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Even Mr O'Leary recognises things need to change

Even Mr O’Leary recognises things need to change

So, according to various news sources (see BBC for example), Ryanair is going to shake up its customer service. Quite frankly I’m surprised it has taken this long. I’ve always been surprised that an Irish company – the Irish always seem so warm and welcoming – could be so downright bullish and rude. But abrupt and unfriendly they are – and have been for well over twenty years now.

This call to change by chief executive Michael O’Leary is an astonishing state of affairs that has only come about because he has had to issue a warning about the company’s profit forecast. Shareholders are understandably not happy. They pointed out in no uncertain terms to Mr O’Leary that customer service issues were hitting sales. This came at the same time that consumer magazine Which voted Ryanair the worst of Britain’s 100 biggest brands.

Have some compassion. Some things are so simple to do.

Have some compassion. Some things are so simple to do.

A good example of the way in which Ryanair’s staff handle customer service has been quoted in a number of media sources. The Irish Daily Mail for example wrote how Ryanair charged a customer 188 euros (£160) to change his flight. OK you may think that’s fair enough. The company was inconvenienced by having to alter a booking – although presumably there was space to do so on the earlier flight, right? So how much of an inconvenience can it be to alter a booking on the computer and print a new boarding pass (something else Ryanair charge you for). But that’s only half the story.

Actually, Dr Muhammad Taufiq Al Sattar had to change the booking so that he could fly home quickly after the police informed him that his family had been in a house fire in Leicester, and there were expected to be no survivors. Dr Al Sattar, a neurosurgeon, did not expect to be given a free flight; he just didn’t expect to be charged an extortionate amount to alter the flight, because he had already paid for his return ticket. He had to stand at customer service, with tears running down his cheeks and explain himself. Once you start to imagine that conversation – where a Ryanair member of staff asks for that amount of money to get a grieving father home quickly – it makes your blood run cold.

I particularly like this quote from The Business Insider

While Ryanair’s obsessive focus on cost cutting has enabled it to become one of the world’s largest airlines, flying more scheduled international passengers last year than any other airline, shareholders complained that the company’s reputation for poor customer service was limiting its room for growth.

As one of the shareholders said.

“I have seen people crying at boarding gates,” said private shareholder Owen O’Reilly. “There is simply something wrong there that needs to be addressed.”

The report then goes on to say,

“O’Leary, who for years has scoffed at complaints about customer service, citing statistics about revenue growth and on-time departures, nodded sheepishly as other shareholders chimed in with anecdotes about family members refusing to fly Ryanair and verbal attacks they had suffered at dinner parties.”

Shouldn't we all care?Like many people, I have worked in an environment where colleagues were frightened of speaking out against things they knew were wrong because they didn’t want to be singled out or fired. I can just imagine this shareholder meeting. Finally the floodgates open and people begin to voice their concerns, because one person was brave enough to stand up and be heard.

Surely, people shouldn’t be reduced to crying at boarding gates, should they? Not Dr Al Sattar, and not anyone else. Customers should not be humiliated or bullied full stop. Without a customer base that wants to return and do more business with you, your business can never truly be successful, can it? It can be profitable – but it leaves a metallic taste in the mouth. It makes good business sense to keep your customer sweet and keep them coming back for more. Don’t you enjoy it more when you have banter and fun with your customers?

You may argue that even with poor customer service, Ryanair is doing pretty alright for itself. Its profit forecast may miss or be at the lower end of its range of 570m euros to 600m euros (£480m to £508m). That’s still a tidy profit. However shareholders are worried that the notoriety of the airline will prevent it from expanding into the market share at the expense of other airlines.

O’Leary declared himself ‘personally irritated by the fact that some Ryanair staff fined customers when their carry-on baggage was slightly above the maximum size, which along with charges for not printing out boarding passes, is one of the biggest bugbears cited by many customers’ and yet he says that is NOT company policy. So why do his staff do this? Are they unhappy and demotivated? Do they lack training? Are they deliberately malicious? Is that quality of recruitment poor? Is it a management issue?

For those of us with SMEs, there seem to be a number of things worth considering here. Should we run businesses in pursuit of profit at the expense of the emotional wellbeing of our customers? Does it matter how you treat your customers if they keep coming back for more anyway? How far does employee motivation and satisfaction work for or against your business? Is there any point to good customer service? Do you get to a stage where your company is so big and so successful that you can ride out the criticism and just not care what consumers think?

Whaddayareckon?What do you think? I’m really interested in your views on customer service. Let me know in the comments below.

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