Britain’s rocky relationship with Ryanair shows what kind of consumers we’ve become

Twelve months ago Michael O’Leary, the boss of Irish budget airline Ryanair, showed a photograph of himself holding a cute puppy and promising a new “warm and cuddly” approach to customer service.

It was a remarkable turnaround from a man who had previously revelled in his company’s self-proclaimed “cheap and nasty” public image and the less than PR friendly. “If drink sales are falling off, we get the pilots to engineer a bit of turbulence. That usually spikes sales,” he once said.

For years such comments didn’t seem to make a difference as passengers climbed on board and profits grew.

But a third-quarter loss last Spring revealed to O’Leary that customers were beginning to tire of the airline’s antics and service and flocking to rival easyJet instead.

Cue the launch of the Always Getting Better programme promising allocated seating and family discounts, and cue the return to profit and passenger growth.

Earlier this month it revealed third quarter profits of €49m compared to that €35m loss last time.

Ryanair has achieved this not just by improving service but engaging their staff fully in the process and explaining the reasons for change. O’Leary jokingly says he has asked cabin crew to be more “happy clappy” – but it’s gone deeper than that.

The airline’s success has been matched by other major firms who had lost the trust of the public.

Look at Lloyds Banking Group. It has introduced screenless counters, extended opening hours and simplified telephone banking to improve service. Staff have been encouraged and trained to put the customer first. It claims the changes have worked with the number of customer complaints falling.

This all seems like very basic business – treat your customers correctly and honestly and they will come back for more. But it is remarkable how many businesses still fail to grasp this basic notion and incorporate it as part of their overall strategies.

The fall-out from the recession and the loss of public trust in UK plc is helping re-focus the minds of our corporate leaders.

The growth of a new pool of customers – the so-called generation Y born between 1977 and 1994 – is bringing with it new expectations of customer service.

Generation Y, which worldwide is tipped to spend $200bn this year, have grown up with vast technological changes including mobile and PC.

They expect quick and seamless customer service. They are not prepared to wait an hour in a telephone call queue or wait four hours at home one afternoon for a service engineer to turn up invariably within the final ten minutes.

These customers also expect more personalised service – vouchers or offers uniquely directed at them.

Read more about 21st century customer interaction:

Understanding these consumers, including those a little older in age but also technically savvy and eager for quicker service, and what they want could unlock more revenues and lock-in loyalty for years to come.

The answer for businesses is ensuring that strong social media channels are in place allowing customers to complain or seek technical help and feedback online. It is also about being pro-active and letting customer know if there are any problems with their product, service or delivery well in advance.

So where do growing businesses fall into this? It can be argued that it is harder for them to keep fully engaged with their customers in comparison to their larger competitors.

They are growing, focussed perhaps on other areas of their business – marketing, brand building, logistics, supply chain, advertising, R&D. That connection with the end-user, the consumer, can be lost along the way.

How is my customer feeling? Do I have the appropriate channels and methods for them to complain to me or offer feedback or let me know of any issues they have?

As you grow you need to have your customer base grow with you. It is vital that a growing business sits down and develops a true customer engagement and employee engagement strategy.

Adam Goran, divisional director for customer engagement at The Grass Roots Group, said: “A common mistake that many SMEs can make is concentrating too much effort upon customer acquisition, rather than customer retention and the encouragement of brand advocates. This can lead to brands acquiring just as many customers, as those that have decided to the leave the same brand, due to lack of interest in customer retention.

“This could be down to cost and lack of time due to the demanding environment of a growing business. However if both money and time are invested into maintaining a positive relationship with customers, the potential is unlimited and the return great.”

So how can you best keep in touch with your customers? Perhaps ensuring that you collect their email addresses when purchasing which could lead you to conduct personalised surveys on what they feel about your company or products.

This could lead to the creation of personalised offers or vouchers.

Goran added: “It may seem obvious to some to add at least a little personalisation into outbound communications, but many organisations widely stereotype customers and send generic emails containing offers that have no relevance whatsoever. In our recent research which surveyed over 2,700 UK consumers it was revealed that over half (56 per cent) claimed they were regularly offered irrelevant rewards or discounts from brands. This leads to existing and potential customers feeling undervalued by the brand and encouraging them to take their business elsewhere.”

Your website and Twitter feed could also play a huge part here. Ensure that your website is constantly refreshed with news about new products or services. Make the website engaging with surveys or polls to gauge more understanding. Allow your customers to give their feedback over social media such as Twitter.

The experts in this field describe this as reducing your customer’s effort. That makes a lot of sense – get to them before they get to you. Surprise them with information on new products or even to let them know in advance if there is a problem they need to be aware of.

However Goran cautioned: “Social media is a key driver for customer engagement but for this to be successful and reap benefit, SMEs must be consistent in the brand experience across all channels – not just in the social space. The customer experience must be seamless and resonate across all consumer touch-points, from the store advisor, to the call centre, to the social platforms to ensure that the customer feels engaged with the brand and experiences no disconnect in the overall experience.

“Creating a true omni-channel experience will stand any SME in good stead to grow their business and grow their customer base, by inspiring them to be loyal, brand advocates that will be continuous profitable assets.”

As stated previously there is little point having a customer engagement strategy if your employees have a lacklustre approach in fulfilling it.

It’s great to think of a Twitter feedback service but not so great if the responses to queries are lacking in warmth or sincerity. “My computer says no.”

Employees must be engaged, enthusiastic and ready to help. Introduce some training exercises or manuals – let your staff know about the customer feedback you have received, who they are, what they think and want.

Recruitment can play a part here. Turkcell a Turkish telecoms firm believed the best answer in providing better customer service to generation Y was to employ staff of similar age. They created new online recruitment tools such as computer games to test skills and receive applications.

Not everyone will wish to go down the routes of video games and cute puppies but the fight for customers cash is going to get harder and bold and creative ways of engaging more closely with them will be vital.

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