Russia learning value of service with a smile

Gone are the scowls and cold shoulders, as Russia’s service industry — from airlines to restaurants — become more customer-oriented to cope with rising demands from an expanding middle class

by Andrew Kramer  /  NY Times News Service, MOSCOW

Sun, Nov 03, 2013 - Page 14

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.

CUSTOMER FIRST

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.

And ahead of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in February, the Russian organizers have arranged stadium-size training courses for the university students and other volunteers who will usher visitors through the sites. The main message: smile; be friendly.

Nadezhda Shvetsova, 27, a flight attendant in training for Aeroflot, described the lessons she had received as “teaching people to be happy, to enjoy what they are doing and to have a positive outlook.”

The new training proposed by McKinsey focused on providing a sense of personal attention without taxing the attendant’s time.

The flight attendant, for example, should tell a passenger, “I hope you are comfortable,” but not ask, “Are you comfortable?” The first signals concern, but the latter might illicit an actual, and unwanted, response.

A pretense of friendship with strangers for commercial reasons was not a part of Russian culture before — and excessive smiling only recalled the Russian saying: “Laughter without reason is a sign of foolishness.”

Such notions had to go. McKinsey recommended that training cut through the culture by focusing on dialogues, in every one of which the flight attendant is pleasant and responsive.

Russian companies are quickly importing the latest practices in customer service, Sukharevsky said, predicting that Russia would soon “leapfrog the West” in customer service.

ASIAN STYLE

In its latest initiative, Aeroflot has borrowed from Asian carriers the practice of instructing flight attendants to kneel before passengers in business class so they can discuss drink and meal orders at eye level.

And so, in an all but otherworldly scene of in-flight nirvana for most of the flying public, who these days are accustomed to harried attendants and tiny packs of honey-roasted peanuts, the trainees knelt one before the other in the mock airplane aisle to offer glasses of Brut Dargent, a French white wine, with a broad smile.

“Can I take your order for a drink before we take off?” Grishina asked pleasantly.