June 03, 2020 •

6 min reading

Taking Off: Service Excellence at Singapore Airlines

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Have you flown on a long-haul flight to Asia recently? Chances are you've considered making the journey with Singapore Airlines. Ranked World’s Best International Airline for the 24th consecutive year by Travel and Leisure Magazine and named in the Top 50 World’s Most Admired Companies in 2019 by Fortune Magazine, Singapore Airlines (SIA) knows a thing or two about service excellence. Officially becoming Singapore Airlines in 1972, SIA took a different approach right off the bat by putting passengers first from the beginning. Whether it be the marshaller directing planes on the tarmac or the sales associate securing clients at trade shows, the employees are there to deliver and therefore, the customers willing to pay.

The Keys to Customer Service Excellence


A unique perspective on service excellence

Given SIA’s prominent reputation, passengers pack their expectations with their carry-ons. As its former SVP for Product & Service puts it, the whole goal is to have customers come away and think: “Wow! That was something out of the ordinary."

As customers subconsciously share their expectations across industries when booking, boarding, and deplaning, if passengers had a great experience with a rental car company or boutique hotel, they will expect the same standard for a global airline.

Simply put, okay is not enough and travelers' high expectations can only be met through a constant monitoring of how the SIA experience is delivered across the board and by never settling for what has been achieved. This applies to food and beverage offerings, in-flight entertainment, and ground services. Moreover, SIA just thrives to be a little bit better in everything all the time, and that means by adapting to 21st century lifestyles: if adapting flight schedules and prioritizing seat comfort are no-brainers nowadays, SIA is investing in its crew. Technical SOPs are packaged with softer skills like warmth, care, and anticipation of needs. 

A relentless commitment to anticipate customers' needs

Understanding the customer, creating the wow effect, and remaining a service leader in the industry are SIA’s goals. To be the best, SIA's service style thrives to identify what passengers need before they even ask. If that means the cabin crew often walks down the aisle to offer refreshments or warm towels, it also means installing wireless internet across the fleet or sending out SMS text messages to passengers for flight statuses. Listening to both compliments and complaints equally is also part of a never-ending job towards perfect service.  When mistakes happen, SIA crew members are made aware to ensure it will not happen again. Compliments, on the other hand, are shared collectively and communicated out to all crew members and positive actions are reinforced. 

A strong investment in front-line employees' training and empowerment

Frontline employees play one of the most critical roles in maintaining service excellence. These employees engage in the most contact with the passenger and are faced with the dilemma of delivering on both technical tasks and personalized touches for passengers.

SIA looks for a unique profile for its crewmembers, taking just 10% of applicants. Those lucky candidates selected carry both empathy and expertise in their fields. The Lion City airline is unique in the amount of time it invests in its employees – 15 weeks to be exact. This time is comprised of technical learning on safety, security, conversation etiquette, as well as food & beverage knowledge. Once SIA crewmembers are integrated into the company, they are assigned into 180-member wards, which stick together and are led by one ward leader. Having these tight-knit circles allow crewmembers to gel well with each other and receive targeted feedback from their supervisors. This training translates to employee empowerment and service excellence. Former CEO Dr. Cheong Choong Kong put it this way: 

Training is a necessity, not an option. It is not to be dispensed with when times are bad. Training is for everybody. It embraces everyone from the office assistant and baggage handler to the chief executive officer.   Training is forever. No-one is too young to be trained, nor too old.

As continuous and relevant training is at the core of any good a service delivery strategy, it is also a critical component of the service profit chain and success cycle for service firms. At SIA, that means following the the 40-30-30 rule: 40% of resources are allocated to training; 30% to process and product reviews; 30% to new products and service ideas. This approach has reached such a level now that it has also been touted as a national point of pride, being a multi-time winner of the National Training Award and National Productivity Award for training and development.  

Managing with an eye for detail and profits

Beyond establishing tools for front-line employees to deliver excellent service, senior managers focus on service design and strategy. Through a relentless attention to detail, there’s a sense to continually assess and address issues before being asked by superiors. How do senior managers become more proactive? By getting a taste of every department every few years. Thus, resulting in a better grasp of the company and minimizing issues of interdepartmental disputes. If a process is not efficient and not making money, SIA will cut it. As the airline enters a new decade and digital innovation takes off, SIA wants to make the right investments. By pushing for better processes, SIA can maintain a competitive edge and move the needle towards greater profits while maintaining service excellence.

Digital transformation and service excellence

Singapore Airlines’ wants to assure associates that they will not be left behind in the digital journeys ahead, and furthermore, failing is a part of growth. The company launched an innovation lab in January 2019 -  KrisLab - to take new challenges ahead and is teaming up with accelerators, incubators, and startups to explore the complexities of aircraft delays, maintenance costs, and service standards. The effort has proved popular, collecting over 400 startup submissions from a pool of 1500 participants from 73 countries. The aim is to collaborate to build proofs-of-concept that might eventually be implemented across the airline. 

Beyond tech innovation, the company wants “a commitment [to] excellence and service leadership…We don’t just do digital for digital’s sake. We do it with a focus on improving customer service", according to SIA's SVP of IT George Wang.

How is this done? By delivering the tools to associates on the ground, in the air, and overseas to personalize passenger journeys. This starts with customer-facing systems and re-engineered operations.

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Since 2013, SIA made the switch from mainframes to an open systems framework. The technical architecture was torn down and re-engineered to support microservices. KrisConnect was launched on digital platforms. The KrisFlyer loyalty program stemming out from that could communicate flight statuses, retain passenger preferences, and become a focal point for SIA passengers. 

Training courses have been developed to ensure all employees carry an agile, data-driven, and customer-centric mindset. The technical manning has now been made to include data scientists and cloud administrators. Furthermore, the ambition is to be the leading digital airline in the world, offering the best customer experience, whether through digital, on-board, or on-ground while optimizing operations.

The runway is ready for take-off and it seems that Singapore Airlines is poised to continue on its promise of service excellence - digitally beyond.

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EHL Bachelor in International Hospitality Management

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