Can Service culture be taught? Evidence from Thai Airways


While flight attendants on board a plane correctly emphasize that their first priority is safety of passengers, from a service quality perspective how well flight attendants serve their customers inflight is an important source of competitive advantage. The famous “Singapore Girl” concept from Singapore Airlines is part of this value proposition. Air Asia and the now defunct Kingfisher Airlines would routinely trade punches on which airline had the friendliest flight attendants.

Can service culture be taught? Can airlines take employees unfamiliar with empathy and service quality and turn them into superstars? Recent research suggests that airlines who come from national cultures where empathy is part of the national culture are more likely to perform better when rated by customers. Monrudee Tungtakanpuong and Mark Wyatt recently conducted research on Thai Airways flight attendants. Published in the Journal of Air Transport Management, their findings show that the traditional Thai cultural values underpinned by Buddhist spirituality influence the way they think about their service tasks. This aids them in serving their customers in genuine way, so that the emotional labour they provide in line with company policy relates more closely to ‘deep’ than ‘surface’ acting. In other words, being good at service is instinctive to Thai workers.


One thought on “Can Service culture be taught? Evidence from Thai Airways

  1. I think it can. McDonalds is a great example. If they can take narcissistic 16-yearolds from the American suburbs and turn them into reasonably competent fast food employees who smile, try to upsell you on some fries and thank you for your business, then you can probably do better with the better paid and better educated staff members at an airline. The problem is whether the employer is willing to screen/recruit quality employees, pay them accordingly, and take the time to train them effectively.

    Traditional culture (a phrase that will make most anthropologists reach for their Clifford Geertz, BTW) might make this easier, but the real starting point is the human capital. No amount of training could have made the Ceacescu era employees of TAROM into models of customer service. Communist ideology aside, they all got their jobs because of nepotism and international flights were their chance to load up on consumer goods to sell on the black market at home. It had nothing to do with them being Romanian or Balkan or whatever.

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