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Satu-Johanna Oksanen: The Challenges of a Service Company in Russia

The service culture in Russia has changed remarkably over the past few decades and the expectations of Russians themselves have increased. Yet, one is mainly surprised if one receives good service in Russia. I am mystified as to how a Russian tourist abroad expects good friendly service but will settle for indifferent, if not downright rude, service.


Most of those who have visited Russia agree that the service culture there does not always meet our expectations. Naturally, the service culture has changed remarkably over the past few decades and, having travelled widely abroad, the expectations of Russians themselves have increased. Yet, one is mainly surprised if one receives good service in Russia. I am mystified as to how a Russian tourist abroad expects good friendly service but will settle for indifferent, if not downright rude, service at home. 

Good service out of expedience?  

Russians associate good service with needing or wanting to please someone who is important or famous enough, or who represents a body that is perceived to be intimidating or when something can be gained out of pleasing them.  Ordinary paying customers are not usually considered to be beneficial to a company, but rather are perceived to be almost a nuisance.  

I believe that all of us who have lived in Russia have sometimes stormed huffing out of a shop or restaurant because we have been ignored.  Unfortunately, voting with one’s feet does not really work the way it should, because unless the management is committed to nurturing a service culture in the company and is personally present to witness what happens at the customer interface, this tacit information seldom reaches the manager’s awareness.  

It would, however, be unfair to say that you can never receive good service in Russia. I could cite several examples.  

Companies that focus on an elitist, affluent clientele, have managed to bring home the idea of good service and the standard of service is emphasised in communications and marketing. In these companies, the staff are very carefully selected and well trained. Their customers are demanding but are also prepared to pay, sometimes a lot, for the attention.  

Small companies, often managed by women or with women forming the majority of the staff, often have internal relations similar to family businesses and the personal touch is evident. The standard of service is then directly dependent on the personalities of the individuals concerned.  

The service industry is not valued  

The challenges facing service companies are the same all over the world, including Russia. The biggest challenges are to do with service production, that is, the staff. The availability and training of staff, eliciting commitment from them, “producing the quality”, and staff turnover are among the key issues to be solved. 

The service industry is traditionally a low-status field in Russia, where more technical higher education has always been considered the key to success. Those who were not accepted into universities or other higher education institutions, “ended up” in a job in services. The situation has naturally changed but not necessarily the underlying ethos.  Those working in services are mainly young students, who are willing to accept irregular working hours and lower pay. Hence, the service industry is for these young people a temporary “stint”, not something that could become a career.  

The hotel and catering school is the priority choice for only a handful of school-leavers. In the restaurant business, the situation is already happily changing. Chefs and sommeliers, for example, are receiving wide publicity in the media.   There is already a shortage of skilled staff in larger cities and companies are having to recruit people literally off the streets. Staff training, drumming the company values into the staff’s minds and implementing them throughout an organisation is a demanding but not an impossible task. The advantage of Western companies over their Russian counterparts is that they are clearly more highly valued as employers and are regarded as more reliable payers than local companies.  

Consistency in the standard of service must be one of the most important challenges for service companies. Coaching and continuous training will help, but if the staff turnover is great, coaching has to be allocated sufficient resources and time.    

Operating culture another challenge 

Russian is used to strongly vertical organisations, in which the manager or supervisor makes the decisions and those at the customer interface are not authorised to solve problem situations independently. From the customer’s perspective “this may be seen as indifference towards customer needs, but in reality it is more a matter of organisation structure than the employee’s attitude. The looser concept of time that Russians traditionally have as compared to the punctual Finns may make the service seem slow and poor.  

As the wages in the service industry are relatively low, customer service staff in Russia seldom have the opportunity to eat out or travel abroad. Therefore, they may simply not be aware of what kind of service foreign customers expect.  

An additional challenge in Russia is that other sectors eagerly recruit from hotel staff since they have already acquired language skills and are used to interacting with Western customers. The carrots that lure people in the service industry to change careers are the less strenuous office work, regular hours and often also better pay.    

Sokotel’s solution is low turnover  

The Russian OOO Sokotel will soon open three four- or five-star hotels in St Petersburg. The customers will be a highly international group while most of the staff will be Russian.  

Recruiting staff has not presented problems thus far, but retaining them will be a challenge. I believe, however, that the democratic Finnish corporate culture will partly present a solution to the problem. The chosen management method in Russian, and even in regrettably many Western, companies is still the old “management by fear” attitude. Although Russian employees are used to this approach, I believe they will appreciate a less formal and more equal corporate culture.  I strongly believe that when a person is content in the workplace, his or her attitude towards customers and colleagues will be much better than in a situation where he or she is given no leverage for independent thinking and action.  

Some of our Russian managers have already attended training in Finland. It has been very interesting to hear their opinions about the Finnish working culture, such as the efficiency aspect, the flexibility of job descriptions, and the customer-orientedness of the staff.  

Sokotel is aiming to create a corporate culture in which service is always based on the customer. We want to promote a democratic spirit in customer service – every customer must be treated as well as the next, be it a high-ranking official, a celebrity, someone who is paying hundreds of euro for a room, or someone who has just dropped in for a beer after work.  

The induction training for the new hotels focuses on customer service training, cultural differences and how they should be acknowledged in customer service, as well as on Sokotel’s corporate culture and co-operation between its different departments. Moreover, the entire staff will receive language training. The Finnish staff will also study Russian, and it is important that the Finnish staff members understand not only the local language but also the culture.  

In order to retain staff, Sokotel also offers high-level “social packages” which include occupational health care, opportunities for internships and job exchange in Finnish hotels, gift vouchers in Finnish hotels and inexpensive staff rates for all members of the staff to have the opportunity to travel abroad. The company also offers a bonus system for the staff, an active, ongoing training schedule and meal benefits.  

New hotels open in St Petersburg on a daily basis, and it is common that staff from other hotels seek better employment in the new ones. Therefore, it is paramount that we succeed in outdoing our competitors as an attractive workplace that is worth staying with. In one or two years’ time we will be able to tell how well we did.    

Satu-Johanna Oksanen

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