An edited transcript of a phone interview of Patrick Short, GM of CSz Portland, and Michelle Baxter, M.S. Candidate – Arts Administration – Drexel University, for Michelle’s upcoming thesis. The original interview was in January, 2014. The comments have been edited for clarity and sanity.
MB: I was checking out your website, and I thought it was really great how you break down all the different things that businesses have used CSz for, and I saw one of the things that really stood out to me was “post-downsizing,” since that is really happening a lot. My first question is really basic and broad – can you tell me about some of the programs you offer to these business groups, if you have any that are more popular or some that you’re finding are becoming more popular?
CSz: Most people contact us looking for Team Building. That’s a big umbrella to some people, but it’s a piece of what we do. Team Building is carried along in everything that we present and teach – even in our shows. The term we’re trying to use is “applied improvisation,” because we’re taking improv beyond performing for people, we’re using it as a tool to achieve goals. And while a lot of people call us for Team Building, the thing that’s exploding right now – for us here in Portland – is customer service. Every time we turn around, we’re teaching customer service. I did 4 events last week, 3 of them were around customer service – the fourth was on presentation skills. The one that I’m doing this week for a company is customer service or customer experience. A sales call that I just had is for a large tech company who is here in Hillsboro is going to be onboarding 70-80 new tech support people soon. They’re in the process of doing the hiring, and they’re talking about bringing us in for improv soft skills training; handing us each set of people, dividing them into two groups, two hours a day for a week. It’s a dream to have that much time to work with people.
CSz: Technical support – it’s at the heart of customer service. They’ve trained them on their products, and they’ve trained them on their system – most companies do that and then throw the the newbies in front of customers and expect great results. This company is thinking, “No, we have to be more excellent than that.” What I really appreciate about this company, beyond bringing us in – is that they’ve had 3 outsourced companies working with them, and they’ve discovered that’s not the most effective way to deliver the service. So this is really awesome. Service is huge right now.
MB: So what would you say are the skills people are looking to build in customer service outside of the more basic Team Building programs you do? How are they utilizing improv to improve customer service?
CSz: Listening skills; communication skills; accepting people or meeting people where they are; supporting each other on their team – which sounds a little like Team Building, but it’s beyond that. Understanding that you look good when you make others look good; taking competent risks; stepping outside the program when your intuition tells you something else needs to be done. You might have a rock-solid policy, but there are times when you have to dump the policy to do what’s good and what’s right; and then, minimizing the effects of mistakes – one of the beautiful things about improv is when we perform, it’s mistake after mistake after mistake, and we just embrace it. We don’t sit around and point fingers and worry about errors – we learn from them – we don’t want to make the same mistakes over and over, but each mistake is an opportunity. So, those are the main things. We believe in improvisation as a system of observing, connecting, and responding, and within in that system, the pillars that hold it up are listening, accepting, supporting, taking competent risks and minimizing the effects of mistakes.
MB: That is so interesting. You know, I think of all the people I’ve talked to, you’re the fourth person I’ve talked to, and I haven’t really heard that much about minimizing the effects of mistakes, and I love that, how that transfers. I have a theatre background, and that’s what improv is all about: Not saying “no” and rolling with what you’re given. And I think that’s a really interesting thing to be taking to the corporate world.
MB: I’m glad you said that.
CSz: Everybody makes mistakes. The question is what happens after you make the mistake. I run a company and we have lots of vendors that we work with, and they make mistakes – WE’RE gonna make mistakes. too. It’s what happens AFTER we make the mistake. In our business, I love it when somebody tells me,“Oh, we double-billed this customer and we have to take care of it.” Because what happens? We end up fixing it and making a fan for life because most people don’t expect that from a company. People call us and say, “I was double-billed for Friday Night…” – we just take care of it – or even better, “We got sick, and we couldn’t come Saturday night – is there any way you could help us?” And our approach is “Great! When do you want to see the show?” There’s no “Sorry, you didn’t use your tickets.” It’s “When do you want to see the show?” We want people to get value. They call expecting nothing, and instead, they get pretty much exactly what they want, and they usually can’t believe it. They call ready to fight, and we’re listening and saying, “We get it – we’re on your side.” When WE’VE made the mistake, it’s an opportunity for us to learn how to avoid it next time – it’s also an opportunity to convert somebody into a fan for life. When I work with vendors, I’m less interested in how they work with me regularly – that’s cool – but inevitably, somebody’s going to blow something, and what happens when they do?
MB: So what made you decide, or what made CSz decide to add this component to their programming?
