain amount of power there in terms of being able to shape the business. Have you seen that evolve over the years as you’ve been part of this industry?

Chris: There’s yes and no. Then what I will say it has evolved because I think what we’re finally starting to realize, and this is what’s astonishing to me, is we don’t keep up generationally with the, call it what it is, the kids coming up in the world. If I go back to 20 years ago, again, late 90s, early 2000’s, you’re talking Y, X coming out into the millennials. It was all you want is the information upfront, direct, tell me what to do, boom, boom boom, done.

The cash handlers as I call them because it’s cash in pocket. I do everything, I know what I’m doing. We went through this funky transition in the 2000’s where millennials were coming up. It was happening and then it was okay. I want a little bit more info. I really want to get to the point quick. Help me fast but tell me what I need to know. We’re in this transition again where it’s touchy-feely, it’s emotional-driven. I want to call in and feel like I’m valued and not a number. That’s why you see all credit card companies, banks everything switching and trying to pivot quickly to, there’s a credit card company, AMEX, it doesn’t matter what level you are, you can get a dedicated agent anytime you call. That’s nice, but then you got to staff to make sure you can handle that because now [crosstalk]

Sid: It comes at a cost, right?

Chris: Yes, exactly. Right. No wait time. It’s funny you mentioned this, this by far, every time, the last three companies I’ve been at, this is the number one conversation I will have within the first 30 days.

Sid: It’s interesting isn’t it?

Chris: I sit the executive team down, my boss and everyone and have them here and I go, “What do you want the goal to be?” Before I got here they were focused on what’s called a call completion rate. It’s the opposite of abandon rates because it’s just the difference. We want to answer 95% of the calls and I said, “Great, that is 5% abandon, which okay, are we talking raw or are we talking within an SLA?” That blew their minds because they didn’t know what a call center– What’s unique about here, we are the only call center within all of Planet Fitness. Our call center is bigger actually than the one headquarters has I believe. We’re doing something unique.

When I brought this up and up until I got here, they knew how we were doing but they didn’t understand the full scope of this. They were like, “What do you mean?” I’m like, “If someone calls in and hangs up in a second, does that count against us? What am I supposed to do if they hang up?” Between this gigantic conversation in which I went, “Okay, I’ve got to really help them get there and then we can goal set.”

Sid: Understand the whole equation before you can solve it.

Chris: Exactly. The second part of this was I said, “What’s the north star that’s driving us?” I share this kind of ballast.  What is driving us into our bigger vision? There’s the company mission which affects everybody. Every employee, that’s all of that. I was like, “What we miss or are missing is this north star for the department to have something to shoot for. How do they fit into the grand scheme of things?” Then I can build around that.

If it’s again, taking care of the member, quality over quantity, consistency over complacency, then great, I can build metrics around that that speak to that. Call quality, occupancy, because I need you on the phone to answer the phone calls. I don’t care what your handle time is. I don’t care about that, but you’ve got to be on the phone. There is one call metric that we do include which was wrap up time, but that’s obvious. I need you to be fast after the call not being lazy sitting there. It’s like all right-

Sid: That’s an operational metric as opposed to anything else. You’re driving some efficiencies out of it.

Chris: Exactly. It was a fun battle that a– It’s a war, trust me because again, it’s when you explained the concept on an abandoned rate and executives go, “I want three-” at, my last company, real estate company, the VP of the department that I reported into was like, “I want 3% [unintelligible 00:18:10]. I went, “Great, I need 20 more people.”

Sid: This is how much it’s going to cost you and now you start balancing the business to see whether it’s worth that investment or not. I completely see your point. Let’s kind of take this a little further. Let’s say, here’s where we are today. You made a great point about the north star. Let’s talk about what is your vision of where the customer experience industry or the customer service operations industry would be in the next 10 years? As food for thought, I would throw out something where in my last position or even as a philosophy today, what if I threw this for you?

If someone to call you for service, you have already failed. Give me your perspective on that. I was just throwing that out for framing the conversation.

Chris: No, absolutely. That’s funny that you mentioned that. This is why all of this AI stuff is popping up and is trying to help service before you get there. It’s funny even that I even think of product returns and stuff. They don’t even want you to hit the store and they want you to call first to return product [crosstalk] inside the label it’s, “Hey, call us before you go back.” Now granted it is how do you stop the call. There’s a 50 50 split. The big worry in call centers is, is AI going to make call centers obsolete? No. It’s never going to happen. There’s always going to be some human touchpoint. It will never happen. I don’t care what anybody says. I’m human. Human are out [crosstalk]

Sid: I’m with you on that 100%.

