Author: Jochen Wirtz (Professor of Marketing at the National University of Singapore)
A HR Strategy for service excellence: Five Pointers from SIA
Regularly ranked among the world’s best airlines, the focus of Singapore Airlines (SIA) can be summed up in one word – customer.
Published by Think Business from NUS Business School
on 27 Mar 2018
The world of aviation is notoriously competitive, and with pressure growing from upstart budget carriers as well as fast-growing full-service airlines such as Qatar Airways and Emirates, premium carriers like SIA are seeing margins squeezed.
Successful service organisations often have stories of employees going out of their way to make a customer’s day.
One example from SIA involves a member of cabin staff who gave her own hot-water bottle and flight support stockings to help a wheelchair-bound passenger in her 80s who was suffering from arthritis in her legs. The stewardess also massaged the passenger’s legs and feet to relieve her pain.
Such displays of soft skills are made possible by a combination of hiring the right people, giving the right training and providing the right support.
Because of the inherent characteristics of the service industry, for firms like Singapore Airlines, customer-facing staff are critical business assets. Likewise from a customer’s viewpoint, the actions of staff embody the service organisation itself.
SIA understands both points and as a result, has become a model for service excellence, both within aviation and in other industries.
Its famed and highly-awarded inflight service is a result of a human resource strategy that aims to build competitive advantage over its industry peers.
Here we’ll talk a look at five elements that make up SIA’s human resource strategy, and consider how each of these can enhance an organisation’s service model:
1. Hiring the right people
Recruitment is an important first step in SIA’s HR strategy. Therefore hiring at the airline involves a rigorous and strict selection process.
There are group and one-on-one interviews and an English language competency test. 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. Training service champions
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 should be a carefully considered process. Taking on the wrong people will quickly turn into a liability for the organisation.
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 esprit de corps
With the many services that need to be attended to on board an aircraft, the nature of the working environment requires people to work effectively as a team to deliver service excellence.
SIA creates esprit de corps 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. Currently, 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.
4. 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.
5. Rewarding excellence
With the right people and training in place, the next step is to ensure the teams can deliver service excellence. Here rewarding strong performers is not just a powerful motivation tool, but also an effective way to retain people.
SIA uses several forms of reward, including symbolic forms of recognition, performance-based share options, and linking variable pay components to individual staff 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.
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.