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Whistler Experience aims for consistent customer service

Three Canadian business schools are among 35 recognized globally this year for innovative education practices by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. The U.S.-based accrediting body identified schools that are reimagining business education by working with other disciplines on campus, industry partners or community-based organizations. The Canadian schools are the University of Victoria, here, McGill University and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.

As a popular destination for skiing and other seasonal pursuits – and a host site for the 2010 Olympics – Whistler, B.C., has earned a strong reputation as a tourist-friendly town.

But with three million visitors a year, how do you stay in peak form to retain or improve on high ratings?

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That was the question posed four years ago by the Whistler Chamber of Commerce.

"The way we can best serve the community is not to offer just great service but epic world-class service training," says Val Litwin, the former chief executive officer of the Whistler chamber who now leads the British Columbia Chamber of Commerce. "Not just the traditional 'smile school' but really deep science-based management training that is grounded in social psychology."

In 2013, the Whistler chamber turned to the University of Victoria's Gustavson School of Business, one of a few schools worldwide with a curriculum and research specialty in service management.

Led by Mark Colgate, a professor and researcher in service excellence and coaching for more than 20 years, Gustavson developed on-site training modules for the chamber and its members. Over the past three years, almost 16,000 employees and managers have enrolled in the Whistler Experience, with a 75-per-cent participation rate of local businesses. What's new about the approach, says current Whistler chamber CEO Melissa Pace, is the level consistency.

"The community was not unified in service," says Ms. Pace, despite training offered by the chamber and hospitality-sector businesses. "Not only were the businesses starving for customer-service training but there wasn't any unification to it."

Now, she says, "there is a really good sense of customer service from one place to the next and it is consistent. We all gain."

Gustavson dean Saul Klein says the training offered through in-person and online learning is an "interesting blend" of two versions of executive education delivered by business schools. In one, a company contracts with a school for customized training of mid- to senior managers. In the other, multiple companies send designated employees for the same training.

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By contrast, all of the Whistler chamber's 700 members pay to send those they select for training.

"This brings together all service providers in the community from different organizations to ensure they have a consistent way of looking at the customer experience and how they serve customers," says Dr. Klein. "That is one dimension that makes it unusual."

Dr. Colgate says the Whistler Experience is based on 30 years of research about the nature of customer service as a combination of reliability, responsiveness and relationships.

"The science has shown that reliability is the most important thing," he says, with customers preferring speed and efficiency over friendliness. But the quality of relationships, be they between a sales clerk and a customer or a manager and an employee, becomes a "great differentiator" in determining whether a visitor returns or a staff member remains loyal to an employer.

Prior to the winter ski season, Dr. Colgate teaches modules of customer service that run for a minimum of three hours. Depending on the position, an employee could receive up to 24 hours of training over a two-year period. The program has proven so popular that businesses have signed up for training for the increasingly popular summer season.

As well, about 100 chamber members have signed up for "secret shopper" outings that test how well staff and managers follow through on what they have learned about service and satisfaction.

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"Training itself is utterly useless," says Dr. Colgate. "It is about the implementation."

For hospitality companies in Whistler, the practical components of the modular learning fit with their needs.

"It's clean, relevant, up-to-date and based on behavioural science," says Miriam MacDonald, manager of guest services at Whistler Blackcomb ski resort, with 3,000 of more than 4,000 employees hired seasonally. After participating in an initial pilot program for two of its divisions, Whistler Blackcomb extended the training to all 12 divisions of the company over the past two years.

"It's the backbone of our training," says Ms. MacDonald, with 400 employees trained last fall, up from 200 a year earlier.

The chamber's Ms. Pace says visitor feedback since the program's introduction is also positive.

"Customer satisfaction has gone up while the resort has served a record number of visitors," she says. "It validates that what we are doing is working."

One unexpected bonus is the strong interest shown by non-Whistler companies who now come to the town for training.

"Our dream at the business school is to get people to come to Whistler to get customer service training because they know it is a hot-bed of great customer service," says Dr. Colgate. "They want to learn from the businesses that have done it and we educate them on some core principles."

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