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Is Russia A Service Bellwether?

Earlier this year, I traveled to Russia, where I delivered a keynote and seminar (through simultaneous translation) on service trends and management at CCWF13 in Moscow. This was my first time working in Russia and, having had opportunity to work in 60 or so other countries over the years, it was high on my to-do list.

Keynote at CCWF13, Moscow

Russia is a fascinating country of contrasts. Moscow recently surpassed Tokyo as the most expensive city (my basic room at the business hotel hosting the conference ran around US$700/night), and evident and opulent wealth (think black caviar, upscale shops with eye-popping prices, and bars that boast vodka sommeliers) contrasts with drabber remnants of the former Soviet era. The economy continues to undergo significant change, transitioning from one that was centrally planned and isolated to a more market-based and globally integrated approach.

Ice Skating Rink in Red Sqaure in Moscow

Similarly, the service sector is going through a dramatic, turbulent transition. Historically, Russia has not been known for its service culture. Amazing literature, science, Olympic athletes, yes. Service, not so much. The usual (though not always accurate) caricature is surly and impersonal. Which makes what is happening so significant. Growth in the contact center profession is estimated to exceed 30%, even as the economy—heavily dependent on commodity exports—continues to reel from the global economic crisis.

The attendees of my all-day seminar—primarily VPs of service and Directors of call centers—were as engaged and forward-thinking as any group I've worked with. (Several were from a startup online bank that, in six years, has grown to an operation of several thousand call center agents.) Many are handling a full range of customer communication channels: social, mobile, and text, in addition to phone.

But it was the overall mindset of this small sample of leaders that made such an impact. Here's how a VP of Customer Service put it in one of our discussions: "Delivering the very best service, service that differentiates, is the mandate from our organization's leaders. No, we can't control the world economy. Even our products get replicated so quickly. But service—that is the key to standing out, the key to our future. " Our conversation was one of those thrilling moments when I was reminded of how great it is to be part of the service profession.

How exciting our profession promises to be in the days ahead!