Alex Warner reflects on Michael O’Leary’s long overdue embrace of the value of customer service

For over 20 years, I’ve whored myself around the passenger transport industry, magnetised by job adverts looking for customer service transformational change-experts – no challenge is too big or too small and if you toss me a bob or two, chuck in some free travel and maybe a corporate mug or t-shirt, then I’m anyone’s. Except for Ryanair.

They probably wouldn’t have touched me with a barge pole and the feeling was mutual, given they made no secret of their disdain for customer service, and also from my experiences in 2003 when I headed up Stansted Express Michael O’Leary’s hard-hitting number two, Howard Reed scared me absolutely witless when we crossed swords over an in-flight cross-ticketing deal (which I pulled off in the end, it’s a bullet point on my CV if you want me to send it…). The last thing this lot needed in the intervening years, though, was a pink and fluffy mad-cap maverick like me, mincing and flouncing his way into their office extolling the virtues of a “Delight the Customer Day” or some other wacky whizz to woo customers.

Maybe, just maybe, things have changed for the better with last week’s seminal, shock-horror moment when chief executive Michael O’Leary claimed: “We should try to eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off. It’s something we are committed to addressing”. He went on to explain that he wanted to change the abrupt approach towards customers and be more flexible – . “If it’s a millimetre oversize, get on with it. We are not trying to penalise people for the sake of a millimetre,” he said in relation to his baggage policy, before admitting “there is no doubt, I’ve made mistakes”.

Can Ryanair just change its tune around customer service? How can the Millwall of public transport suddenly turn from being brutish hard-nosed bullies, reveling in the “no one likes us, we don’t care” strap line into a brand that is civil, caring and self-effacing? It’s not possible, surely?

For years, O’Leary scoffed at customer service complaints, mocking them in the face of statistics about revenue growth, right time departures and belittled shareholders who’d felt embarrassed by the barrage of stick they’d received in social situations about being associated with Ryanair. It wasn’t voted the worst of the 100 biggest brands serving the British market by readers of Which? for nothing.

This feels like one of those watershed, nirvana moments when the most dyed-in-the-wool, old school London Underground and British Rail managers suddenly woke up to the joys of customer service one morning, around the time of privatisation, more out of necessity because they couldn’t be left behind, than anything else.

The cynics amongst us wonder whether the about-turn is a result of the share price dipping, Ryanair has nowhere else to go – when all the bullet points on the PowerPoint presentations have been used up, there’s good old customer service to use as an action to drive recovery. Before O’Leary’s road-to-Damascus conversion to customer service, Ryanair has previously appeared to feel pride, not shame, at the word “customer” not even getting a mention. However, O’Leary is keen to convince us that he is undergoing a personal make-over, that he is the right man to lead an organisation that has grown beyond its upstart, rebel status of old: “I’m very happy to take the responsibility if we have a macho or overly abrupt culture. Some of that may well be my own personality deformities.”

For a number of years, O’Leary suggested that his style may not be so well suited to a larger, mature business as it was to the fast-growing company of the 90s, noughties and beyond, frequently suggesting he’d step down in the next three to five years, although this always appeared to be an unreachable rolling time horizon.

Last May, O’Leary said he would stay another five years and maybe he now feels he can adapt his style. There’s some substance though, yes action plans even with Ryanair considering changes to its distribution policy, improving its website (which, according to O’Leary is “inferior to Easyjet’s”), developing its digital marketing strategy, enhancing its image with respect to customer complaints and broadening its appeal to business travellers. O’Leary also seems genuine in his irritation that some staff fined customers when carry-on baggage was slightly oversized, which along with charges for not printing out boarding passes, is one of the biggest causes of complaint. Lenience will be encouraged from managers.

Customer service is an ‘all or nothing’ pursuit if you are going to do it properly. It can’t just involve O’Leary throwing in the odd PR stunt containing some tokenism customer service platitude. The great transport companies have leaders that are driven by adding value to customers in everything they say or do. They’re overwhelmed by an all-consuming passion, no, sorry, obsession around driving customer satisfaction, not just the odd sound-bite here and there, but something that has taken over their lives like religion or a mistress. Hang round with the likes of First UK Bus’ chief operating officer, Jeroen Weimar or listen to former Brighton & Hove Bus MD Roger French; new Northern head-honcho Alex Hynes and ex GNER big-wig Christopher Garnett to get a gist of what it’s like to see customer services fanaticism in action. You don’t sense O’Leary is trying to re-invent himself as a reincarnation of these sorts of leaders, but only time will tell.

If Ryanair proclaimed to become suddenly indoctrinated with all things customer care, then we’d be suspicious that it was just a cosmetic sham and in fairness it seems more a customer services evolution, than revolution. You can’t just go from one extreme to another, and unless there’s sufficient evidence from the service proposition and the way it behaves, you won’t kid anyone.

No one, not a single customer, nor employee, shareholder or even Sir Moir Lockhead in their heart of hearts, ever genuinely swallowed First’s “Transforming Travel” mission statement. It just held the company up to ridicule, propagating those irritating Private Eye jibes, calling them “Worst Group”. In fairness, O’Leary’s taking a more measured approach; he aims to “soften some of the harder edges in our service and in our image” and admitted to a “degree of robustness that isn’t warranted in the implementation of some of its policies”.

Making a step-change in customer service takes more than sound-bites and sex appeal and O’Leary’s a canny enough operator to realise this. Most importantly, the right framework in which to manage customer service needs to be created, with the key customer requirements – punctuality, reliability, safety and the ability of the bus/train/plane to go where customers want to go – in place and delivered with such mundane effectiveness that there are secure foundations for service differentiators to be injected. The systematic creation of boring-as-hell protocols, service level agreements, plans and measures, and standard operating procedures, that make dishwater exciting, for every single thing that impacts on each customer touch point, are all vital actions, as is the intrusion of the HR Police in setting in place the right culture and behaviours to manage a step-change in customer service.

Finally, is this really all necessary for Ryanair? Okay, Millwall has a more family friendly brand image and I’ve lost count of the number of training courses I’ve facilitated where everyone guffaws about how we must all avoid being like Ryanair, but if we avoid the sheep mentality, we could probably reflect on the fact that their staff are probably more friendly than those found in many other transport companies – far better than the miserable as sin London Bus drivers (despite all the pointless KPIs in place to measure their performance by the Transport for London pen-pushers) and friendlier than those grumpy railway gateline staff or officious conductors on long distance rail services with their triumphant “welcoming” announcements about ticket restrictions.

Actually, Ryanair’s employees have been let down by their senior leaders who have thought it clever to create a veneer of antipathy towards customers that belied the true, instinctively half-decent performance of their frontline teams. It reminds me of when I managed British Airways’ cabin crew in the mid-1990s – the trolley dollies bragged to all and sundry that excellent customer service was their preserve, they were the customers’ champions, protecting them from us ignoramus managers who just didn’t get it – and they relished telling customers this view as well. We did understand it and though disapproving of them washing dirty linen in public, if that’s what motivated our people to deliver better customer service, then was it such a bad thing?

In the case of Ryanair’s hard-working, customer focused frontline staff, I suspect the mutiny is more silent through fear of getting the bullet, or it’s just part of a cunning game that staff and managers alike have all signed up to generate publicity. Actions speak louder than words .If O’Leary and co are serious about customers and do genuinely pull it off, then no headline will be too big and bold on the front pages to tell the tale of the ultimate customer service turnaround. When do I start, Michael?


This article, and many others, appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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