Sunday, June 15, 2008

Singapore Airlines - there are lessons about customer service to be learned

My international research agenda, over the last twenty two years, has mostly  focused on writing, then publicizing Paradise Poisoned, Learning about Conflict, Terrorism and  Development from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars, My international travel has mostly been limited to a annual or semi-annual trp to Sri Lanka.  Though I will still sustain ties to Sri Lanka, that phase of my life is complete.  This summer I decided to break the pattern  by revisiting Singapore, which will probably be a case study in my new book project. For the outbound leg of the journey, my miracle-working travel consultant, Linda de Silva was able to book me a business class ticket on Singapore Airlines at discounted rate.  As I write this posting, my Boeing 747 is high in the air, about midway between Delhi and Kanpur, exactly 4,157 km from our final destination.

Frequent travelers to Asia have all heard about Singapore Airlines, which consistently  ranks #1 or #2 in surveys of customer service.  But I had not flown the carrier since 1988, when I traveled with my wife from Singapore to New Zealand.  Yesterday, got a preview of what was in store when, after arriving at JFK from Washington, I sought directions from a Delta Airlines staff member to my connection.  “Singapore Airlines,” he volunteered in response to my question, with a smile, “That’s a great airline.”

I wouldn’t say that Singapore’s ground service is exceptional, though it was efficient and hassle free. (In Frankfurt, it was outsourced to Lufthansa, which has its own distinctive ambience of hard-edged Germanic efficiency). In-flight service, however, was an entirely different manner.

Regular readers know I take pride in the customer service provided by my own organization, American University’s Center for Teaching Excellence.  The level of attentive service provided by the young women - and a few men - who worked my two flights considerably exceeded my exacting standards.  What impressed me most was their professionalism, attention to detail, and proactive commitment to serving their customers reasonable needs, whatever they might be.  To use one of my favorite customer service mantras, these gracious, disciplined, efficient women and men were in the business of “producing results” not just “doing a job.”  

Here is just one example, from among a multitude.  On the flight from New York to Frankfurt, I awoke after about a four hour sleep (in a seat that miraculously transformed itself into a comfortable bed at touch of a button.) I flicked on my reading light to check the time. It seemed as if only a nanosecond had elapsed before a young woman was at my elbow with a glass of fresh orange juice and an offer of breakfast.  The rest of the cabin was almost entirely dark.  Someone must have tasked to watch for stirring passengers. Another example.  Every single staff member new my name, “Dr. Richardson” and used it frequently when we interacted.

I could write about much more, the elegant cuisine, meticulously and graciously served, the immaculate ambience of cabin and restrooms. I am picky about attention to detail. On two flights spanning more than twenty-two hours,  I could not spot a signle detail  that was out of place or out of order.

Clearly this does not happen by accident.  Contrast what I have described with the sullen, slovenly, dispirited, “going through the motions” level of service, that I experienced on two leading US carriers  in the past year - to be fair not in business class.  

Today’s flights have so impressed me  that I have tried to engage  staff members in conversation, to find out what motivates them and how they are trained.  On Sri Lankan Airlines, business class cabin staff are often quite willing to engage in quite lengthy dialogues, but not on Singapore Airlines.  In the most deft, cilvil and gracious way imaginable, staff members kept conversations brief. The message was clear, though communicated indirectly.  Their mission was service, of every customer, for every sixty seconds of every sixty minutes of every hour that the flight was in progress.

i will not give up this quest, however.  I and my staff at AU’s  Center for Teaching Excellence have much to learn from Singapore  Airlines.  I will make it a priority for us to learn it. 

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