Loving the customer is key to Ryanair's digital makeover

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan January 1, 2014
Summary:
Ryanair wants to be loved and it's spending on digital investment to achieve that. But can it learn to love the customer first?

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First - a confession. I have only once flown on a Ryanair flight and that was enough to put me off for life. Second only to the pain-inducing prospect of enduring a United flight across the Atlantic, it’s top of my list of airborne things never to do again.

So when I see tales like the one that broke before Christmas of yet another example of the budget airline's budget approach to customer relations, it comes as no surprise.

This particular incident - broken by the UK tabloids - sees Ryanair having to apologise to a passenger after one of its stewards apparently exploded in “an expletive-filled rant” over a bag of frankly over-priced cheese and crackers.

According to The Sun newspaper - I know, I know - , the passenger handed back the snack after being told it would cost him £4.20, to which the steward is alleged to have replied that this was the price to be paid for the company's cheap flights.

The Sun’s version of events has the passenger asking the steward’s name so that he could make a complaint and the steward replying:

"F**k you, f**k you, f**k you."

Ryanair’s reaction to the steward (who has now quit the airline)?

"We were disturbed by this report of such totally unacceptable behavior.

"We sincerely and unreservedly apologise to the passenger in question."

Rude and unpleasant

OK dokey. But it’s one in a long line of incidents that has resulted in Ryanair’s appalling reputation for poor service.

Ryanair press conference
A recent Which? survey found that the airline was distinguished by its “rude and unpleasant” staff and an “aggressive and hostile” attitude towards customers, and ranked it at the bottom of 100 UK brands in terms of customer service.

But until recently it’s seemed that the airline has effectively embraced this ‘bad ass’ image as part of its corporate brand, egged on in the public eye by the outrageous comments made by its CEO Michael O’Leary, whose bon mots include dismissing customers as “idiots”, calling people that forget to print their boarding pass “stupid” and telling anyone looking for a refund to “**** off”.

But while that must all have been jolly good, headline grabbing fun on a ‘no publicity is bad publicity’ self-deception basis, two recent profit warnings have been enough to cause some pause for thought.

In a new year message on YouTube, O’Leary says he now wants to improve the Ryanair customer experience, backing up his ambition to:

“eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off”.

Some of these improvements will be fairly basic changes that would make a big difference - and as O'Leary has pointed out, cost very little to change:

  • A 24-hour grace period for minor errors on bookings
  • A second, free, small carry-on bag
  • Lower boarding card reissue fees
  • The cost of turning up with a bag to be put into the hold of the aircraft will be cut from €60 to €30.
  • Allocated seating will be made available to all customers from February 1st
  • Improved family and business services in the spring.

Others are part of a more ambitious digital strategy to modernise the Ryanair processes:

  • A new Ryanair.com home page,
  • A My Ryanair passenger registration service
  • Country-specific websites.
  • A new booking service via smart phone
  • Smart phone boarding passes from April
  • A new Ryanair app in May.

O’Leary is also now encouraging customers to engage with the airline via its Twitter account or the Ryanair website if they have ideas to improve the airline’s service. He said:

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“Our primary focus this winter will be to significantly invest in, and improve, the Ryanair.com website, our mobile platform and our interaction with passengers using social media."

Less is more

We’ll also be seeing less of O’Leary himself - or that’s the theory. The airline announced in October that it will be appointing a new director of customer sales and marketing who will take over as the public face. That face has yet to be unveiled.

The first fruits of this kicked in at the end of December when the My Ryanair customer registration service went live, enabling customers to create personal profiles and store their details online.

Whether this is the start of a genuine digitally-enabled revolution remains to be seen...

Verdict

It’s remarkable what a bit of red ink looming on the balance sheet can do to attitudes towards the customer.

While I still wouldn’t set foot on a Ryanair plane if I had any say in the matter, it is at least encouraging to hear the right sort of noises coming out of the airline at least.

Let’s face it - the 'low price means we don't have to try' joke was over.

Cost-conscious prices needn’t mean bad service. Look at Virgin America. (And with the launch of Little Red in the UK by Virgin, I suspect Ryanair bosses have done just that!)

What now becomes the challenge for Ryanair is changing the culture. The new raft of digital customer experience thinking is all good and well and to be applauded.

But it’s not much good being able to book an allocated seat via your smart phone if some potty-mouthed trolley dolly’s going to kick off at you once you’re on board the flight.

We surely all learned the basic lesson years ago: you can’t buy CRM off the shelf; you can only buy software.  (Or subscribe to it now, of course, to be strictly accurate!).

As many learned to their peril over a decade ago, spending millions on Siebel licences is money down the drain if your basic attitude is still that your customers are a flaming nuisance. You’ve got to want to like them first.

And that's the hard part for a lot of organisations.