Mark Colgate describes how a business school and a small Canadian resort combined to create a world-class customer service training programme
In the spectacular Coast Mountains two hours north of Vancouver, Canada, lies Whistler, host of the 2010 Winter Olympics and one of Canada’s favourite year-round resorts. Drawing visitors from around the world – up to three million annually – it has built a reputation as a visitor-friendly town.
Yet with consistently high visitor ratings it can become all too easy for popular destinations to become complacent and for customer service to start slipping. To make sure that did not happen in its municipality, four years ago the Whistler Chamber of Commerce took an active stance, paving an innovative route that has attracted global attention.
In 2013 the chamber of commerce saw the need to upgrade its long-standing training programme, which had been in place for more than 30 years. Although customer service training was a resort-wide initiative, it became apparent that the quality of the training did not match the high level of customer service the location demanded.
It was time to introduce more sophisticated training that would attract innovative employees and help develop the next generation of leaders in the resort. The Whistler chamber decided to develop a new programme that would be inspiring, grounded in science and provided applicable tools for participants to use in their day-to-day interactions with visitors.
Whistler approached the Peter B Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria, as one of very few business schools that offers service management as a business specialisation. Both sides were excited by the challenge.
As a partner, the school could add academic rigour and proven research to create a world-class programme that offered participants life-long tools. The idea was that the new programme would turn Whistler’s consistently top-rated customer service into a serious destination differentiator.
Gustavson’s faculty were particularly intrigued by Whistler’s desire to use research and science to help develop its customer service training programme. By applying its service management expertise, evaluating what was working in Whistler’s existing training programme and what could be improved upon, they created the “Whistler Experience”.
In designing the “Whistler Experience”, we decided to build it around an holistic approach to customer service, meaning that visitors who check in to their accommodation, visit a coffee shop or scan their lift pass at one of the ski resort’s gondolas see a consistency in the level and approach to the guest experience and customer service. This approach focuses on Whistler’s service values, the 3Rs: be Reliable, be Responsive and build Relationships.
Since its launch in 2014, the Whistler Experience has been providing businesses throughout the resort with the opportunity to educate and train front-line customer service staff and also offering guidance on how to coach all tourism employees, ranging from volunteers to business owners and managers.
Programme participants have learned how to build better relationships, deliver world-class service and sell more effectively through a customer-first approach that focuses on the needs of the guest. The programme has also taught managers and supervisors how to be better leaders through “train-the-trainer” materials and coaching tools.
The impact the Whistler Experience has had on individual businesses and the community has been noteworthy.
Since 2014 more than 16,000 people have attended Whistler Experience courses. Whistler confirmed in June 2017 that over 82% of visitors were satisfied in all of the “3Rs” categories.
When comparing 2014-2015 to the 2015-2016 season (the former was the inaugural season of the Whistler Experience training programme) 5,000 visitor surveys showed a significant increase in overall customer satisfaction.
In addition to the impact on the local community, awareness of the programme has been growing globally. The Whistler Experience was a finalist for a World Chamber Award for Best Education and Training project at the International Chamber of Commerce Congress held in Sydney, Australia, and was the only Canadian contender among the 18 finalists.
“Being selected as a finalist in the category for Best Education and Training project is a true achievement for our team, showing how much a small chamber can achieve,” says Melissa Pace, CEO of the Whistler chamber. “Being honoured as a finalist and going to the World Chambers Congress feels like qualifying for the Olympics.”
For the Gustavson School of Business, it is a delight to have been recognised on a world stage. The school has worked hard with the Whistler chamber to ensure that visitors to Whistler receive an unforgettable level of service. The programme was established to address the resort’s need to deliver an extraordinary customer experience that matches its global positioning as a premiere four-season destination.
Three years into the programme, working in Whistler and having the Whistler Experience on a resume is starting to be recognised as an investment for future employment opportunities by participants. Just as the power of interning at Google has helped those who want to work in the tech industry, working in Whistler now reflects a world-class customer service skill set.
The success of the Whistler Experience goes far beyond trained smiles. At first glance its promises to the local business may seem like a tall order. These include:
- Develop knowledge and skills: The Whistler Experience will help build your brand culture and customer service by improving service
- Help you to increase employee retention: Surveys show that Whistler’s employees want more training. The Whistler Experience training is affordable and proven to work
- Implementing: The Whistler Experience training helps you implement customer centric solutions
- Measuring: Assess your status quo and measure progress. The Whistler Experience Secret Shopper Programme gives you real time feedback on your service delivery so you can coach your employees and improve your service processes
This is not just lip service. The Whistler Experience delivers on its promises. In just a few years, the approach has turned into a top-rated service leadership programme. Training is one thing – there are many training programmes out there – but implementing the learnings is another. One of the results that is apparent is a consistency of customer service and the powerful impact it has on the local community and business
While the Whistler Experience was originally designed to maintain Whistler’s top-rated service culture and to drive excellence, the school had no idea the impact would be so much greater and more significant. This commitment to customer service has become a cornerstone of Whistler’s overall guest experience, ensuring the continuing economic success of the resort community as a whole. It has also become a model that global destinations can now look to for inspiration.