Beyond sound bites: Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary on Customer Service

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary has a well earned reputation as a loud-mouth blowhard who will say anything to get a rise from the crowd and get his name – and his crazy story – in print. He’s adopted the “all press is good press” strategy and executed on it nearly flawlessly over the years. But if you can get past the misogyny (I edited most of it out) and the sound bites to listen a bit longer there are very interesting insights to be had. Take in more than just the one-liners and real strategic ideas start to come through.

O’Leary recently spoke at the Future Travel Experience Europe conference in Dublin. During the 40ish minutes he spent on stage he delivered views on everything from ancillary sales to loyalty to in-flight internet connectivity to customer service. I’ve distilled the full performance down into a few clips that I believe do a great job of presenting his view for the future of aviation in Europe; some topics will have an impact beyond those borders as well.

In this four part series I take a look at Michael O’Leary’s views on:

Customer Service & Customer Satisfaction

How do you define the ideal customer? If sound bites are your goal Michael O’Leary has plenty of those to share.

My ideal customer is someone who is terrified of flying with us because they think there’s no seats on board.

That is an exaggeration, of course, but with the idea of under-promise and over-deliver on service is a cornerstone of the Ryanair experience and typically proves to be incredibly successful with passengers, so long as the starting baseline isn’t completely untenable. And in many ways the idea of ignoring customer service altogether was tremendously successful for a while. O’Leary knows that passengers are price-sensitive to a fault if that option is presented to them.

I don’t need to be competing on customer experience anyways…because I know I’ll get most of them on price.

But the market is changing and Ryanair’s target is no longer only the passenger traveling for the absolute cheapest fare. The carrier has 15% of the European short-haul market today and expects that to grow to 25% in the next 5-10 years and 40% at some point down the line.

There’s 10-20% [of customers] at the upper end who are flexible and we do have to be much more sensitive to what they want…We want to rip them off of Lufthansa, IAG, etc.

Reaching that goal means not always actively being a jerk and, perhaps, occasionally even being nice to some customers. That shift in approach is a couple years in now and the results are promising so far.

Of course, one can listen to customers and be nice to them without completely changing the business model. In many ways this goes back to the under-promise/over-deliver mentality. Even if every customer agreed that a new policy is a good idea that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a smart choice for the business.

We’re always going to have to be listening. We’re always going to have to be doing something, listening to feedback from customers. But just because there is feedback from customers doesn’t mean we’re going to do it.

Of all the things O’Leary talks about this topic appears the least likely to see much more in the way of major change from the current path. Perhaps some small tweaks at the upper end to capture those top value customers, but the opportunities there that do not require high-touch services are limited. And high-touch is most definitely not a Ryanair play.

Beyond Sound Bites: The full series

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


    1. At this point it is hard to reasonably claim there is much of a difference between any of the short-haul operators in Europe. Some offer more and different onward connections but for point-to-point travel within the continent all offer a variety of fares that do or do not include various amenities along with on-board pitch ranging from knee-crushingly awful to tolerable.

    1. ich war gestern erst wieder mit dem reiher unterwegs. ausser einer dreiviertel stunde verspätung alles ok. nicht mal wartezeit an der siko 😉

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