Ryanair’s Terrible Customer Experience May Be Just Right

In what seems to be a low point for airline customer experience, Ryanair might start charging passengers to go to the bathroom. This discount airline doesn’t cut any slack for its customers. It charges for even slightly overweight luggage and extra carry-ons like duty-free shopping bags, and offers no refunds or apologies. Here’s a a quote by Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s somewhat surly CEO:

Will we give you a refund on a nonrefundable ticket because your granny died unexpectedly? No! Go away. We’re not interested in your sob stories! What part of ‘no refund’ do you not understand?

My take: Yech! That sounds like a horrible airline!! But is it bad customer experience management? I’m not so sure. O’Leary very clearly articulates the four elements of his airline’s value proposition: low fares, a good on-time record, few cancellations and few lost bags.

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, customer experience is not about delivering Disney-esque moments or trying to make people happy at all costs. Good customer experience management is about Consistently delivering on brand promises that resonate with customers. So you can’t rate a firm’s customer experience management efforts without fully understanding its brand strategy.

To determine whether Ryanair is practicing good customer experience management, we would first need to answer these questions:

  • What segment of passengers really care about low fares, a good on-time record, few cancellations and few lost bags?
  • Does the lowering of service levels help achieve those four key things?
  • What level of experience are the target passengers willing to trade off to get those four key things?

It’s very possible that the lousy service at Ryanair comes from appropriate trade-offs in the airline’s customer experience management strategy.

One thing that I can say for sure: Ryanair is not for me. But then again, O’Leary probably knows that I’m not one of Ryanair’s target customers.

The bottom line: A bad customer experience does not always mean bad customer experience management

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I am a customer experience transformist, helping large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. I am also a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey.

Simply put, I am passionate about spotting emerging best practices and helping companies master them. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum.

My “title” is Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that helps organizations become more customer-centric. Our goal is simple: accelerate the path to delighting customers.

I am also the co-founder and Emeritus Chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of CX professionals.

21 thoughts on “Ryanair’s Terrible Customer Experience May Be Just Right”

  1. I agree with your comments although a slightly better experience from a competitor might take market share from them – all other things being equal.
    What interests me is that I rarely read about poor service execution – i.e. miserable or abusive staff. Criticism of Ryanair is nearly always about the big stuff around policy and O’Leary. It could be serendipity but I wonder if it is genius. I wonder what brand loyalty Ryanair generates? Is there a no-frills following that despises all the extras that they have to pay for on other airlines? It’s not beyond the bounds of reason.

    1. Paul: The evaluation of competitor’s offerings is crucial; which is why companies should regularly evaluate their brand strategies. Your observation about service execution is key. It seems like the company is aligned around the clarity of its brand mission, so it seems to consistently deliver on it. The rules may seem oppressive, but that does not mean that the interactions are bad. I’m guessing that the no-frills branding appeals to the people who would happily trade off some of the frills for the lower prices.

  2. Bruce,

    There are parts that I agree with you – and parts that probably require more discussion.

    I agree that customer experience is not synonym with “Disney-esque” delivery. It should not be. Customer Experience is about delivering against expectations, over-deliver and you are doing great experiences.

    I am not sure that abusing customers (there is a point where setting expectations low stops and abuse begins, and usually is a matter of speech more than anything — “…go away, what part of no refund…” is crossing that line). Even if you try to set low expectations, you can do so cordially and amiable.

    The CEO, especially, is the one who mostly sets the tone for communications throughout the company and has a very large influence in culture. Do you really want your culture and your tone to be abusive? Couldn’t you accomplish the same without that tone?

    Finally, while I agree that you must know your segments and what you can deliver in exchange for their expectations (and note that different segments of your customer-base will have different expectations and needs), I am not sure that categorizing “cheap” or “lower income” people as those who deserve to be abused is a shrewd business move.

    Sure, RyaAir is likely to have clients for life — then again, you can never tell what may happen and what might set your customers off. Isn’t it easier to take a strict, but friendly, tone in your communications? Not to abuse the lower-class-denominator for expectations and maybe over-deliver a little? even if you don’t meet the rest of the market’s standards — you are going above the expectations of your customer-base.

    Right?

    Nice, interesting post…

    1. Esteban: I agree that Ryanair’s CEO’s tone is quite abrasive. If that filters into the interactions with customers, then it’s probably not a good thing. My guess is that the absolute clarity of O’Leary’s remarks makes it very easy for customers to understand Ryanair’s brand positioning and also makes it very clear for employees to understand what decisions they should be making to deliver on that brand. As Paul mentioned in the previous comment, there hasn’t been a lot written about problems with Ryanair’s service execution, so maybe they don’t treat customers too poorly. I haven’t really studied Ryanair, so I don’t know. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Your third question about what level of experience are customers willing to trade off in order to get what they care about made me think of a certain type of restaurant that is quite prevalent in New York City where I live. More often than not, my experience at restaurants that have become the “it” place to dine actually provide horrible service. Typically this starts at the moment you walk in the door and encounter the rude host/hostess all the way through to the waiter that screws up your order and makes it feel like it was your fault. Yet, these same restaurants are booked solid 2 months out.

    For various reasons that equate to value (e.g. the cache that comes with saying you’ve eaten at “it” restaurant) customers are willing to be treated as if they are lucky to be spending their money at an establishment whose service is borderline abusive. But the one thing that I have noticed is that most of these places are unapologetic about their service. The expectation is set upon entry and is consistently met throughout the meal. You’ve talked to friends that have gone there and you’ve read the customer reviews. You know what you’re getting. What becomes interesting is that it is actually easier to accept this type of service when there are no apologies given. Once an employee breaks from the strategy and admits that the service they are providing is not acceptable, the customers expectations are reset and things start to fall apart.

