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Fred Hoffman talks about customer service in the digital age

Fred Hoffman Large

Fred Hoffman is an international fitness expert and consultant based in Paris, France. He is the owner of Fitness Resource Consulting Services.

He is also the author of Going Global: An Expert’s Guide to Working Abroad in the International Fitness Industry

Back in July Fred joined us to talk about what makes great customer service, how different digital customer touchpoints and channels work, and how customer service strategies differ from market to market. 

Connect with Fred here.

Episode link

This episode of The Fitness Founders Podcast can be found on SpotifyApple Podcasts, and anywhere you get your podcasts.


Kevin: Fred Hoffman, welcome to the show. 

Fred: Thank you very much. Happy to be here. 

Kevin: Great to have you on, Fred, and really looking forward to learning about your experience and your business. Yeah, do you want to kick off with that and just tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Fred: Sure, I’d love to. I’m an American but I’ve been living in France for 31 years. Actually, this week, 31, 32 years ago I started my career over here in New York where I spent two months in Geneva, and then I came to Paris. That was planned. That Paris part was planned. But I actually studied in Boston, I went to school in Boston and I studied to be a respiratory therapist. I have a bachelor’s degree in Respiratory Therapy and a masters in Health Education. I ended up in the fitness industry totally by chance, taking some classes. And long story short, one time my teacher wasn’t there, she called and asked if I could sub her class. And I said, “Sure, I could do that.” I actually had someone drive me home and we picked up record albums. They weren’t even cassette tapes at that time. I basically taught a class here and then I started substituting, and I started my career there. 

But I was working as a respiratory therapist and I was teaching at the university where I went to school in Boston Northeast University. What ended up happening was I had an opportunity to go to Europe for a grant actually with the National Cancer Institute in Milan. It was to teach physical therapists there what we were currently doing in respiratory therapy in the States. I was already doing fitness, and in my career as a respiratory therapist to move quickly, I had either to do research, continue as a professor or management. I was young. It was just the time I thought, is this exactly what I wanted to do? I wasn’t sure. So I said, “I’ll do fitness until I figure out what I’m going to do.” Many, many years later, I’m still in the fitness industry and it’s been a great, great ride.

Kevin: Tell us a little bit about what is your focus on right now. 

Fred: For years I’ve been doing education in the fitness industry. I still do education. These days my focus has changed towards everything digital. Customer service in a digital age is what we’re going to be talking about today as well. But the world has changed, and my interests have changed, and the industry as well so customer service in general. But I also help companies with their education programs. Sometimes through launching new programs or products. I help people also to take a look at their businesses, small and large, help them make change or make decisions in which way to go. Can be as simple as taking a look at somebody’s website and telling them as a consumer what I think and then on the other end as someone in the industry. I’m really doing a variety of things but it’s always to help a business to do better and succeed. 

Kevin: A couple of questions before we jump into our topic today. Given your global exposure, the first question is, how are you seeing, say, where you’re based now, you’ve got connections everywhere, how are you seeing the industry recover in France and in Europe versus what you know about other parts of the world?

Fred: Interesting question. I can talk to that because I’ve been in contact with some of my colleagues in Asia. Obviously, I see what’s going on in the States, and like you said, in Europe. I can speak to France first. We just opened up about a month ago after 8 months of closure. We had been open for a few months last summer after being closed for a few months. The industry is really taking a hit as in many places. The clubs are open but I think people are just, and I probably can play this for the world, people are hesitant to come back. Some are. Of course, as a person like myself, I went back the first day. But others who are really hesitant and others who have found other ways of working out. I believe that the industry has to recognize that as well. 

For me to answer your question exactly, Kevin, is that like you know things keep changing. It is such a fluid situation. Even here in France the last couple of days they’ve been talking about this Delta variant where possibly there will be more restrictions. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. But I know that in certain parts of the world people have opened up, they’ve done well, and all of a sudden they had to close again. Others haven’t. It’s really hard to answer that. I know everyone is trying their best. A lot of people have been really devastated by this and some people have left the industry. But we just have to be optimistic and I think go with the flow.              

Kevin: Yeah, I hear you. We can delve into it a little bit more in the main section around how things are changing. But just a second question and then we’ll get down to business. For businesses, say in the UK, or the U.S. that are thinking about expanding franchisees into mainland Europe, into France, what are the things that most people don’t really understand about how that’s going to work for them when they try to do that? 