CSz: That’s a fun story. I was with CSz San Jose; I played there from 1987 to 1992, and I served as General Manager. We did our ComedySportz show one night, and afterwards, some guys came up to us in our handshaking line, you know we have this thing we call a “slap line” where we high-five the audience on their way out the door – I don’t know if you’ve experienced that – but it’s an important part of the fan experience… These guys came up to us and said,“Can we talk to you? We want to think like you.” And we’re thinking, “Uh… alright… what’s going on?” They worked for Apple; they were in a department writing drivers, these software guys writing drivers – very glamorous stuff – and they were having trouble even agreeing on all of the goals, not to mention the path. And we said, “Okay. What do you mean by ‘think like us?’” They said, “It looks seamless. You agree on everything, you’re always moving in the same direction, it’s like somebody has an idea and everyone goes with it…” And we thought,“Okay, cool.” So we offered them our Adult 101 syllabus for 6 weeks at the campus in Cupertino for this group of 10 or 12 guys. Then, at the end, they wrote us a check, and we thought, “We have a new business.” So, it was a customer who came in and said,“You can do this for us – give it to us.” That was the first one, and clearly, we had no idea what we were doing except how to train them to be improv performers. It was a nice start.
It’s been refined over the years since then – by a lot. In fact, the refinement has accelerated over the last 5 years with my involvement in the Applied Improvisation Network. CSz brought a great attitude and great team culture to a whole bunch of skilled people who were really, truly focused on the show. Now, it’s really grown so much over the years that my focus has shifted. I still do the shows – I probably perform 100 times a year, but teaching Applied Improvisation has become a passion. I think it’s connected to the fact that here in Portland, I’ve always taught our 101 class – our adult class – that’s always been my niche. I don’t teach many advanced improv classes – although I do some teaching in musical improv, since I’m a piano player, and I compose. I’ve developed a talent for teaching people who have not touched this before, and that matches what the corporate world needs very nicely. Having worked for many years in sales and marketing in the high-tech industry doesn’t hurt, either. I had to listen and learn about clients’ needs, and I learned a lot about what makes some companies work and others not work.
MB: So these next two questions are very basic, but I’m kind of using them as a gauge to see if there are certain areas of the country where these things are more in demand or if certain companies just have a better handle on it. I think it has a lot to do with marketing and I really had to dig to find theatres that I didn’t end up following through with because it was so hard to find out if they did corporate trainings. A lot of people I’ve talked to have said, “Yeah, we haven’t really marketed this yet, but we’re looking at it now because people are just coming to us more, and we’re thinking, ‘Well how much more earned revenue could we be looking at if we start marketing this?’”
CSz: There’s a detachment, too; because many people in our field look at working with corporations as “whoring,” and they’re absolutely wrong. We have never looked at it that way. If anybody wants a chance to make the world better, this is really a place where we could do it. Even entertainment-wise, we have never looked at it as, “Oh yeah, that’s just a corporate show.” It’s a challenge, it’s fun, it’s core to what we do. I wouldn’t be performing ComedySportz anymore if it was just all home theatre shows. Home shows are not challenging enough – they’re so much fun, and very rewarding, but that alone is not challenging enough for a career. I hope that companies looking for improvisation training get a chance to work with people who are passionate about working with them. We are.
MB: Yeah. Interesting. I like that perspective on it. So just to give me a gauge, how long has CSz Portland been offering these training programs?
CSz: CSz Portland is 21 years old. We’ve offered Applied Improvisation from our beginning in 1993, although in a limited sense because I was the only person with experience when we opened up here with a new team; that made us vulnerable to issues. If I booked something and got sick, I wouldn’t have anybody who was anywhere near competent enough to do it. So I limited it to some small engagements for a couple of years. It wasn’t that we DIDN’T do it, but I deliberately didn’t focus on it until I felt like I had people who had the chops who I could train to do this. Our first significant one would’ve been about 1995, so we’re looking at about 19 years. I’ve been doing it personally for 25+ years.
MB: So now what would you say in the past year – how many programs do you typically do in one year? Or do you want to give a gauge of how many you did in 2013? Are you seeing an increase year after year?
CSz: It was growing significantly through 2007 and then tanked in the recession. It never went completely away, but we were probably up to about 30 times a year in 2007, and probably went down to half a dozen a couple years later. I mean, it TANKED, and companies just stopped spending money on stuff that they didn’t have to spend. For 2013, off the top of my head, I’m going to say between 35 and 40. It was the most revenue we’ve ever had from it, and we’ve got – as far as days in front of clients this year, we’re already at 8 in the middle of January. It feels like it’s really growing. And we’re doing some things with more reach. I designed and sold a program to Radio Shack that’s been done 6 times, 4 in New York, 1 in Boston, 1 in L.A. I haven’t physically taught any of them.
