The classroom filled with slender young men and women in their first week of training at the Aeroflot academy for flight attendants. The men were all square-jawed and broad-shouldered, and the women to the last of them traffic-stopping beauties.
Finding attractive cabin crews has never posed much of a problem for Aeroflot. Training Russians to be nice to customers, well, there’s the rub for the Russian airline and many other Russian businesses. However, Aeroflot seems to have done it.
Aeroflot, which says its classic Soviet emblem of a winged hammer and sickle now represents a smile, has been at the forefront of a broad and transformative trend in the Russian service industry brought about by the rising demands of middle-class consumers.
Skytrax, a company in Britain that surveys passengers after flights, found that Aeroflot had the best service of any airline in Eastern Europe this year, a mini Velvet Revolution for a region accustomed to old ideas of Russian service. Aeroflot beat US carriers like Delta and airlines offering old-school European service like Austrian Airlines.
“Anna, you just showed the champagne bottle, but didn’t say anything,” one instructor gently admonished a trainee, 23-year-old Anna Grishina.
“This is the silent service of Soviet times,” the instructor said.
“You need to talk to her,” she said, indicating a fellow student posing as a passenger. “And you need to smile and smile and smile.”
Gone are the scowls, the cold shoulders and the wordless encounters. Aeroflot introduced training that included compelling candidates to memorize dialogues of pleasantries and reinforcing rules on smiling. Its success in improving service is being taken to heart by other companies in Russia’s consumer industries.
Airlines, restaurant chains and coffee shops are putting in place ever more elaborate service training that is yielding results; a new generation of Russian flight attendants, shop assistants and servers has become customer-oriented.
“It’s a really hot topic in Russian companies,” said Alex Sukharevsky, a partner and leader of the consumer goods practice in the former Soviet Union for McKinsey & Co, the consulting firm, which has a booming business in Russia advising retail companies.
The trend is one sign, along with the demands for better governance seen in recent street protests, of how a decade of oil money trickling down is transforming Russian society. In politics, as in business, rising wealth has given birth to rising demands from an expanding middle class.
“All of us know that Russian culture by definition is not the most client-oriented culture,” said Sukharevsky, a specialist on Russian customer service.
He has taken a number of Russian companies through what he calls the “consumer experience transformation.”
Russian service employees can be trained to be nice. Rosinter, which operates T.G.I. Friday’s restaurants and Costa Coffee shops in Russia, has a training academy that focuses on customer service, as does Dixy, a grocery store chain. The national retail bank, Sberbank, has set about retraining 210,000 tellers to become “customer service specialists.”
Baristas at Starbucks in Russia smile as brightly as anywhere else. McDonald’s internal training for managers in Russia follows a global curriculum, but it puts special emphasis here on “communication skills” and a course called “emotional leadership,” company spokeswoman Oksana Belaychuk said.