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The Old Rectory on the Lake, Tal y Llyn, Dolgellau, Gwynedd, the first business to be awarded WorldHost status in Wales. (Handout image)
The Old Rectory on the Lake, Tal y Llyn, Dolgellau, Gwynedd, the first business to be awarded WorldHost status in Wales. (Handout image)

London 2012

Canada's last untapped export: politeness Add to ...

On a recent vacation in Montreal, Ricky Francis and his partner sat down in a café, intending only to have a coffee. But the pair, who own a bed and breakfast in Wales, were so charmed by the waitress that they ended up buying a meal and a nice bottle of chardonnay.

The waitress was friendly and accommodating instead of dismissive and rude. In other words, it was a different dining experience from the kind Mr. Francis is used to at home in Britain. “We’re appalling at customer service,” he says, and even over the phone line from his B&B, The Old Rectory on the Lake in Snowdonia National Park, you can hear the shudder.

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So when he was offered the chance to learn the Canadian art of people-pleasing, he leaped at the opportunity. Mr. Francis is one of thousands of British hoteliers, waiters, shop assistants and taxi drivers being trained in the WorldHost program, which was created by the government of British Columbia and is now being used to prepare for the influx of Olympic visitors to the U.K.

Think of it as Canada franchising civility, or exporting its last untapped natural resource: politeness.

WorldHost, which teaches everything from attentive listening to skills for helping disabled visitors, was used to train volunteers in B.C. before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The British, taking notice of the largely positive reception to the Games and its own dismal record of service, bought the program with the aim of training 200,000 people in the hospitality industry. Napoleon may have called it a nation of shopkeepers, but it’s not a nation of happy shoppers: In 2010, an international customer-service survey ranked Britain 14th out of 50 countries; Canada was first.

“You do service so well in Canada,” says Mr. Francis, whose partner’s mother lives in Oakville, Ont. “Americans are okay, but a tad insincere. People are arrogant in Britain – we think we do service well, but we really don’t.”

He points to fellow bed-and-breakfast operators who don’t seem to be stirred to action by even the direst complaints (one hotel not too far from Mr. Francis’s is dubbed “Freddy Krueger’s Fawlty Towers” by a disgruntled visitor on TripAdvisor.) When Mr. Francis noticed a criticism of his own B&B online – “someone really hated me” – he felt it was time to brush up on customer service, Canadian-style.

At the one-day WorldHost training course, Mr. Francis and his fellow students, a group of ice-cream vendors, learned about the importance of constructive listening, non-verbal communication, and a warm greeting. They learned how to soothe the ire of the raging guest who’d been double-booked or couldn’t get his flavour of choice. They learned not to roll their eyes à la Basil Fawlty.

They were developing the same facility for pleasantness and patience taught to 60,000 volunteers and hospitality workers in British Columbia in the runup to the Vancouver Olympics two years ago. “These skills may seem like a given but they’re not,” says Yavhel Velazquez, who manages WorldHost training at British Columbia’s Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation. The program (motto: “Service Beyond a Smile!”) was initially developed to deal with the influx of tourists for Expo 86 in Vancouver, and it’s since been licensed to more than 17 countries.

The goal, says Mr. Velazquez, is to teach those on the front line in the tourism industry to be ambassadors for their country: to brush up on useful information, respond sensitively to people from different cultures, solve problems, and “go that extra mile.”

It is a lesson that Britain could stand to learn, considering that it is “probably the worst in the world at customer service,” as the country’s most famous retailing guru, Mary Portas, told the BBC. (Ms. Portas is the host of Secret Shopper, a reality-show dedicated to improving the experience of British customers, who are used to gazing off into the distance while store employees finish talking on their mobile phones.) There are many theories as to why this is. For one thing, service isn’t viewed as a career in Britain, as it is in Italy or France. Instead “it’s seen as a servile thing,” says Mr. Francis, the hotelier, “which it shouldn’t be.” For another, the British are loath to complain about poor service, so it never improves.

The British government’s job-training agency, People 1st, sees a potential bonanza in improving the tourist experience. It estimates visitors will spend up to £2-billion ($3.1-billion) this year, drawn by events such as the Olympics and Paralympics, the Diamond Jubilee and the World Shakespeare Festival – but only if they can be sweet-talked into opening their wallets first. To that end, People 1st has trained 350 staff to train 680 businesses in Britain, from hotel chains to the London Eye.

It is in central London where the need for calm will be the greatest, as an already overcrowded city prepares to absorb a glut of guests. The Strand Palace near Trafalgar Square is a typically busy large hotel, its TripAdvisor reviews suggesting a wide range of customer satisfaction. (“Excellent service,” says one; another must have had a different experience: “Treated like garbage.”)

Everyone in the hotel, from maids to waiters, went through the WorldHost training. Here you had a situation where many staff and customers were not English-speakers, trying to understand each other across a language divide. The staff performed role-playing exercises in which they had to communicate messages without speaking. “With the Olympics and other events coming up, we saw a chance to step up our game and offer better service for our international visitors,” says the hotel’s human resources manager, Nadia Simmonds.

In the six months since the training, positive comments have outweighed negative ones, she says. “In Britain, we were lagging behind. But I think we may have learned something from you Canadians.”

Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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