Russian customer service, now including smiles

Updated: 2013-11-17 07:12

By Andrew E. Kramer (The New York Times)

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MOSCOW - The room filled with men and women in their first week of training at the Aeroflot academy for flight attendants. The men were square-jawed and broad-shouldered, and the women 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 difficulty for the airline and many other Russian businesses. But 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 trend in the Russian service industry brought about by the rising demands of middle-class consumers.

Russian customer service, now including smiles

A survey found that Aeroflot service was the best of any airline in Eastern Europe this year. James Hill for The New York Times

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.

"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 went on. "You need to talk to her," she said, indicating a student posing as a passenger. "And you need to smile and smile and smile."

Gone are the scowls and the wordless encounters. Aeroflot introduced training that included compelling candidates to memorize dialogues of pleasantries and reinforcing rules on smiling.

Airlines, restaurant chains and coffee shops are putting in place ever more elaborate training that is yielding results; a new generation of Russian flight attendants, shop assistants and waitresses has become customer-oriented.

Ahead of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in February, the Russian organizers have arranged stadium-size training courses for the volunteers who will usher visitors to the sites. The main point: Smile; be friendly.

"It's a really hot topic in Russian companies," said Alex Sukharevsky, a partner at the former Soviet Union for McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, which has a booming business here advising retail companies.

The trend is one sign of how a decade of oil money 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 Mr. Sukharevsky, a specialist on customer service.

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."

Nadezhda L. Shvetsova, a flight attendant in training, described her lessons as "teaching people to be happy, to enjoy what they are doing and to have a positive outlook" - the thousand years of misfortune that shaped the Russian mind-set notwithstanding.

The New York Times

(China Daily 11/17/2013 page9)