    This is not an endorsement of bad service, but I think it supports your point that success can be achieved when customer experience management supports the brand strategy. Even when that strategy is to provide poor customer service.

  4. Ryanair do not provide a bad service – they provide a service that is consistent with the price paid for it. Why don’t people understand this – you simply cannot pay 1p for a flight and expect a business class flight. Ryanair is always my preferred airline and let’s not forget that if it wasn’t for Michael O’Leary we would not have as much travel opportunity. Please everyone – stop complaining!

    1. Andrew: Thanks for sharing your perspective. It’s clear that Ryanair meets your needs quite well and has turned you into a brand enthusiast. Ryanair needs to continue to focus on meeting the needs of customers like you, and ignore complaints from people who aren’t a good fit for the service anyway.

  5. This news from the RTE Business website (www.rte.ie) last week suggests that lower fares directly influences people’s choice of airline and ‘unbundling’ the charging elements is generating revenue too:

    “Passenger numbers in the period rose by 11% to 16.6 million, which Mr O’Leary attributed to a 13% fall in average fares. Ancillary revenues – which include items such as on-board sales, baggage fees and priority boarding charges – rose by 13% to €165.3m.

    Ryanair expects its average fares to fall by about 20% over the whole of its financial year, and traffic to increase by 15%. It also expects full year net profit to be at the lower end of the €200m to €300m range.”

    As you say Bruce, Michael O’Leary’s manner is often abrasive and this very public reinforcement of the brand values and strategy must serve to set passengers’ expectations at a reasonable level. I have used both Ryanair and the other low-cost carrier easyJet on lots of occasions and generally speaking have got what I paid for – so no complaints on that score. easyJet is improving its customer experience and the difference was characterised by one of my colleagues as “cheap and nasty” versus “cheap and cheerful” -no prizes for guessing which description is aimed at which airline.

    I even described myself as a loyal easyJet passenger after a recent experience (http://bit.ly/nsRJL) and there use of Twitter for customer engagement.

    There is clearly a market that is being served and profit being made – no mean feat for any airline in the current economic climate

  6. In today’s economy, lots of people are looking for low fares and reliable service. And, people are willing to make tradeoffs for price. It would seem that their CEO’s attitude would be more positive, as customers who do fit your niche still want to feel ‘smart’ and ‘appreciated’. The tone surprises me.
    Segmentation is definitely one of marketers’ greatest tools. If they’re keeping customers long term, then they must have done a good job at segmenting & targeting.
    It will be interesting to see how well they do over time.

  7. What RyanAir do well is match the price and expectations against the experience. Their target market are happy with that as they know in very definite terms what they will get. The issue occurs when the experience fails to live up to the brand promise (expectations) or the price.

    Liz Sealey

  8. Once you understand what Ryanair is offering, low cost, no frills, take it or leave service then there is no problem. They deliver exactly what is advertised. I think it’s Micheal O’Leary himself that annoys most people with his attitude and their customer service could do with a makeover. It does not cost anything to be polite and smile now and again. However, I use them on a regular basis and have got fares as low a 2 cents net.

  9. Whatever Ryanair is doing , it amounts to monopoly although of different type, here you are giving low prices with average service for your low cost customers . But how could you abuse your customers or does the things that Ryanair does.
    Even if it delivers its Brand Promises , still this is a very competitive world , some day the competition will take its toll on Ryanair and if some competitor starts giving something closer to what it had to offer, then Customers will start turning over .

  10. No matter if some passengers are furious; Ryanair has more 60M passengers a year!!
    No service, no respect, but it works because it’s cheap.

  11. All I expect from a no frill airline is a safe, reliable and cheap journey to my destination, comparable to a bus ride. Buying a ticket for a bus trip is easy and straightforward & the price is transparent, while buying a ticket for Ryanair is cumbersome and dotted with many hidden charges, making price comparisons with other offers from other companies difficult. You may have bought your ticket online, but this ticketfare is not the final price of the ticket, as you may be confronted with an additional check-in fee, baggage handling charges and possible overweight charges, making your ticket a lot more expensive than you bargained for. The old adagium “If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is.” applies fully to Ryanair. This company does not offer a simple affordable bus service, yet its operations are specifically designed to squeeze out every penny it can on every passenger.

  12. Hi everyone: The comments about Ryanair are definitely flowing — thanks for sharing your thoughts! It sounds like most of the comments are talking about how Ryanair’s service level makes sense given it’s low-price brand and the expectations that its setting for customers.

    There are also some people who are critical of Ryanair for the severe tone of the CEO (does he need to be that harsh?) and for the lack of transparency in some of the additional prices. These seem like reasonable complaints that could be addressed without impacting the brand.

  13. Holy Smokes is that one mean response from the CEO. How classless. I am sure his mean attitude permeates every aspect of that company. I shudder to think that I might have flown on that airlines not knowing this. Honestly, I feel sorry for the employees. Bruce your blog is one of the most thought provoking blogs I have ever visited. You have become a part of my daily routine 🙂

  14. I love Ryaian, because if not this airline, I could not afford myself traveling outside Latvia. Airbaltic’c prices are TOO HIGH for the majority of Latvian people whose average salary is 400-500 EUR.

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