Five business lessons from a world leading airport

For the fifth year in a row Singapore’s Changi Airport has been named the best airport in the world by the Skytrax Passengers Choice Awards.

It’s the latest in a long line of awards over the airport’s 35 years of operations.

Since opening in 1981, Changi has built a reputation as a model of service excellence and a Singapore icon. For many in the industry, and for millions of travellers, it has become the gold standard for what an airport should be.

Here are five business lessons organisations can learn from Changi’s success:

Align all that you do to your customer experience

Changi currently handles about 50 million passengers a year, about the same as New York’s JFK airport. However unlike its distant US cousin, Changi is almost universally praised.

The key is Changi’s pervasive culture of service.

Changi may be one of the world’s busiest airports but its operator, Changi Airport Group, has a surprisingly lean staff employing about 1,800 employees – almost a third of whom work in the airport emergency teams. Nonetheless it recognises that everyone in day-to-day contact with the travelling customer is the key to delivering “the Changi experience”.

All told more than 200 companies with a total workforce of around 28,000 run the airports various operations, but the focus is on delivering a single, consistent “Changi Experience” to all customers. Changi’s management label this approach: “Many partners, many missions, One Changi”.

For travellers the experience seems effortless. But behind the scenes is a carefully built structure of strong leadership, role modelling, constant improvement, and staff training and recognition programmes that underpin Changi’s working culture.

In any business, service is one of the few ways to differentiate and build competitive advantage.

Design and redesign your processes

Changi prides itself on the speed in which it can process arriving travellers, minimising the time between touchdown and seeing the airport in the rear view mirror of their car or taxi.

For visitors to Singapore it is their first experience of the city state and one that is often commented on.

But this smooth operation is the result of a continuous and extremely disciplined approach that Changi takes toward process design and redesign, examining and every stage and how it can be improved.

Moving passengers easily and effortlessly off the plane, through the airport, reuniting them with their bags, and finally seeing them on their way is the result of Changi’s single-minded focus on customer outcomes.

Anticipate your customers’ needs and when they need them

Unlike several modern airports, Changi is not built to be futuristic or stylish, nor as an architectural wonder, but rather to be functional. And this it does exceptionally well.

Certainly it has its aesthetic features, such as waterfalls and its famous butterfly garden. But all of the airport’s features and facilities are designed to be in the place that delivers the optimum, stress-free customer experience.

Of course one of the best ways of understanding what your customer wants is to ask and observe them, and Changi is constantly conducting surveys, gathering data and observing travellers to improve its service offering.

This intelligence is then used to develop a range of metrics and KPIs designed to ensure Changi maintains its position as a premier aviation hub.

In service culture what is innovative and ground-breaking today can quickly become an expected, standard or commonplace feature tomorrow.

No detail is too small

Working with Changi senior management on several projects I have observed a very close attention to detail, with no issue considered too small. This permeates through all levels of the company, with managers sharing photographs, ideas and comments on service aspects that could be improved.

One example I often cite in my business classes is the always gleaming Changi toilets and the customer feedback system built around them.

With touch screen customer satisfaction panels in every toilet, the standard and operation of each bathroom is closely monitored. Using simple icons of happy/sad faces any service issues are immediately flagged for attention to the relevant people and the data gathered is used to motivate staff.

Finally, there’s no such thing as ‘finished’

In service culture what is innovative and ground-breaking today can quickly become an expected, standard or commonplace feature tomorrow.

That means service providers need to continuously innovate to come up with new ways to add to the customer experience. There’s no option to rest on your laurels.

Much of Changi’s business and future profitability depends on it being able to maintain and grow its reputation as a preferred transit stop for passengers.

At the heart of Changi’s culture is a constant drive to experiment with and improve the airport’s appeal to passengers while at the same time containing costs.

That has made Changi not just the most awarded airport in the world, but also a highly successful and model business in its own right.

  • Author Profile

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    Jochen Wirtz is Professor of Marketing at the National University of Singapore (NUS), a member of NUS Teaching Academy (the NUS think-tank on education matters), and an international fellow of the Service Research Center at Karlstad University, Sweden. Click here for his full profile

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