How Does Singapore Airlines Fly So High?

As a professional speaker, I often share stories and examples of companies that deliver great service. One company that’s easy to talk about is Singapore Airlines.

Profitable every year since the beginning, Singapore Airlines (SIA) frequently wins international awards for top customer service and in-flight quality. Here’s how they do it:

1. Clarity and Commitment.

SIA’s focus on service is absolutely clear. The mission statement and core values establish, without question, that quality service to customers is a fundamental objective and aspiration of the airline.

Every major issue, question or decision is considered in light of their commitment to providing world-class customer service.

2. Continuous Training.

Training is not a one-time affair. SIA understands that daily customer contact can be draining and that customer expectations are always on the rise.

To meet this challenge, four training divisions within the company (Cabin Crew, Flight Operations, Commercial and Management Development) offer a wide range of inspiring and demanding educational programs.

Whether in the classroom, through full-scale simulations or on the job, SIA staff members are continually motivated to upgrade, uplift and improve their performance.

Training is not conducted just during robust economic times. Even during the downturns, SIA’s investment in training goes on. This gives the airline a twofold advantage.

First, it allows SIA to surge ahead in quality service when other carriers cut back. Second, it demonstrates to all SIA staff that continuous learning and improvement are essential principles for success, not just nice-to-have bonuses.

3. Career Development.

SIA staff are regularly appraised for performance and potential. High-flyers (high performance and potential) are identified early and given every opportunity to learn and grow.

Senior managers are effectively developed with frequent rotation through top positions in the company. This leads to a management team with great breadth and depth, with a shared understanding of ‘the big picture’, and with a commitment to do what’s best for the customers and the business, not just for one department or another.

4. Internal Communication.

SIA is a large organization, with more than 28,000 staff (including subsidiaries) located around the world. People from different cultures work together to produce a seamless and consistently positive customer experience. In the pilot pool alone more than 25 countries are represented!

To keep everyone on the same wavelength, SIA publishes a variety of department newsletters, websites and a monthly company-wide magazine.

Regular dialogue sessions between management and staff keep communication flowing. A program called ‘Staff Ideas in Action’ ensures that new suggestions for service improvement are constantly put forward. Semi-annual business meetings provide another forum for sharing and evaluating results in sales, marketing, yields and customer satisfaction levels.

5. Consistent External Communication.

Whether their advertisement is about new destinations, new airplanes, onboard cuisine, or new seats and entertainment services, the legendary ‘SIA Girl’ is always featured.

Why? Because the bottom line for SIA is not the plane, seat, entertainment or destination. The bottom line is delivering high-quality service, and the ‘SIA Girl’ is the brand identity, the personification of that service.

Of course everyone knows it takes the entire SIA team to deliver excellent customer service, but showing a picture of a smiling engineer, a competent pilot or a friendly telephone reservations agent would not carry the same consistency in external communication: The ‘SIA Girl’ represents impeccable quality service. In the airline’s external communication, she is always there.

6. Connection with Customers.

SIA makes a concerted effort to stay in touch with customers through in-flight surveys, customer focus groups and rapid replies to every compliment or complaint they receive. SIA then consolidates this input with other key data to create a quarterly ‘Service Performance Index’ that is very closely watched throughout the airline.

Frequent flyers are kept well-connected with special messages, attractive offers and publications sent regularly to Priority Passenger Service (PPS) members. And very frequent flyers achieve an elite ‘Solitaire’ status with a wide range of valuable privileges: most convenient check-in, additional baggage allowance, priority seating and wait listing, and more. (I am one of those very frequent flyers, and I enjoy it!)

7. Benchmarking.

The airline industry is intensely competitive with every carrier seeking new ways to ‘get ahead of the pack’. SIA tracks competitors’ progress closely. Even outside the airline industry, SIA looks for new ways to improve and grow. When hotels, banks, restaurants, retail outlets and other service industries take a step forward in their amenities, convenience or comfort, SIA watches closely to see what can be adopted or adapted for the airline industry.

8. Improvement, Investment and Innovation.

From the earliest days, SIA has built a solid reputation for taking the lead and doing things differently, introducing free drinks and headsets, fax machines onboard, individual video screens and telephones in every seat, cutting-edge gaming and in-flight entertainment, ‘book the cook’ service for special meals in First and Business Class, telephone, fax, e-mail and internet check-in, innovative cargo facilities – the list goes on and on.

This commitment to continuous service improvement is coupled with a cultural determination to try it out, make it work and see it through. Not every innovation succeeds and some are eventually removed from service (the fax machines are long gone), but SIA makes every possible effort to find the key to success – or to create it.

9. Rewards and Recognition.

While excellent staff performance is rewarded with increased pay and positions, the most prestigious award is reserved for truly superior service.

The ‘CEO’s Transforming Customer Service Award’ is given annually to teams and individuals who respond to unique customer situations with exceptionally positive, innovative or selfless acts of service. This award carries no financial benefit, but it is the most revered accolade in the airline. Winners and their families are flown to Singapore for a special dinner celebration, the story of their efforts is published in the monthly magazine, and their personal status as a ‘Managing Director’s Award Winner’ remains a badge of distinction for life.

10. Professionalism, Pride and Profits.

The result of these efforts is a staff culture vigorously committed to customers and continuous improvement. Staff pride and sense of ownership are evident in the way they protect the airline’s reputation and participate in programs like the ‘aircraft adoption’ scheme.

Good profits are also achieved, but not as an end in themselves. Rather, SIA’s profits are ‘the applause we receive for providing consistent quality and service to our customers’.

Does all this mean that SIA is perfect? Of course not. Even SIA cannot satisfy every customer every time. Bags go astray, telephone lines become congested, and meals at 39,000 feet are not always perfectly deluxe. There will always be room for service improvement.

With a track record of success, SIA must work doubly hard to avoid becoming complacent. Managers must be open to change and not become arrogant or defensive. Staff must be proud of the airline yet remain eager for passenger suggestions, recommendations and constructive criticism.

The definition of a truly loyal airline customer is someone who is pleased with the service, flies with the airline again, recommends the airline to others and takes the time and effort to point out ways the airline can still improve.

I look forward to my flights on SIA and I use the carrier two or three times each month. My speeches and training programs are peppered with positive stories from the airline’s history and lore. And my mail to SIA includes plenty of ideas and suggestions to help them improve.

Singapore Airlines has earned my loyalty on the ground and in the sky. They’ve got a great way to fly – and to run a highly successful business.