SATS: The most memorable touchpoints are still with people

With a workforce of more than 17,000 spread across the world, people are a big part of CEO Alex Hungate's role.
By: | January 7, 2020

There is no doubting Alex Hungate’s key focus at the helm of one of the world’s largest air services businesses, with operations across more than 60 airports around the globe.

“As a CEO I need to spend a lot of time with our people and making sure they are super engaged about that they do. That means I want them to be excited about coming to work every day,” he tells HRM Magazine Asia. “If they are excited, then it’s much more likely they will be passionate about serving customers.

“It’s much more about delivering the brand promise and passion to delight.”

The Singapore-based, UK national has been at the helm of SATS for six years, although he also held a position on its executive board before that. During his time, the headcount has grown significantly (mainly through acquisitions), while the organisation has also been undergoing a comprehensive digital transformation.

Head of HR Lilian Tan says this latest phase in SATS’ evolution provides a good example of the company’s workplace engagement philosophies.

Staff in the drivers’ seat

Many companies are going through digital transformations as they prepare themselves for the fourth industrial revolution and respond to the many examples of digital disruption. SATS is very much on that same flight path.

But it is taking a different approach to its digital transformation. Rather than introduce new technology from the top down, Hungate and Tan have asked their employees to introduce the technology they wanted to see themselves. “We deliberately said we are bringing in new technology, but it’s not us bringing it in, you are. You are going to tell us where we can bring in technology to good effect,” Hungate said.

A $25 million kitchen expansion and upgrade, which was rolled out earlier this year, is a prime example of this strategy. With state-of-the-art pasteurisation and sterilisation technology, it has enabled SATS’ catering business – which produces over 170 million meals per year – to produce tastier and more nutritious meals without the use of preservatives.

So why let employees play such a big role in an ongoing digital transformation? “As the technology part increases, that can ironically dampen engagement levels rather than increase them,” Hungate says. “We have seen that quite a lot in different transformations. Our approach to our own transformation has been to be technology-driven, but also people-led.”

Handing over the technology decisions to employees was only possible because of SATS’ already high levels of engagement. “You can achieve a much higher level of innovation by decentralising those decisions,” Hungate continues. “There is an exponentially higher level of innovation than if you got a bunch of smart people together in the head office and came up with ideas there.”

Tan says the reasoning is that, however smart a person is, they won’t know how the operations work as well as those in the front line. “When technology is introduced directly from head office, it runs the danger of being rejected as it is not suitable across the business as a whole.”

Employee engagement
Both Hungate and Tan say employee engagement is front of mind in every initiative launched by SATS. In fact, it has been focusing heavily on improving engagement levels during the last four to five years, particularly as it has integrated a number of new acquisitions based around the world. “Getting high engagement levels is also about uniting people about what SATS stands for as a company,” added Hungate.

So why does SATS demand such a strong emphasis on making sure its people are happy? “We are service company, and that means we are delivering primarily through our people,” Tan says. “Now there are a lot more digital touch points for our customers, but we believe the moment of truth, and the touchpoints that have the biggest impact and are the most memorable, are still the people touchpoints”.

Technology is being introduced rapidly across the airline industry, and passengers can now check-in baggage without any humans involved, and also order meals online. While there may be less human interaction nowadays, its crucial to make sure they are special moments.

For Hungate, the reason why people take on such a strong focus across his growing portfolio of work is simple. “We talk about our passion to delight our customers as a key differentiator. And there is definitely something special about the SATS service in relation to how our people stand out,” he says. “People are the beginning and ending of our success”.

Connecting with staff

There are few companies quite like SATS when it comes to having some many people working remotely, the majority of which are blue collar workers. They aren’t sitting in front of computers with easy access to emails and the company’s intranet site. Instead, they are busy operating machinery or doing hands-on work for most of the day.

With such a spread-out workforce, SATS looks to technology to connect and engage with employees. One incredibly successful tool has been the My SATS app, built with only a $5,000 budget and the help of a junior IT staff member and a former employee’s startup.

“This native app has a social element and people can post up pictures,” Tan says. “Staff have to log onto the system to view their payslips, so that quickly increased users. We have put in gamification, so employees can earn points and do quizzes and get discounts on gifts in the (Singapore Airlines) Kris Shop.”

Core to learning and development across the company is the SATS Academy, which acts a centralised vault of the SATS’ operational know-how.

The SATS Academy’s 160 in-house training programmes are closely mapped to the Singapore government’s SkillsFuture framework, and the company is a national leader for five of those skill areas.

“We are in the art of what is possible,” Hungate says. “You create capability gaps when you move very fast. You can hire people from outside but then you have a culture risk.

“If you have a learning environment, like SATS Academy, that helps to mitigate those risks and keep your culture constant.”

SATS remains committed to training and career development for all employees. All new staff go through six months of training as part of their onboarding – that includes safety and security procedures. “This is in order for everyone to be able to deliver success. In a way, our training has become one of our key pieces of intellectual property,” said Hungate.