The humility of Ryanair’s CEO is driving the improvement of their customer experience


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Nunwood, a customer experience research and consultancy firm, recently published their U.S. Customer Experience Excellence Report 2015 and I was lucky enough to get the chance to talk to David Conway, their Chief Strategy Officer, about the report and their findings.

In our interview, he suggested that:

  • In broad terms the U.S. is probably two to three years ahead of the U.K. in customer experience terms; and
  • The top U.S. brands are about 5% ahead of their U.K. counterparts across a number of dimensions and Nunwood estimates that it will take U.K. brands two to three years to catch up.

One of the main reasons, he cited for this discrepancy is that they have found that:

“the customer experience agenda is largely driven by the CEO and the executive team in the U.S. and that is a key difference between the U.S. and the U.K., where the customer experience agenda is being driven, in large part, by the operational team.”

I would suggest that these differences are not limited to U.K. firms but are shared, in many respects, across European firms.

However, one European firm that seems to bucking that trend is Ryanair.

Now, I wrote a bit of a skeptical article about them and their CEO, Michael O’Leary, last month where I asked: Does Michael O’Leary Really Care About Ryanair’s Customers, Or Is He Just Being Pragmatic?, largely because of Mr. O’Leary’s historical reputation for saying a number of not very flattering things about customers.

On the back of that article, Mr. O’Leary sent me a personal letter and also agreed to be interviewed by me about Ryanair’s new programme of customer service initiatives.

In his letter (published with permission) and to answer my question whether or not he cared about his customers, Mr. O’Leary wrote:

“I am the only airline Chief Executive that really cares about my customers which is why I have spent 28 years driving down the cost of flying in Europe, this year Ryanair will carry over 100m passengers and save those passengers more than €10n compared to the average airfares being charged by our competitors in Europe”.

However, it was our interview (you can read the highlights and listen to the full interview here) that provided the most interesting insights:

  • Humility is the biggest lesson he has learned in the last 12 months, even if as he says “It’s very difficult for someone who is Irish to be humble. We generally believe that we walk on water”.
  • Listening to customers has been a “spectacularly successful learning experience for Ryanair over the last 12 months” and they are seeing the changes that they have implemented reflected in their business results too.
  • Do as much as you can to be nice to your customers but stay true to your business model. Ryanair know that service and improving their customers’ experience is good but only as long as it doesn’t threaten their cost leadership position. Investing in being nicer to customers should fuel and add to your strategy but shouldn’t dominate or replace it.

What’s clear is that it is Mr. O’Leary’s humility and ability to admit that he has made mistakes that are the main driving forces behind Ryanair’s customer service improvements.

There are lessons here for other CEOs facing similar challenges.

Like the recent report released by Heidrick & Struggles: The CEO Report states:

“Sometimes you have to have the courage to say, ‘I know this is the right direction,’ the humility to say when you’ve got it wrong and deal with it, but the courage to take action when you believe it’s the right thing to do—despite the downside potential for yourself.”

 This post was originally published on my column here.
Photo Credit: Lex Photographic via Compfight cc

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Adrian Swinscoe
Adrian Swinscoe brings over 25 years experience to focusing on helping companies large and small develop and implement customer focused, sustainable growth strategies.


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