CSz: Other top CSz people have taught them. And we’re at that point where we can get together on Skype, and because we’ve been working together for years, and I’ve been leading train the trainer sessions at our shareholders’meetings and ComedySportz World Championship events – we have a common language. We won’t necessarily use the same games, but we have the same goals, the same articulation of our system. There’s actually a system of connecting, observing and responding and not just winging it. And that’s really helped a lot. We’re seeing more and more work nationally.
MB: Wow. I was also intrigued when Bobbi Block told me about your location because I know the arts seem to be more well-supported by the public in Portland and the surrounding area.
CSz: Portland and Seattle are artistic places. Everybody’s in a band and most people have started a theatre company – I’m joking, but it seems like that’s the case. And those that haven’t mostly knit. If you watch Portlandia, it’s not far off – it’s based in reality.
I think what drives this area the most is a combination of high-tech and the shoe companies. We have Nike; the North American headquarters for Adidas is here; there are smaller ones, too. Nike’s huge, and then we have a large tech sector. There are 15,000 Intel employees here. They aren’t headquartered in Oregon, but there are 15,000 employees here. Tektronix was a huge tech company–old school tech company–that spun off companies like crazy in the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s, and it’s been bought out and shrunk, but a lot of the companies they spun off are still here. There’s a big start-up mentality here. It’s not quite like Silicon Valley, but there’s a start-up mentality here. We’ve done a lot of work with Nike – it’s not like you get into Nike or Intel and go through the whole company. That would be sweet, but they don’t work that way – they’re very departmental. We go department by department. We’ve probably done 30 engagements with Nike. We’ve done at least that many with Intel. The drivers for this work aren’t so much artistic; there’s a big design community and there are some forward-thinking companies. Working with Nike is outstanding because they’ve already filtered out the people who don’t want to play. I call keeping the people on the fringe of a workshop engaged “border collie-ing.”You don’t have to “border collie” people from Nike.
And yet, we have to get out there and earn our money. We’re for-profit, so we’re not getting grants. And we do that by doing shows and training for corporate, church, association and school clients. We’re out there earning money. Because we’re clean, we can even play at churches – most improv groups wouldn’t play in a church – they simply couldn’t do it. We don’t have a problem with that. The other thing that happens with it – not only do they pay you, they laugh really hard, the audiences are great, and they’re grateful – truly GRATEFUL that they can have a comedy experience where they aren’t offended. It’s really super simple – we don’t make fun of what people can’t change – ethnicity, politics, religion – we stay away from those things and we’re able to be funny without offending anybody. We’ve done road shows for 21 years without a complaint from anybody – schools, churches, corporate, private, conventions – it’s still fun – it’s really hilarious.
There’s almost as much gratitude in our corporate workshops. Team Building has gotten to be a loaded term; apparently, there’s a lot of junk out there in the training world. During our final reflections, we always have someone tell us, “I thought this was going to be terrible and it was great!” I am always willing to hear that – and to understand that the fear and negative associations are a form of barrier that we need to get past early in our training events.
MB: Are you finding your repeat clients or customers – whatever you prefer to call them – such as Nike, do you find that you’re doing the same things for these different departments, or are you seeing people who – it’s kind of like you’re taking the workshop up to the next level and perhaps you’re trainings are getting more advanced with your return customers?
CSz: The stuff that seems to be exploding right now is the ongoing programs. The sales call I was at this morning would be ongoing – an insurance company I’ve worked with booked multiple stops to reach the whole company, and they’re talking about working with us more deeply in the future. I have booked an engagement for this Friday with a local ice cream company. It’s called Salt and Straw, and they make and sell ice cream flavors like pear / blue cheese, bacon brown ale… for Thanksgiving they had Turkey brittle, and sweet potato pie, and orange yam and they did the whole Thanksgiving menu – in ice cream. One of their most popular flavors is olive oil – it’s fantastic. First of all, the ice cream’s wonderful, second; you walk up, you usually wait in line, and everybody’s waiting to get into this joint, and then you get up front, and you can sample all the flavors – they don’t hurry you. They do a really nice job of connecting with you, and yet, they want to hire us to amp up their customer experience even higher. They want to focus on the “mistake thing,” not worrying about it, and just dealing with it. I will be working with their managers, and then they’re talking about on-boarding a significant number of people – they’re really growing. They want to bring me in to work with the people at the front end after they’ve had their basic training.
So what’s happening is this: 10 years ago, we taught Team Building – let’s get along, let’s connect. Now, we’re applying improv to higher level goals – really high-level customer service techniques – leadership, design thinking, creative brainstorming and more. Many times it can be the same activity or activities, but the difference is in how you introduce them, how you reflect on them and how you help your clients make the connections for themselves. That’s the value-add we offer. Anyone can learn these games, but working with somebody who’s led and reflected on the games at companies for 20+ years can switch on a dime, recognize what’s happening in front of them and connect it to their work during reflection, That’s the value we add.
