Ryanair and the Importance of Internal Culture in Customer Experience

If, as Peter Drucker famously once said, a company’s culture really does “eat strategy for breakfast”, then Ryanair’s culture must have a pretty full belly at the moment, having gorged contently on its ‘always getting better’ customer strategy.

Historically, Ryanair had been a favourite ‘go-to’ example of how a business does not focus on its customer experience. Its CEO, Michael O’Leary, seemed to relish espousing just how much the business didn’t care about delivering any level of customer satisfaction.

Forget to print your boarding pass? Here’s a £50 charge for being “an idiot”.

Want to bring your baby on board? Then pay for an extra seat! *gasp* “how do you expect us to fly our toddlers?!” cry the customers, “with another airline” retorts Mr O’Leary.

Of course, these examples certainly don’t sound like a business with the customer at its heart. That said, O’Leary certainly has had crystal clarity on who Ryanair’s customers are. He has always proclaimed that Ryanair will get people from A to B for the cheapest price possible. In particular, people who don’t mind shedding a bit of comfort for the saving of a bit of cash.

However, after a drop in profits, in 2014 O’Leary announced Ryanair’s ‘always getting better’ programme – its drive to become more customer focused. Ryanair’s offer was still very much the same – it will get you from A to B for the lowest price possible – however, now customers were actually having some quotient of attention. This was crucially important, as many of Ryanair’s closest competitors (such as EasyJet, Flybe – who did give their customers some semblance of care) had started to reduce their prices to close to Ryanair levels. This meant that having a rock-bottom customer experience for a low price point was becoming less of a differentiating factor, as the competition closed in on Ryanair’s price whilst offering a decent level of service.

With all this said, the ‘always getting better’ slogan is a good one. It tells the customer that the company is looking to improve, but without making any assertions that it is already there. With this in mind, it also acts somewhat as a defensive shield, giving O’Leary the opportunity to hold his hands up when things go wrong – “we got it wrong, but we’re learning. Bear with us. We’ll get it right”. As long as the end goal is in sight, the earnestness of the claim may hold up.

If we think about Ryanair’s focus on the customer (at an anecdotal level), it seems like Ryanair really has got the best digital experience of any airline in the industry, whether low budget or flag-carrier. The investment and the focus on the user experience is evident. I have spoken at events recently and mentioned Ryanair as a case-in-point, as a company that has taken a pretty poor reputation for customer experience, and managed to make large strides towards correcting this – its digital experience is a key proponent of this.

It is here where the culture of the company becomes so important. Users of the digital experience may feel that Ryanair has its customers at its heart. Indeed, those who hear O’Leary’s words may feel that the company is pointing in the right direction, and is trying its best to scramble up the greasy slope it has made for itself. However, culture cannot be changed overnight.

Turn up to a Ryanair check-in desk with a bag 0.2kg over the agreed limit and be prepared to be vilified by the attendant, whilst either paying a small fortune or dispensing of some cherished t-shirts. “Where is the friendly customer-centric smile that marries up with the jolly old digital experience I had?” I hear you cry.

To argue Ryanair’s case – they are crystal clear on their terms. They always state what is required to be paid, and what customers must do. As O’Leary says – if you don’t read the instructions, you really are “an idiot”.

But if a customer has to pay £20 for additional baggage, or if carry-on baggage has to be chucked into the hold, it costs nothing for the staff to broach this topic with a smile; to sound compassionate when saying “those are our terms”. It doesn’t change anything about the outcome, but it sure does have an impact upon how the customer perceives the relationship. In fact, perhaps the customer would actually feel the idiot for not having adhered to the rules, rather than feeling aggrieved at being told, and treated, like they are the idiot.

With the above in mind, despite the ‘always getting better’ program, Ryanair’s pervading culture has shone through. Years of top-down disdain for the customer from O’Leary will take a long time to fix, no matter what the programme. This in particular is a case-in-point as to why the HR team of any company plays such a huge role in the success of any customer-centric focus – the culture comes from the people.

Unfortunately for Ryanair (and, it seems, 400,000 of its customers) it announced this week that it was cancelling a huge number of flights. Whilst this was put down to poor planning of pilots’ holidays (and the company held its hands up straight away), it is far from the experience of a customer centric company such as Amazon, where Jeff Bezos would have an empty chair in all meetings asking ‘what would the customer think’. If that was the case, what would the customer have thought to so many pilots taking holidays at the same time? Unfortunately, I think we shall find out fairly soon.

Although Ryanair has sought to strengthen its position as being customer focused over the past few years, whatever its struggles, it has always been able to claim that it will “get you from A to B for the lowest price”. Unfortunately, at the moment, it seems like many customers won’t be able to get anywhere near ‘B’. Hopefully for Ryanair, and all of its customers, it can strive to change its culture to marry up with its fist-clenching promise of ‘always getting better’.

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