Fred: You’re not talking just about COVID though, right?   

Kevin: No, everything. 

Fred: Exactly. That’s been something because the fact I’m an American but I’ve been in France now for 32 years and did all this work internationally, I feel like that’s a real plus for me when I can help people because they don’t necessarily understand the market. I’ve dealt with companies and helped companies when they’ve wanted to even just to do market research to know if it’s wise to come into the market. But what I think most companies, let’s say if it’s a U.S. based company, that wants to come into Europe have to realize is they can’t just reproduce the model and just come and act like it’s all going to work. Even if it’s something that’s been completely successful, there are just barriers to that. Some of it can be as simple as language. 

And then, of course, it’s cultural. I do believe that any company, no matter if it’s a French company going into China, or a Russian company going into the States, or whatever it be, they need to learn about the culture. They need to really understand how the country functions on many different levels. I always recommend hiring a consultant like myself to help them through. No, that was a little push to myself.  

Kevin: Fair enough. I guess what you’re saying is that everybody underestimates the cultural differences they are going to get in a new country and they really need to make an effort to understand those up ahead of time. 

Fred: Absolutely.

Kevin: Okay. The topic for today is customer service in the digital age. We all know that digital fitness has made a huge impact across the industry and lots of hybrid businesses and lots of evolving business models. Let’s start in general. Maybe tell me what makes great customer service?

Fred: Great customer service is when a company delivers the promise of the brand. Because many companies promise something but they don’t necessarily deliver when you delve into it. And then it’s easy for people to do whatever they are supposed to do with that company, if it’s buying something, or if it’s going to a gym, or services related that there is no guesswork involved and that the experience is just seamless. Another word I always say is consistent. Because often you can see how a company does really well on one aspect of their business but then on another part they don’t. For example, maybe all of their in-person interactions are really good but then their online isn’t good. Someone has that experience where they really like the brand but then they want to contact the company online, they can’t find where to go or it’s complicated, or they have to jump through hoops. Customer service again for me is that the brand delivers but that also experience for the customer is easy, seamless, and consistent.  

Kevin: Very good. I guess you touched on a very good point there that with a digital aspect to a business now it opens up you have to invent your digital customer service. How do you go about putting a strategy together that works on location and online?

Fred: This is the whole thing. You have to evaluate all of your different channels. That’s the first thing that I will say. You’ll see people that forget certain channels. When I talk about a channel, I’m talking about any touchpoint if you want, any place where a customer comes in contact with your business. That could be in-store, let’s say at a gym or a health club. That’s when they are actually interacting with anyone in the club. And that could be during any time that they are there and it can be even before they join, etc. And then it can be everything that has to do with their app if they have a mobile app if they are on their website or if they are on their social media. Anywhere that a member or client comes in contact with that company. 

You have to evaluate, one, are they all working and are they all necessary actually? Because for example, social media. Many people just jumped on the bandwagon. They’ve got every single possible social media platform but then they don’t use them or actually their members or their fans aren’t even there. It is going, look and see, where our people come in contact with us. Or even if they are not with us yet, where would somebody come in contact with us, and evaluate if they are working properly. That’s not an easy task but it needs to be done. 

Kevin: How much overlap is there between is it even the same thing setting up your online customer service, your social media channels, and creating your ethos for customer service in your gym? Are they the same? Is that the same job or are they two totally different projects? 

Fred: No. They shouldn’t be totally different but they need to work in tandem and there shouldn’t be a repetition of services or ways to connect. I’ll just give you a simple example, and I’m sure you’ve experienced this as probably a lot of the listeners have. You go to a website and you’ve got several entry points to several different services. And all of a sudden you find yourself lost in the website because you don’t know where you came in or how to get back. It actually takes you off the website to another page on the web. It’s all of that that companies need to take a look at and make sure that they are not repeating this or the people aren’t getting lost. That’s not always easy. But I think these days, Kevin, people, in general consumers are looking for the easiest way to do things, the simplest way to do things, the least amount of hoops to jump through. That’s why I think a business has to approach any type of connection digitally especially for customer service. 

Kevin: Maybe you’ve answered this question a little bit of just what you’ve said there. But I am curious, what are the changes you’ve seen in customer expectations over the past couple of years with more and more digital fitness?

