Saving Pilot Ryan

Tuesday 5th November 2013 at 9:28AM

When you present people with well-known company names, it’s always interesting to hear their immediate associations. Tesco usually gets a begrudgingly positive response, on account of their traditional focus on opening tills when there are queues, while, on the other hand, any of the major Utilities, even before the recent triple inflation price rises, will usually summon up dark feelings of resentment and bitterness.

Ikea’s always a strange one. I, for one, dislike their religious devotion to process (customers come way down the list of priorities in my experience) while some believe that having to queue to get into a car park, queue to get in, queue to get round and then queue for 15 minutes to buy a set of plastic spoons (and then queue for 15 minutes to leave the car park) is actually quite exciting. But mention Ryanair and emotions boil over like an unpleasant pan of hot bile (there’s a simile you’ve never seen before). They may get you there on time more reliably than any other European airline, but most of the people I speak to believe that they simply extend the flight time to fix the figures. I’m sure that it’s not true, but I do know that if they treated customers better, there’d be few of us displaying such damning scepticism.

But hark! There’s a change in the air. Ryanair’s performance has suffered of late. There’s an acceptance that customers see their culture as ‘abrupt’ and the unseemly scramble at airports that really does bring out the worst in people is now going to be consigned to history. They’ve discovered customer service. And about time too.

Michael O’Leary’s mantra was always about reducing frills and extras (which reminds me of Bob Newhart’s wonderful monologue about the Grace L Ferguson & Stormdoor Company airline which had similarly removed unnecessary frills and extras such as radar and maintenance). If you’re happy to cut the experience and service down to a minimum, book early, land around 100 miles from your chosen destination and not carry any luggage, then we’re the airline for you. And clearly many have subscribed to that proposition. The problem is however that you can’t continually experience this and not feel a rising sense of bitterness and frustration, however cheap the flight is. I’ve reached a point where I studiously try to avoid Ryanair (they fly to Spain from Leeds / Bradford – my nearest airport – but we’d rather drive to Liverpool, Manchester or East Midlands to avoid them) even if this will ultimately mean that I will have to turn down a lucrative speaking opportunity in Plovdiv. So advocacy is low (and probably falling) and prices are becoming lower to try and keep customers flying, when all the while, the root cause of the problem was being ignored.

The traditional definition of customer service is ‘being easy to do business with’ and Ryanair fall at that very first hurdle. By their own admission, it takes up to 17 clicks to purchase a flight. Not only that, but the website is set up to trip you up, to catch you out and to lure you into purchasing things like travel insurance. So not only is it not easy to do business with them, but it’s like as if I were to play Call of Duty. I’d be shot down in seconds. Too many traps.  That, thankfully, is now being addressed.

I accept that the likes of Jet2 and Easyjet still charge separately for things like hold luggage, but at least they don’t try to fool you into hiring a car.

The more modern definition of customer service is around true engagement. In my view, there are effectively three levels of customer service:

Expected Service occurs where the expected service is delivered. In effect, you get what you paid for. This has particular relevance to the energy market, as ‘electricity supply’, for example, is an invisible service, so customer expectations are only largely formed when something goes wrong. In such circumstances, it is understandable that suppliers would focus on price as the key point of differentiation and it is generally true that in such sectors strategies built around deal loyalty are commonplace.

Expected service generates satisfaction, but not in a way that secures loyalty and / or advocacy (with not even the guarantee that existing levels of engagement will continue)

Enhanced service occurs where the customer experiences a hassle-free service and recognises that his or her needs have been (to a greater or lesser extent) woven into the provider’s service design. Often seen in customer-friendly returns processes where the company does all of the work and the customer relaxes, they largely represent the USP of modern online service providers.

Enhanced service generates satisfaction & advocacy and it is accepted that it is likely to retain existing customers and generate some advocacy

Engaging Service occurs where the service is designed to leave customers feeling extremely valued and / or feeling cared for. This is often manifested in an unexpected, surprising and / or memorable experience, displaying a deeper understanding of both the customer’s evident and more intrinsic expectations.  

Engaging service, however, not only generates satisfaction & advocacy but also engenders deep and enduring feelings of value among customers – who perceived that they are genuinely cared for.

If I were to advise an airline on how to financially outperform its competitors, then I’d have them adapt the following to the airline industry:

  • The organisation makes it really easy for the customer to interact with them (this could range from effective ‘self service’ systems to having a website which advises customers on the best times to ring, so that they can reasonably expect to get through straight away)
  • They keep their promises. As the advisor wasn’t in a position to give you a clear answer when you raised your query and / or where they wished to save you the cost of a call, they promised to ring you back at a specific time, having checked that this was convenient for you. At the agreed time, they were in touch with the information you needed
  • They’re responsive: they recognise how urgent the situation is and are more than happy to ‘divert’ from the process if it means helping the customer out and / or making the customer feel valued
  • They treat you like an individual. You happened to mention something in an earlier interaction that the assistant remembered. This was then reflected in the service provided. For example, you mentioned that you had just injured your leg, so the people who came to deliver your flat pack furniture offered to assemble it for you too
  • They surprise you. Last week in the post you received a gift thanking you for your service over the past period
  • The products are extremely reliable, but if anything does go wrong, they pro-actively put it right, in a way that reduces the hassle to the customer to zero
  • They’re polite and courteous, asking questions to establish exactly how you prefer to interact with the service provider and then treating you in that way subsequently
  • They’re fantastic at resolving complaints and doing the ‘right thing’ by the customer (moving quickly from ‘rescue’ to making the customer really feel special and valued)
  • They are accessible: whatever time of day or night you need them, they’re there for you
  • They create genuine warmth by expressing sincere interest in the customer and their well being

In short, I’d point them towards South West Airlines: the world’s first ‘no frills’ airline, but the best when it comes to customer service. You only have to read the title of this link to know it:

Whereas, Ryanair wouldn’t let the father of a UK murder victim change his flight without a charge.

Sure, South West Airlines get things wrong from time to time, but their customer service levels are a product of their culture. Ryanair accept that theirs is an abrupt one, so it follows that their customer service levels will be abject too.

There’s definitely an opportunity for a European Airline to lead on service, but until they stop being blinded by the belief that people will be happy to put up with anything for a cheap ticket, we’ll continue to get the service we deserve.

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