Chris: I absolutely agree. I think where we’re going to be going towards is just that. It’s, as this new generation– Again, I go back to generations. It’s we made this funny transition now into touchy-feely, like a bell curve. The down-low is, “Give me the information fast, I don’t care, just tell me what to do to I need to everything explained, give me the touchy-feely stuff”. We’re going to start to make, just like we always do.

Sid: Pendulum is going to swing back.

Chris: Exactly. I would say probably in the next 10 years it becomes a mix of- I want to be able to access the information as fast as possible, which we’re already there with internet speeds growing, 5G, all these faster ways to get it, with the admin, with having that security of being able to speak to somebody.

Sid: And that someone has my back and they can take me through the process.

Chris: Now, the who can be AI or somebody. At that point, it could be self-service, but it’s that having that opportunity then to get to somebody or somewhere, if it’s AI, if it’s a product, like, “Hey, did you” funny as it sounds, I was on an air purification company. Some service calls with something as simple as, “Did you make sure the plug on the back was all the way in?” [laugh] Okay, you laugh, right? In the tech world, what do you tell somebody when their computer is messing up?

Sid: Restart it. It fixes 99% of the problems, doesn’t it?

Chris: Blows my mind. I’m like, “Come on, it’s the same thing” did you plug the damn power cord in? And what I saw was a drop-in customer service calls by 20% because it was mostly that, it was, “Shit, the power cord” or it was they didn’t plug it on the wall, or the power cord on the wall was messed up. I was like, “Oh my god, this is insane” but we’re going to get there, it’s going to kick back, eventually it will be tell me the information upfront. What I also look at is the pay mark, and this is usually my key indicator is, what is marketing doing out with different companies? What is Coke doing? What are McDonald’s doing? What is Chick-fil-a? I’m looking at all these different big gigantic retailers that can spend millions upon billions of dollars in this, I obviously can’t, and go, “Okay, if they’re starting to shift a certain way, do I need?”

Sid: It’s kind of defining the path that the retail industry is going to follow, or many other are going to take cues from.

Chris: Yes.

Sid: That’s a very pointed observation there.

Chris: Yes. In the fitness industry I can say we’re near recession-proof, but it’s still the way that it’s flowing that you have to just watch. It is almost always hand in hand.

Sid: That makes full sense. You’ve been through a bunch of industries, it seems like, and you’ve had the common thread of having a customer experience hat on through all of these. This is one question I ask of every guest who’s on the show is who was the one mentor -and you don’t have to name them if you don’t want to- but who was the one mentor who you learned a lot from, and who’s kind of molded you and your perspective on customer experience for now, and even for the long term?

Chris: Yes, I’ve had one solid mentor, a couple here and there. There’s two that’s a close second, that I still communicate with this day and we bounce ideas off on, but one and I’ll name him, I have no problem with it, he’ll probably find it funny if he ever found out this out, his name is Wade Zucker. He was at the product company where I was at, he was in charge of Vista, I reported to him for about a year, year and a half, and he is an absolute genius when it comes to what we’ve been talking about, in terms of understanding the customer, meeting them where they’re at. For Allen, the product company I was at for four years, he- I don’t want to say solely responsible because when I reported I helped, but he took their business on Amazon somewhere where it was scary to do, you don’t really know how to navigate Amazon, Amazon navigates you. He was able to finesse this relationship in a way where he was playing chess with them and he won, and that’s rare to do with the Amazon. As I started to see these things, I was, “Alright, wait, teach me these ways. Please, whatever, I’ll classify you as whatever”.

Sid: Sensei, I think sensei is the right word for that, isn’t?

Chris: Yes, there you go. As he started to coach me, he would observe, and he gave me the real feedback, but there’s been a couple very key things I still, to this day, take with me. One of the first ones is, I have to look at the person I’m speaking to, or the team I’m speaking to and understand where they’re at, whether they’re in the child state of mind or adult state of mind. It took me a very, I won’t say long time, but I kept having to falter, falter and then finally started clicking, it’s like, “Okay, this is. I needed different. Like this. Okay”. It comes out to the concept, and I related back to the daycare analogy. My daughter, who’s four, love her to death, she’s my angel, sweet as can be, but damn, when she wakes up I have to be really on point to try to keep her happy and keep her in the four-year-old state of mind, not the one-year-old state of mind. I want her to learn be ready for school and be happy, not upset and all this other stuff, so I have to have to adjust the way I speak to her, the way I greet her. Same thing with adults. If I wake up in a bad mood, watch out. Okay no, not like that.