Fred: One of the main things that I’ve seen is that people want fast and efficient service. Fast. Everything is fast these days. Fast, except people are complaining because they’ve created vaccines really fast. I’m just throwing that out there. Something I never understood because we want everything else fast but, “Oh, wait a minute that vaccine went too fast.” Okay, anyway, let’s come back to what we were saying.    

People want to be able to connect with the business anytime, anyplace on any device. If they are at home, if they are in the metro, or if they are on vacation, if they are on their iPad, or they are on a laptop, or they are on their watch, whatever it be. Customer behavior has changed. I think that also what we see often is the customer behavior changes more rapidly than business behaviors sometimes. You’ll see people who are used to a certain way of functioning with a company, and then they move to another company. They are like, “Oh, you don’t have an app?” “I can’t do my payment online. With x, y, z company I could.” When you have consumers that are already moving faster than you are, then you need to take a good look at your business and see what you need to do to improve it. 

Again, to answer your question, consumer behavior has moved fast and also people want things fast and efficiently. They are impatient. Again, from anyplace, any time of the day, and on any device. 

Kevin: There are so many options now, different services, some more personalized than others, like a million different fitness options. Are you finding that consumers are looking for a single brand to stick with and build loyalty with or are they looking to manage 5 or 6 of these things between their phone and where they go to the gym? What are you seeing? 

Fred: It’s a very interesting question. One thing I want to address and answer this question is that some of that is also generational. You have people who are the older generation doesn’t mean they are old, but we are not talking necessarily about millennials and GenZ, who are loyal to brands. They like to stay with the brand if they are happy. I think the younger generations and millennials are not so young anymore. Everyone talks about them like they are still 20 years old. A lot of them are in their early 40’s. They jump around a lot. They like the possibility of doing that. That is already starting to happen as well with older generations where somebody might go to a, I’m going to again use the gym or the health club scenario, they might go to a traditional gym for certain activities but then they also are going to go to a boutique studio. I think businesses need to take a look at that and see how they can accommodate people. And maybe it’s okay that they move around as long as they are still happy at both locations and all of the several locations. People are going to different places for different things. 

Just to go a little bit further with that, Kevin, with what’s happened recently with so much online stuff, I don’t think that businesses necessarily have to be so afraid that customers are going to other companies online as long as they can also propose something that’s interesting and that will hold this customer’s attention. A person might be doing 3 days a week online but will still come into the gym to do other activities. I think businesses that are worried about the online side need to really think it through and make it work for everybody. Otherwise the online is probably going to win over to some extent.

Kevin: Again, you’re a step ahead of me here. I’m definitely very curious where you see the future going with digital fitness and how bricks and mortar businesses should think about their business models based on that? 

Fred: Well, I do believe digital fitness is here to stay and it’s going to continue, so that’s right out there. What I started to allude to I think that big box gyms, boutique studios, whoever it be, need to embrace the online, and they can work also with some of these companies. For example, how Apple has just launched the Apple+. But for example, if I remember correctly in the States, Life Time Fitness teamed up with them and they are offering that service to every one of their members. It just shows how they can work together. I do believe that because digital is here and it is the future that everyone needs to recognize that and embrace it and see how they can make it work for them. It might mean teaming up with a company or you’re using another company like Wexer, or whoever it be to have their online options, virtual options. But you can’t ignore it, and you also can’t just throw stuff up on the web as we did at the beginning of the pandemic. That worked. I get it. Again, people after a while want to have quality. I know it’s hard to compete with companies like Apple, Google, and whoever else, the Pelotons, and all that.  But at least have something out thrown with good quality.   

Kevin: I definitely think the days of throwing it together are over. Maybe we’ll circle back towards customer service. I think my question is, you do a lot of education and consultancy for fitness businesses, in general, what are the challenges of implementing a good customer service strategy? 

