In it for the long run?

I got a shock last week when, taking a Ryanair flight, I noticed a significant change in how I was treated by staff and also in the tone of the inflight magazine. The mag listed a number of different ways in which the company was improving service to customers – not something I am used to hearing from Ryanair.

You might have seen the (ever-so-slightly gleeful) press coverage back in November around Ryanair having to issue two profit warnings in two months, with shares plummeting by 11.5 per cent. The drop is being blamed on fierce fare competition in Europe and rising fuel costs. And yet, mysteriously, Easyjet’s financial performance in 2013 set new records for revenue, profit and returns.

Thinking twice
It’s clearly no coincidence that Ryanair has taken a quick U-turn and are now demonstrating they are ‘all ears’ when it comes to their customers.

Poor customer service had long been the flipside to the cheap flights offered by the company. ’With such super-economy deals offered, people grumble but they will put up with it’ went the mantra coming from the company’s boardroom.

Not so it seems as passengers are starting to think twice before choosing Ryanair.

From a PR perspective, the Ryanair about face is a timely reminder to ruminate on the importance of a long-term relationship with your customers.

Is all publicity good publicity?
Sadly some companies still equate PR with a speedy publicity fix, getting their name, service or product in front of their target audience on an ad hoc basis, and quickly communicating their USPs. Ryanair has certainly been good at grabbing headlines and attracting plenty of publicity that underlined its founding principle of ‘cheap’. Remember the furore around the supposed £1 payment for a trip to the loo inflight? Not an ounce of truth in it, I’m sure, but it got headline coverage for the firm’s PR team.

But where the company has missed a trick is by not building up any kind of sustainable, positive dialogue with their customers. In fact, many quotes from the CEO himself have suggested that he – and by extension the company – have a very cavalier attitude towards the thoughts or feelings of their customers. While this approach succeeded in getting column inches, the company has managed to shoot itself in the foot somewhat.

David Mitchell, the comedian, wrote a typically amusing opinion piece in the Guardian Online last month, extolling the virtues of the rare clarity of Ryanair’s old marketing strategy: “…..Customers will buy your stuff if they want it, whatever they think of you and however you treat them.” But I’m not sure I agree. If Ryanair customers felt valued and appreciated, they may well have displayed enough loyalty to the brand to soften such a steep decline despite the challenging sector conditions.

Changing perceptions
Ryanair has now announced a series of customer service initiatives designed to answer some of the most frequent criticisms. A 24 hours grace period has been granted to correct minor booking errors, the fee for a boarding card re-issues has been reduced and in a couple of months allocated seating will be available.

These steps have clearly been taken to stem the tide of decline, but effecting change always takes time and usually costs money. Far better would have been to have a long-term PR strategy in place that emphasised the key message of ‘cheap’, but listened to customers enough from the beginning.

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  • About the Author

    It’s my job to look strategically at our clients’ goals for their brand and then apply my knowledge of PR, the media and online communities to make sure that we deliver. The part of my job that I enjoy most is being able to provide a fresh perspective for our clients – and uncovering the best way to raise the profile of their brand. I also love keeping up to date with the ever changing nature of PR.

    Before setting up the business, I worked both in-house and agency-side doing PR in the education and telecoms sectors. I split my time between France and the UK and so I can often be found at airports smuggling cheddar cheese into the land of camembert.

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