A strategy for service excellence: Seven indicators from Singapore Airlines Cabin Crew Management - By Ahmed Haouaria

10 Nov 2019
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What is this article about? 

Frequently referred to as one of the world’s leading and best airlines, the focus of Singapore Airlines (SIA) can be summed up in three words – Customer Service Excellence.

World’s second best airlines in 2019 after being awarded world’s best airlines in 2018, according to World Airline Awards SKYTRAX ranking,The Singaporean airline flies to 64 destinations around the world has sustained an excellent reputation for years, but at the latest World Airline Awards it was voted the world’s best.

Notoriously, the aviation sector is highly competitive, and with pressure growing from low cost companies as well as major fast-growing legacy airlines such as Qatar Airways and Emirates, premium airlines like SIA are seeing margins significantly pressed.

How, then, SIA is changing the rules of the game? Focus on Human Resources, mainly Cabin Crew is KEY.

Soft Skills improvement is made possible by a combination of recruiting the right people, giving the suitable training and providing the right work support.

Taking into consideration the specific highly customer services oriented characteristics of the industry, for firms like Singapore Airlines, customer-facing staff are critical business assets. Undeniably, from a customer’s viewpoint, the actions of staff, Cabin Crew mainly, express the whole service organisation itself including the back office and internal arrangement.

SIA recognized and highly-awarded inflight service is a result of a human resource strategy that aims to build competitive advantage over its industry competitors. 

Let’s have a look at what makes SIA special in term of Cabin Crew excellence supported by a strong 

human resource strategy, and consider how these elements participate in building such a great customer service culture. 

1. Select and hire the right Cabin Crew 

Like all major airlines, Recruitment is an important first step in SIA’s HR strategy. Therefore, the hiring process to recruit top quality candidates is implemented with the most critical performance criteria.Group discussions with cases studies, one-on-one interviews and an English language competency test are part of the process. SIA looks for recruits who can empathise with passengers and are cheerful, friendly and humble.

Each year the airline receives around 10,000 applications to join its cabin crew, of whom only around 900 are eventually hired.

A common challenge facing service organisations is a shortage of labour. As a result of this and the competitive nature of the service industry there is a temptation to hasten the hiring process. That however would be a false economy. Think of it this way: Hiring should be a carefully considered process. Taking on the wrong people will quickly turn into a liability for the organisation.

2. Coaching Customer service winners

Once accepted into SIA, the newly recruited cabin crew take part in an intensive 15-week training course – the longest and most comprehensive in the airline industry.  Hiring is a carefully and highly considered process. Taking on the wrong people quickly turns into a liability for the organisation according to Singapore HR. This training focuses on enabling cabin crew to provide gracious service with confidence and warmth. The course modules cover not only safety and functional areas, but also appreciation of gourmet food and wine, and the art of conversation. An internal SIA initiative, known as Transforming Customer Service (TCS), aims to build team spirit among staff in key operational areas such cabin crew, engineering, ground services, flight operations and sales support. This serves to remind staff of their importance in the overall business and that everyone has a role in customer service. With suitable people in place, investment in training can create outstanding service champions. Successful service organisations tend to show a commitment in words, dollars and action towards training.

3. Creating Customer-first culture

When SIA was just starting out in the 70s, Joseph Pillay, the company’s first chairman, instilled a customer-first company culture. He is known for saying that anyone, whether it is a hanger assistant or accountant, comes to work at SIA because of the customers.The focus on the customer remains deeply relevant today, especially in the face of increased competition from the fast-growing Middle Eastern carriers. For SIA effective HR management practices and the resulting quality of human resources brings with it a competitive advantage that is difficult for competitors to imitate.  

4. Work effectively as a team to deliver service excellence

With the many Inflight services that need to be focussed on, the nature of the working environment requires people to work effectively as a team to deliver service excellence.SIA creates this mindset among its cabin crew members by grouping them into ‘wards’. Each ward consists of about 180 crew, led by a ‘ward-leader’ acting as counsellor to guide and develop the crew members. The ward leaders issue newsletters, organise face-to-face sessions and activities with their ward members.These activities, designed to promote team spirit, include inter-ward games, overseas bonding sessions and regularly scheduled full-day engagement sessions on the ground.