Fred: It’s who is putting it together. You have to have somebody leading the project that really understands real customer service, then filter that down. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the big box. It just needs to be somebody within the company that understands that. I have so many experiences of what I want to say bad customer service, and not just in the gym and health club industry, that they are simple things. I just want to give one example and you bring me back to this. Hulu, the streaming service in the States. I use a VPN to get on Hulu for like a week because I wanted to watch some program that I couldn’t watch here in France. For some reason, I got locked out of my account, and I tried everything to get back in. Every single place I went on their platform to get any help they told me to sign in again. The problem is I couldn’t sign in. It was the most frustrating experience. Finally, after wasting about two hours, and I’m not kidding, I finally somehow found a phone number. And I called from France to the States and someone did answer. They were very nice. But because it was a free one week, and of course I made it a big scene saying, “I just joined. I can’t believe I got locked out.” I had them cancel the account. But I’ll just tell you what happened, just last week I got an email from them. I just wasn’t just me. I’m sure that they saw that I had canceled for $299 for six months. Alright, I signed up again. But they got me on that. Pulling me back to your question. Tell me again exactly what you ask. I got off track. 

Kevin: I guess it’s like whose problem is it? 

Fred: Again, what I think you need to do is have someone that understands good customer service to begin with no matter what industry he’s in. Man, you need to evaluate what’s going on. That’s the other thing. It can be mystery shoppers. It can be just putting yourself through the experience. There are so many little things. The gym that I go to, and I don’t want to criticize them in case they are watching, but there are little things to me that could change so quickly. I’m not going to mention their name. But there are just little things that in time of COVID you go and the soap dispensers are empty. That should not be happening. There are just those little aggravations that happen that if you’re not experiencing it yourself you might not be aware of it. You need to listen to your customers. You need to try out things on your own. You need to have mystery shoppers if you want. 

You also have to understand again what the expectations of the consumer are. It goes back to delivering what the brand promises. If you are saying you’re x, y, and z, can you truly say that you’re delivering that? It’s not easy. I never say that it’s easy but then maybe don’t claim so much and then improve service over time. 

Kevin: If I’m running a gym or a club, and I’ve got a couple of people working for me, do I put the same person in charge of services I do for sales? Or should I split that out? 

Fred: I think you need to hire someone that’s neutral. The department should be working together. That silo mentality should not exist anymore. There needs to be someone that is neutral looking at the way the entire business is functioning. And then have a team because one person can’t do all of it. But to look both from the in-person experience, the in-house experience, and then to look at the online, and online could be anyway. It could be text messages to a phone, your social media, your website, whatever it be. It’s a big job. But for me, it’s a very, very important job because we all know that people are loyal when they are happy with the brand. 

Kevin: Talk to me about empowering your staff or incentivizing your staff. Essentially getting your staff on board for delivering out that brand promise. How do you do that?   

Fred: Well, first thing, you need to hire a good staff. I know that sounds funny because I actually talk about hiring and retention, but it’s true. That is hard if you’ve already got some staff members and they are not thrilled about it. That’s the other thing. I believe that you still have to go back to who you are as a brand. A lot of people say mission statements are old school and all that. But at least have something that states who you are and what your values are. And then when you’re hiring staff to make sure that they understand that so then when you’re going to implement your strategies you can more easily do it. Because if they’ve already bought into your company, and then your staff feels that you are also delivering the promise, then it’s going to be so much easier. You don’t necessarily have to incentivize to some extent because I feel that just comes with the territory. I know it’s not always easy but I really believe that if employees are happy in a company and they really believe in the brand, they go out of their way to do things even if it’s just part of their job. But they have to understand what is expected of them. 

Kevin: Yeah, I guess maybe that is the answer. But we all know the difference between walking in a club or studio and just getting on board. Walking into a club or studio and they just know your name and you don’t even know how they know your name. From your experience, when that happens, how is that happening? What are people doing to make that happen with their staff?

Fred: Well, I think there is some training and there is some education. Some of it is just innate for certain people. It’s just who they are. From a management standpoint, you also have to recognize that. Maybe the people that just stand out, not everyone is going to be able to do that. But those are the things I believe come down from management and examples need to be shown in success. It can be simple things. Just like you said with somebody calling the person by their first name once they are using their membership card or whatever it be the reason they come into the club or somebody pops up and says it’s their birthday. I know those are kind of those traditional things. It’s also allowing the staff to converse with the members. That’s the other thing. It’s not just this, “I’m the staff, you’re the member”, and we have this strict interaction. We need to respect the way that interaction happens. But I do believe in getting to know people, having conversations with them, and that might need to be initiated by a staff member. But, again, any of that that you are talking about I do believe comes down from management and they need to explain what triggers people in a positive way. Those little things, the recognition. The club that I went to, the manager, recently said to me, “Wow! You’ve been here every day.” It was just kind of a nice recognition and then I pan on my stomach and I’m like, “Yeah”, because I was like I need to get rid of this. It was nice to be recognized that a person is seeing you come in every day. Those simple things. It’s not easy.  

