Customer service at the heart of tourism drive

by Ella Lee

Willie Cheng, assistant personnel manager, Cathay Pacific Airways Limited

Attention to customer needs is what sets organisations apart

With the September opening of Disneyland and the upgrading of other major attractions, Hong Kong's tourism sector is confidently expected to see continuing substantial growth. Because of this, theme parks, hotels, retail outlets and airlines are all looking for additional customer services staff. In most cases, the basic requirements are to be bilingual and have a pleasant manner, and while experience is preferred, it is not always essential.

Cathay Pacific, for example, is going to recruit a total of 200 customer services (CS) officers this year and has already taken on 80. Their main duties are to assist passengers at airport check-in counters, as well as in restricted areas where they meet flights, manage boarding gates, make announcements and help travellers with baggage enquiries. They are generally required to work shifts and overtime. "The role is very important as customer services officers create the first impression of the airline for passengers," says Willie Cheng, Cathay Pacific's assistant personnel manager.

The most usual recruits are Form Five graduates who are fluent in English and Cantonese and preferably have one year's experience in customer service work in the hotel or retail industries. Individuals who can speak Japanese and Vietnamese are also in demand.

In terms of personality, Mr Cheng says that applicants should be outgoing, patient, understanding and able to offer "service straight from the heart". They must also have strong communication and interpersonal skills and be resourceful enough to resolve difficult situations effectively.

Gaining experience

Cathay provides initial training of 18 to 20 days for new recruits. This includes briefings on airport operations, language lessons, the basics of customer services, and personal grooming. After this, CS officers are placed on the "airside " to help customers in the restricted area. With nine to twelve months' experience there, they are transferred to the "landside " and taught the technical skills needed to operate the airline's computerised check-in system.

Apart from a competitive salary, Mr Cheng points out that there are other significant staff benefits, such as discounted air tickets at only 10 per cent of standard fares. More importantly, CS officers have a structured career path. "Depending on performance, they can advance to a position as service leader within four to five years, and then to supervisor and manager on duty," he says. Company policy is to promote from within wherever possible.

Cathay also has openings for Form Five graduates as customer sales officers, responsible for reservations and ticketing, and cargo officers. For university graduates with up to three years' work experience, there is a three-year management trainee programme designed to develop future business leaders. This begins with three months of intensive training which covers the principles of management and aviation industry thinking as it applies to all areas of the airline's operations. Recruits on the programme will also attend an eight-week placement at Hong Kong International Airport to develop a frontline view of the business.

In the subsequent three years, trainees take on various line and support functions, including one overseas posting, to give them broader experience of airline management. They serve as assistants to general managers and work closely with them on a variety of projects. After completing the training programme, they are enrolled on the general management list and eligible for any number of assignments for which they are expected to be geographically mobile.

Tough competition

Applications for the programme are usually accepted every November with appointments confirmed the following May. Candidates must have a good command of spoken and written English and Cantonese, be highly adaptable, and be willing to relocate to another country.

The selection process is rigorous and last year only four out of 2,500 applicants were accepted. Mr Cheng says there is a special focus on competencies, including leadership, creativity, initiative, problem-solving skills, analytical ability and business acumen. He adds that applications from overseas are accepted, for those who have the right of abode in Hong Kong.

As the airline is continuing to expand in the mainland, the ability to speak Putonghua is a definite advantage and more mainland candidates are now being accepted for various positions.

On the technical side, Cathay Pacific has another trainee programme for degree holders in any engineering discipline. This lasts for two years and covers all of the airline's engineering functions, including technical services, maintenance support, planning and supplies. Trainees in aircraft engineering first take four weeks' intensive classroom training, which is followed by 16 weeks of practical training at Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company, an associate company of Cathay's, and two weeks' work at the company's base in Xiamen.

Taken from Career Times 27 May 2005
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