OPINION: Even Ryanair gets there eventually

9 Nov 2013

Gareth Dunlop, owner of user-experience consultancy Fathom

Few rumours are less reliable than internet rumours but whispers have been circulating recently that Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary is becoming a slightly more cuddly rottweiler.

As part of the dawning realisation that manners are free and cheap doesn’t need to mean rude, the company he leads and made in his image has even taken to Twitter.

In fact, at the time of writing, Ryanair has just issued a press release about its new site, due to launch late November 2013, which will take users from homepage to flight in five clicks. I feel somewhat conflicted about this, I had come to accept, embrace almost, the Stockholm Syndrome which my relationship with Ryanair instilled. I had almost come to welcome the needless battering my self-esteem took every time my life’s course and Ryanair’s customer service intersected.

Could this new focus on the customer/user/flyer/victim be anything to do with their recent profit warning and share price drop announcement?

There is no doubt that this profit warning has flapped the otherwise unflappable O’Leary. In a recent BBC Breakfast News interview, he declared, “There seems to be this kind of hysteria, particularly in the UK media, about charges that nobody pays. At Ryanair, we have charges to change passenger behaviour, not because we want your money”, causing flabbergasted business correspondent Steph McGovern to seek clarification: “So, you don’t want people’s money, is that what you just said?”

Like so many before him, O’Leary, faced with changing marketplace dynamics and an increasingly competitive landscape, is having to finally think about treating his customers with respect.

Customer service foundation

The blunt truth is, sooner or later, all companies, big and small, profitable and unprofitable, strong and weak, hubristic and humble, have to start founding their marketing on customer service. And nowhere is customer-centricity (or otherwise) more evidently witnessed than online, where the whole premise of the web is efficient customer self-service. And this self-service is impossible without a ruthless pursuit of thinking like and understanding users, and having the humility to translate the insights this provides into an ever-improving experience.

Glancing at the theory book for a second, user experience is a fundamental element of one of the four Ps of marketing (price, product, promotion and place). And it is one which increasing numbers of marketers are valuing because competition in the other three Ps is cutthroat and so it increasingly offers an opportunity for competitive advantage.

Or to look at it another way, there is simply no point getting product, price and promotion correct and stuffing up on place. Getting the right product to market at the right price and promoted in a means which remains profitable is really difficult. Not thinking about place by making product too difficult to understand or find, running a website which is too hard to navigate and use, speaking in language which is too difficult and not making the next step obvious enough is now too expensive for businesses to be tolerated any further.

For many years, when preaching and selling the virtues of user experience, customers, prospects and others have asked me, “What about Ryanair? They seem to do OK without UX thinking?” I have always believed the reason they got away with it for so long was because their first three Ps were so strong.

And interestingly, now that their product, price and promotion is under increasing pressure, they have returned, prodigal-son like, to their fourth P and their long-suffering customers. I’m looking forward to seeing the new site but I confess I haven’t got the calf fattened or party venue booked just yet.

Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include user testing, usability and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Ordnance Survey Ireland, Telefónica, Invest NI, Ogilvy, and Savile Row. Visit Fathom online.

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.