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Column Michael O'Leary turned Santa because he had to

Ryanair customers feeling the love – because social media has the power to make or break the business.

LOVE HIM OR loathe him, Michael O’Leary deserves respect. His no-nonsense approach to air travel totally obliterated the high cost of flying and opened air travel to the masses.

Flying used to be considered classy, but the pay off for Ryanair’s low fares has been to squeeze any notion of romanticism from the airline industry. Now flying is cheap and rarely cheerful.

Nonetheless, we all have, at one time or another, flown Ryanair. We may have grumbled; we may have complained; and it may not have been the most pleasant experience – but we did it essentially for the low fare.

O’Leary based his business model on the assumption that we would do almost anything for a cheap flight. Forget customer service; forget providing an enjoyable experience; if the price was right, people would jump on board.

Openly hostile

It was such a success he revelled in being openly hostile to the notion that the customer is always right. When quizzed about why passengers who forgot to print their boarding passes were charged so much he quipped, “We think they should pay €60 for being so stupid.”

But times have changed and O’Leary knows that now both he and Ryanair have to follow suit.

So now he is intent on showing us a softer and more customer-friendly side. And Ryanair customers are already feeling the love.

This week alone the cost of carrying an extra kilogramme of luggage has been cut, falling from €20 to €10. Ryanair also slashed its fee for reissuing a boarding card at the airport from €70 to €15. And from 5 January it will reduce the cost of checking in a bag at the airport from €60 to €30.

Charm offensive

So why, after years of pummelling customers with his ‘I don’t give a f**k’, is O’Leary suddenly now on a charm offensive?

Because, thanks to social media, customers now wield enough power to make the likes of O’Leary sit up and take notice.

Complaining about shoddy treatment by Ryanair was usually a case of banging ones head against the proverbial brick wall. But while people always have shared their bad experience, nowadays rather than tell a few friends they tell thousands of people via the likes of Facebook and Twitter. So instead of calling a helpline, people are increasingly turning to social media to air their gripes.

And with competition intensifying on Ryanair from other airlines, O’Leary knows ‘treating them mean to keep them keen’ is no longer an option.

The Ryanair chief no doubt has looked to the likes of Southwest Airlines, which uses its blog to actively encourage customers to post their complaints so that they can be quickly addressed. The Marriott hotel group is another that has realised the shift in power and patrols Twitter for reports of customer service issues to resolve them before they go viral.

Quell criticism

Indeed, even old-school market leaders such as Coca-Cola realise the power social media wields. It uses the 38.3 million fans on its Facebook page to act as brand ambassadors to help quell criticism before it spirals out of control online.

All of these companies know that social media now means consumers have more power to influence, organise and act in their own self-interest than ever before.

However, one small French cafe on the French Riviera also highlights how social media not only empowers consumers but also businesses. It has gained notoriety by using twitter and Facebook to highlight its policy of giving discounts to customers who are polite. What started off as a local joke has turned into huge media coverage for the small business.

But while Michael O’Leary is unlikely to give you a discount simply for saying please, he understands he needs to sweeten his company’s relationship with consumers in acknowledgement that the rules of engagement have changed.

Paul Allen is managing director of Paul Allen and Associates PR,

Ryanair shocks the people of Ireland with act of Christmas generosity>

‘Warm and cuddly’ or ‘harsh and caustic’: Are we seeing Michael O’Leary 2.0?>

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