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Red Square, Moscow, RussiaWith its long history of people struggling for subsistence, its geography marked by a vast Siberian landscape, and a culture framed by the belief that “Laughter without reason is a sign of foolishness,” Russia has never been an overtly friendly place. Service providers traditionally have reflected that attitude, dishing out products and services with a sour grimace and little or no verbal communication.

But in a global world, not all customers are used to such practices. For international industries such as airlines, service without a smile can create a reputation of poor service. Thus the Russian airline Aeroflot turned to McKinsey & Co., the business consultancy, to learn ways to help make its flight attendants seem more pleasant. Smiling is a central lesson, but trainees in the “Service on Board” courses also learn to kneel by passengers’ seats while taking food orders, practice engaging in pleasantries by following prewritten scripts, and pattern their walks after a stride choreographed by representatives from the Bolshoi Theater.

Such service tactics might not come naturally to service staff raised in a comparatively gruff culture, but McKinsey promises that effective training can easily cut through culture. Other firms agree; McDonald’s already had in place a global training curriculum, but for its Russian outposts, it emphasizes special modules focused on communication skills and emotional leadership. Even national service chains, such as Sberbank, Russia’s retail bank, are following the trend by retraining more than 200,000 tellers as customer service specialists.

The impetus for such shifts is largely the emergence of the modern, global service economy, as particularly brought home to Russia by the prospect of hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics. Russia’s Olympic Committee has been running training courses for months, in massive stadiums where thousands of volunteers learn not only the layout of the Olympic field but also, of course, how to smile constantly. At the same time, Russia’s growing economy has created new, larger middle and upper classes of consumers, who demand more than basic service provision.

Andrew Kramer, “Russian Service, And With Please and Thank You,” The New York Times, November 1, 2013

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