In addition, SIA organises activities that reach out to the wider crew population. The management staff have frequent interactions with crew members at the Control Centre (where crew report for work) over food and drinks. The senior crew members are invited for full-day engagement sessions with the airline’s management. Recognising the value of balancing work and play, SIA supports its cabin crew members who set up interest groups. There are 30 diverse groups whose activities cover arts, sports, music, dance and community service. These interest groups provide an avenue for crew members to come together to pursue their passions outside of work. This helps crew members to further develop a team spirit.

5. Empowerment for quality service

The earlier story of the arthritis-stricken passenger is a clear example of employees being empowered to engage in discretionary efforts. However, empowerment is a challenge that many service organisations have difficulty implementing in practice. Take the approach where firstly staff are given a clear concept of the boundaries of their authority. And secondly, make it a responsibility of the management to communicate and explain the empowerment limits to the staff. Singapore Airlines cabin crew are known for their kindness – it’s the Cultural Singaporean way – so you’ll never be short of a refreshing drink from a regularly passing flight attendant in their typical sarong kebaya uniform. By the ay Singapore Airlines Cabin Crew Uniform is one of the most beautiful in Airlines industry. 

If you've ever travelled on Singapore Airlines, you've probably witnessed female flight attaendant in different kebaya colors. Each color is, in fact, a deserved honor. Arguably, they're the most beautiful symbols of rank ever devised. (And, if you look closely, the make flight attendants of the same rank are wearing ties of the same color.

Blue

Flight attendant: usually in economy, but also seen in business class if they have more than 18 months' experience.

Green

Leading flight attendant: one in each cabin, leading duties.

Red

Chief flight attendant: only found in first and business class cabins.

Purple

In-flight manager: in charge of all cabin crew.

6. Gratifying excellence delivery

With the right people and training in place, the next step is to ensure the teams can deliver service excellence. Here rewarding first performers is not just a powerful motivation tool, but also an effective way to retain the right people.

SIA uses several forms of reward, including symbolic forms of recognition, performance-based share options, and linking variable pay components to individual staff talent contribution and the company’s financial performance. To encourage appropriate service behaviour, SIA’s evaluation system covers a wide range of areas, assessing the crew member’s grooming, passenger handling capabilities, product knowledge, safety knowledge and working relationship with team mates. Crew members are recognised and rewarded for going the extra mile in passenger service. SIA makes sure these award winners receive great publicity within the organisation. And to further promote a teamwork culture, SIA also recognises the teammates of the awarded crew member for their efforts. 

Communications is another important motivating tool. This ensures that the staff are aware of what is going on within the organisation and gives the employees a sense of pride in what they do.

Many service organisations struggle when they are not flexible in their rewards system. Utilise the full range of available rewards effectively.

7. Use of digital tools 

In the past, few years SIA has been developing its own digital customer database which allowed the company come up with an app that helps Cabin Crew consistently deliver what the airline prides itself on - the human touch.

The idea according to the airlines is to enable the crew have sufficient information about the customers, but in the end, they still need the crew to make the decision on how to deliver the service.

The cabin crew's app, TCS CrewCollab Solution, co-developed with an IT services, consulting and business solutions firm, consists of a tablet-based mobile application for cabin crew to deliver personalized customer service and to automate in-flight processes for cabin crew. 

SAI cabin crew are using it on board and are able to view information which usually has been in paper format, such as customer service lists, flight information and crew lists, digitally via tablets during flights. Digital solutions like mobile, social and big data analytics are creating tremendous possibilities for businesses globally. The Cabin Crew are given iPads with the app installed, which they use to retrieve and add information on passenger preferences. These can cover minute details, such as a passenger's preference for having tea served in a tall mug instead of a standard cup, or another's predilection for a Bloody Mary with extra Tabasco sauce. The app enhances crew efficiency, said Mr Wang, as crew members can submit reports electronically at the end of the flight, instead of filing paperwork.

The data is automatically synced with the servers and the app can store photos to go with the reports.

In an industry where bankruptcies are unexceptional and severe competition is predominant including from low cost carriers, Singapore Airlines’ business model has proven highly successful and is supported by strategic, operational and customer service focus. The company has naturally earned client’s loyalty on the ground and in the sky. With a highly customer service oriented culture SAI can fly higher. 

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