Kevin: Yeah, it’s not easy. There’s definitely a lot to it. Okay, I think then we’ll wrap up then. Back on your global perspective, tell me how you think customer service strategies differ from market to market that you’ve seen. 

Fred: That is really cultural. I think that there is a want from customers to be treated really well no matter where you are in the world. I do believe that the majority of businesses want to deliver good customer service. But I also think that there are just cultural things that happen even within a company the way that people interact with each other. For example, I’m going to use my club again, and this is not just my club but also in French, you have this formal vous and tu. It is just something that exists. When I go into my gym, I see these young people working behind the desk I see every day, they always say vous to me because I’m the customer, I’m older, etc. You have to officially say to them you can actually say tu to me. This is something that exists in the language. They will say, okay, but then they will still say vous to me. It’s awkward because I feel like it’s, I don’t want it to be formal. And then when we finally get down to it everyone they’ll slip, and I’ll say, “You said vous again.” But it is just because that’s the way that they are brought up and it’s a respect type of thing. I do believe this happens also in a lot of Asian countries and different parts across the world. 

Also, I think some of it has to do with some countries that are still developing. They are not used to a certain way of functioning. I have been lucky to spend a lot of time in Russia. I spent 7 months in Moscow in 2004 and I’ve gone back and forth many times in the last over 20 years. The Russians who I have such admiration for, I was living closely with them, wonderful people, they are cold to a lot of people. Even between themselves. And they’ve learned how to do proper customer service. But 10-15 years ago, it was almost like it was forced because it wasn’t natural. Now, over time with evolution, it’s changing. I think that has happened in different places. And just one other thing on that, Kevin, is that you’ll see a difference for example for [unclear] to go somewhere and expect certain customer service that is different or the reverse. Again, my belief is that the majority of people in business want to learn good customer service and that the majority of customers want to have it. It’s just finding a happy way to produce that and deliver it. 

Kevin: Yeah, as you said, deliver on the brand promise. That’s the biggest takeaway for me. Okay, well Fred, I wish we had more time. Before I let you go, what is the biggest lesson that you have learned in the past year? 

Fred: Be flexible. Seriously. Inasmuch as I kind of live that way anyway because this whole COVID, pandemic, confinement, re-confinement, get out of confinement, whatever it be, you just didn’t know it was going to happen. There were just times when I know everyone is frustrated, myself and I thought, okay there’s really nothing I can do about this right now. I don’t have control over them. I can just control how I’m reacting to it. I know that sounds cliché but it was really true because we have the confinement, and we got out, and we had a 6 PM curfew every night. You know, you’re home at 6 o’clock and you’re like, “Okay, now, what do I do?” I’m sitting enough anyway. You just go, “There’s nothing I can do about that so I gotta make the best of it.” Be flexible. 

Kevin: Well, we’re nearly out of it. Fingers crossed we’re nearly out of it. Well, stay flexible.    

Fred: Kevin, I just want to mention one quick thing that I didn’t. We’ll talk about this in a couple of weeks. One thing I think businesses in general, customer service or not, have to look at is that we’re still only getting about 20% of the population. I think that’s a whole other topic but I meant to mention that earlier. Sometimes we’re preaching to the choir when we are talking about customer service, and people coming back to the gym and all that stuff. But there are so many people that we need to address and we can. And so that’s why clubs need to look at the whole digital thing and see how they can get to all of these people. 

Kevin: No, you’ve got me excited for the conference now because I definitely want to talk more about that but we’ll leave it for another day. 

Fred: Sure. 

Kevin: Before we let you go, Fred, just let everyone know where they can find you online and how they can get in touch with you.

Fred: Yes. First, I have a website which is Also, I’m on social media, so I’m on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter. You can find me anywhere there. Just easily find me – fredhoffit, Fred Hoffman Fitness. My website – 

Kevin: We’ll put them in the show notes so people can track you down. Okay, Fred Hoffman, thank you very much for coming on the show.  

Fred: Kevin, thank you. It was a pleasure. 

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