MB: So would you say you’ve ever gotten feedback from somebody you’ve worked with, and they’ve gotten a benefit out of the workshop that you never even thought about, and it kind of puts that new spin on things for you?
CSz: That has happened. I don’t have anything specific that’s coming to mind, but that’s happened several times. Most of the time, they make a connection inside the workshop that I haven’t thought of. As I walk into Salt and Straw on Friday, I will be carrying all the reflection of all previous clients with me on all those games. If something comes up, there’s probably somebody who’s had something similar. But not always – sometimes, something will come together in a very, very new way.
I’m teaching my 101 class – my adult 101 class – for the 79th time this winter. I’ve been there, and done that a lot of times. Last week, we played a couple games and struggled a little bit and the class determined that the problem was they kept assuming there were rules that I hadn’t said. And it was with these particular games that there was a whole new way of looking at it. I told them the parameters of the game as they played the game, and they were struggling because they assumed they couldn’t do things, but I hadn’t said anything about it. That was a whole new look that I hadn’t dealt with in the past, and it’s really fascinating because it also popped up in one of the other corporate workshops I was doing last week. People were saying, “Can we do this?” And my new schtick was, “If I haven’t said you can’t, try it. And the only thing I ask of you is if you think it’s going to ‘break’ the game, then maybe don’t do it. If you think its going to enhance your experience, try it. And if I find it breaks the game, that’s something I get to learn.” It’s really cool that that happened in 2 completely separate instances in the same week.
Usually, the lessons are happening inside. I have had people get back to me and say they’ve taken little pieces from the workshop and incorporated them into their culture. When we play a bunch of circle warmup games, we do this thing where if someone makes a mistake, the entire group puts their arms around each other and says “Ah-ooga” like an old car horn, and moves into the center; it’s a fun little ritual. Then everybody laughs, and says, “Hey we made a mistake.”Sometimes I make a mistake just so they can “ah-ooga.” I’ve had many, many clients tell me that “ah-ooga” has made it into company meetings. “Hey, we screwed this up. Ah-ooga! Now what are we going to do about it?”
MB: So with the feedback you get, and you touched on how customer service is something that you’re really working on right now, are there any other new programs that you’re looking at or exploring right now for businesses?
CSz: We’ll explore anything anyone throws at us. We’re very much driven by what’s in front of us as opposed to thinking about stuff and then trying to go find a client for it. We’re in reactive sales. Sometimes when we get a great idea on our own, we find there’s no market for it.
MB: Yeah, I saw that on the website that you even say…
CSz: Bring us a problem, and we’ll design a program for you.
MB: Yeah, exactly – have you had…
CSz: We’ve had lots of people do that.
MB: Do you do any evaluation on your programs or do you ever get any feedback on people you work with on how they’re evaluating it once they’re done with the workshops?
CSz: Most of the time, I talk with the main contact afterwards, and we have a phone call or exchange emails. One thing I’ve found is that people are never doing as much follow-up as I wish they would. Life gets busy. We’ve designed evaluation surveys and had almost no one fill them out. I wish there were more of it. We touch base, we talk – almost exclusively they tell me all the great things about it. Every once in awhile, we’ll hear, “Oh there was this one activity that didn’t really resonate with people because of this…” Honestly, it doesn’t happen very often. It’s almost like I’d feel better if I heard that more often.
By the way, in this portion of our business, we’ve had zero dissatisfied customers the entire time we’ve been doing it. We had one, sort-of, once, and I fixed it. The one “sort-of” was when we did a customer service training for a small municipality here in Oregon, a little town–and when I say “little”, it was 8 employees – the city manager booked it, but didn’t participate, which could’ve been part of the issue. After this 3 – hour customer service workshop, the city manager called me the next day and said, “Hey – they loved the workshop, the loved the games, they thought you were awesome, they don’t have any idea what this had to do with customer service.” My reply was, “Well, we didn’t get to that.” They were a little slow. They were one of the slower clients I’ve worked with, and they just didn’t get there. So I simply said, “Schedule some time – I’ll come back and finish the job.” I ended up spending 5 hours total with them. I went back for 2 hours, and they were delighted. They did the rest of it – it was great. That’s as close as we’ve come to a “failure”.
MB: That’s fantastic.
CSPo: Seriously, it’s almost like I want someone to call and say,“This didn’t work,” because then it would feel more human. I’m not going to go deliberately blow it, so… we may be waiting a long time for a failure. Applied Improvisation works.
Patrick Short is the co-author of Jill and Patrick’s Small Book of Improv for Business. He’s currently attempting to convince Oregon Ballet Theatre that a little improv training could go a long way toward reducing dancer fear of improvisation in performances.