Interviewer: But there’s an analogy to be made over there between consumers being very outspoken on social media, just like kids, and being able to manage that in some way, in a way that you can deliver an experience, but also be able to manage the outcomes from both perspectives, right?

Chris: Exactly. If someone is rational, and they’re in the adult state of mind, they’re reasonable. They might be upset, the emotion piece is still there, but if they’re adult state of mind you can speak to them, not at them. A child you’d have to speak at and with, but more at. An adult you can speak more with, a little bit of at. You don’t speak at an adult, it’s, “Hey, let’s conversate, let’s talk through this” If you’re upset, the why’s, the who’s, what’s happening. If you’re a child, it’s “No, this is my sandbox. You took my toy and I want it back and I want it now.” it’s like, “Calm down, take a step back” “I don’t want to calm down” right? I’ve taken thousands upon thousands of calls and I know those callers. Immediately trigger and I go, “Child”, I know what to do, I know how to position to this, and that’s the training I have to then push to the teams that I manage, going, “Hey guy”. That one concept alone has done wonders for me.

Sid: That is awesome. That is awesome. In fact, I was just talking to someone over at lunch today, and they were saying, “There’s only two jobs in the world” and I was like, “Here we go, this is going to be an earth shattering revelation to me”, they’re like, “There’s people who get new customers, and there’s people who keep existing customers. You’re either one or the other.” I know that’s a very broad generalization, but it is true in a lot of regards, especially in the context of the analogy that you provided.

Chris: Yes, that’s definitely one. There’s been other ones. I go back to consistency over complacency, I’ve had that one for quite a while. I had before him, but he really pushed it, what’s the meaning behind it. If I’m talking through certain situations, how do I look at this and be able to position it that that way. There’s been a couple other ones, but that one definitely has been one of the most impactful things. One of the funny ones is, at that product company, they use what’s called a Sandler sales method. It’s an archaic sales method that has a bunch of steps, just like any sales method, but there’s one that me and him hovered on and we taught ourselves this, we both use it to this day and both our wives are insanely upset when they know we’re doing it. It’s called, what’s setting up for a contract? It’s where I can get you to agree what I need you to.

Sid: Sorry, say that again. It’s setting up for a contract?

Chris: Yes, it’s an upfront contract. If I need you to do something I want, or we can mutually agree upon it, put that in air quotes because, again, I want you to go a direction. If I can get you to agree to it, how are you going to deny it later? The example of this I do with my wife, all the time, and she knows it now, so she gets upset when she figures it out. Come on guys, dinner. Number one hot topic, what do you want to eat? “I don’t know, whatever you want to eat” I’m like, “Oh no, we’re not doing this. Sweetheart, if I can get to a food group, will you agree to go anywhere I want to go?” “Yes” “Great” Mexican, burgers, Italian, I’ll start naming them, “No, no, no”, “Pizza” “Yes” “Great, we’re going here”. She hops in the car.

Sid: I don’t like that restaurant.

Chris: Nope, nope.

Sid: I can’t do that.

Chris That’s where we’re going. Exactly, and I hold her to that. It’s funny, even in the business world, if you think about it, you do that all the time, with everyone we speak to. Especially more so in coaching and engagement, it’s set all the time in emails, in projects and requests. It’s understanding that and then, if you can take it to that next step where you can actually hold people accountable to it, which is where a lot of people falter, it’s the greatest tool, but it’s super simple.

Sid: I think that is the most poignant point at which we’re going to end this recording is if you want to be able to get someone to agree to something, then Chris Escobar has a way to get you there, don’t try it with your wives at home that night, your mileage may vary as she shakes his head as we do.

Chris: Or at the bar, that’s also probably not a good place.

Sid: Or at the bar.

Chris: I don’t know you want to tell a girl, “Hey, if I can get you to come home with me, or you agree” that’s probably not good. That’s not going to work.

Sid: But in a professional environment, in the customer experience environment, that’s a fair bet. Chris, it’s been an absolute pleasure. talking to you and sharing some of your experiences and your analogies more than anything else. I think we’ve gone from daycares to picking up people at the bar and deciding what’s for dinner. I think this has been an all-encompassing tour of everything that makes up the modern-day life. Thank you very much for joining us.

Chris: It was great. Now, I’m hungry and I need to figure out how to get home not sleep on the couch tonight.

Sid: Sounds like everyone’s Friday night problem, who is married and has children.

Chris: Exactly. Great time. I’m happy to be here.

Sid: Keep fighting the good fight. I will sync up with you soon.

Chris: Sounds good. Have a good one.

Sid: Thank you.

Chris: Bye.

Sid: I’m going to stop the recording here.

Chris: Sounds good.

[00:30:46] [END OF AUDIO]



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