Monty Python's Good Service Guide

You pop into a grocery store and suddenly five people are inches away from you restocking the juice display. You quickly choose your box of juice and sneak off, feeling like a criminal for lingering too long in the store. You go home and make a business call. The person you need to talk to is not in. Neither is anyone else who can help you and you're told to call back. Can you leave a message? Click.

It is situations like these that remind the new expatriate that despite a proliferation of Western-style stores and businesses, Moscow is still not a service-with-a-smile economy. Indeed, the concept of service remains a novel one.

Most Western companies have programs that train their employees to act civilly and work more efficiently; behemoths like McDonalds and Coca-Cola even operate their own "universities."

But one of the more interesting options available in Moscow for companies wanting to transform old Soviet work attitudes into a more customer-oriented approach was originally started by British comedian John Cleese, one of the creators of "Monty Python." In 1973, Cleese observed a similar service crisis in his own country and created Video Arts, a company that produces videos with titles like "How To Lose Customers Without Really Trying" and "Speed Is Life: Get Fast or Get Broke" that offer a humorous approach to staff training.

Eighteen months ago, a franchise -- Business Training Consultancy -- was set up in Moscow. Director Michael Green says a host of multinational corporations, including Reebok, Avon, Revlon, and Baskin Robbins, have either bought the company's $1,500 half-hour videos or signed up for $2,000 to $3,000 personalized courses.

Green, 24, says Cleese started Video Arts, which now has franchises in 40 countries, because he was subjected to tedious training films in the army, like "How To Hold Your Gun" and "How Not to Be Seen" (clips of which were later shown on "Monty Python"). Also, as an aspiring actor, Cleese figured making his own videos was a guaranteed way to get his face on camera. Green says Cleese traveled across Britain observing sales and service habits as research for the series. The hit television show "Fawlty Towers," which Cleese wrote and starred in, was based on his findings of less-than-stellar service at various hotels.

The "Fawlty Towers"-like humor in the training videos resonates well with Russians, Green says, because the physical slapstick traverses cultural barriers."

The idea is to strike a balance," says Green. "If the joke is too good, you don't remember the training. If the joke is bad, you're just sad. Laughter gets [the participants] talking and opens up their creativity, which generates ideas."

The actors in the John Cleese videos, which are all subtitled in Russian, are a virtual Who's Who of British comedy: Miranda Richardson, Rowan Atkinson, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French and Hugh Laurie all play various characters -- befuddled managers, exasperated customers, spineless salespeople, and condescending waitstaff.

One of the more popular videos, according to Green, is "Meetings, Bloody Meetings," where Cleese plays an inept manager who can't quite master the art of the effective meeting, leading to uncomfortable boardroom scenes. In a dream sequence, Cleese's character is upbraided in a courtroom for his lack of planning, with a bewigged judge resorting to bonking Cleese on the head with his gavel.

Another hit, "Straight Talking: The Art of Assertiveness" would not, judging by its title, seem necessary for the Russian market. But Green explains that while the English have problems with being to passive, Russians are sometimes perceived as too aggressive. The video teaches a middle ground: assertiveness.

Nick Rossiter, the general manager of Hewlett Packard in Russia, bought 10 videos to train his sales and management staff.

"I was brought up on these tapes in England," he says. "It's the stuff I was weaned on." Rossiter admits the message the videos send is simple, but he says even the most seasoned salesperson needs to be reminded of the basics. And in Russia, he adds, what Westerners consider old-hat is new.

"Even the 'Basics in Sales' video is valuable. There have been no sales here in a long, long time. We're trying to switch Russia overnight to ... a market economy," says Rossiter. "The most important idea is treating the customer right. There's a great willingness to learn here and the tapes help that."

Other customers include Lawson Firkins and his partner Wayne Jenkins, training managers for Revlon, Pickwick Tea and Burton's Biscuits. Both are full-time trainers who utilize formal classroom teaching, workshops, seminars and working parties to teach their clients. Firkins and Jenkins brought two Video Arts tapes on sales with them from England and said they always get a good response and liven up the seminars.

However, other human resources managers said that the humor did not always cross language barriers successfully. Vyacheslav Smyslov, the training organizer at pharmaceuticals company Schering AG said that, while he found the videos on sales useful and entertaining, not all the Russians at his company agreed.

"Because of the language barrier, a lot of them didn't get the humor," Smyslov said.

Others said that, at $1,500, the tapes were too expensive. Alexei Chichinadze, training manager for Coca-Cola in Russia, said he used tapes from a competitor, Career Track, located in Britain and the United States, which offer similar content but are considerably cheaper (approximately $375 for one four-volume series). Chichinadze said the Career Track tapes use less well-known actors, but for Russians, he points out, this hardly matters.

Green, is already planning to introduce cheaper options. To market the company and let his hands-on trainers practice teaching, Green says his firm plans to offer very cheap (possibly $10 per student) courses in customer service.

Green says that ultimately he hopes to make daily shopping in Moscow a little more pleasant.

"Every single store here needs customer service training. And the first thing we'll address is the following-people-around-in-shops problem."