“The old website makes me want to lose the will to live, none of it as a user experience is joined up”. These were the words used recently to describe Ryanair’s website by none other than Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s chief. He went on to say “we’re changing some of the policies I’ve held dear for many years because that’s what our customers want us to do”. Let me repeat that:

“….because that’s what our customers want us to do”.

Having been in the customer experience business for a decade or more I have seen and heard some fairly crazy things and a good number of them have involved Ryanair [and other airlines actually, maybe there is something in that?]. However, I never thought I would hear that Ryanair is getting all touchy feely and throwing off their “take it or leave it” attitude in favour of listening to customers. And here’s the shock, not only listening but also acting on what they learn. What next, free champagne at take-off and sucky sweets on landing?

There are those that argue Ryanair has been delivering one of the most consistent customer experiences in the market and have always done so. And that they meet their customers’ expectations consistently and that this is a very important element of customer experience strategy. Admittedly they consistently meet very low customer expectations but isn’t that a viable strategy? I think it is providing it is a conscious decision and not simply an outcome as a result of service delivery problems.

The change in direction comes after two consecutive months of profits warnings last year even though passenger numbers were continuing to climb and had reached 81 million for the previous 12 months. The cause of the financial gloom was “softer pricing” according to O’Leary, and some of the improved customer services will come at a cost. For example, allocated seating will carry a charge but other changes such as more flexibility with baggage and a new and improved website will not.

Although the change is quite subtle when analysed closely, the perception, certainly with the media, is that Ryanair will now be competing further up the food chain. Is this a good thing for the brand and will it alter customer expectations? If it does alter customer expectations what are the implications for the brand and company?

There is a theory in psychology called “relative depravation” that describes the “experience of being deprived of something to which one thinks one is entitled”. The theory suggests that when people compare what they have with what others have they are discontent and want that thing. We can extrapolate that to expectations surrounding intangible things such as an experience. In the modern world, and in particular in the digital world, there is significant transparency about what others are experiencing. Social media in particular has enabled people to share their experiences, good and bad, for others to consider and compare to their own. The outcome is continually rising expectations and a significant challenge for businesses.

Previously, Ryanair’s passenger’s expectations have been very low and they also paid a low price. As a result they did not feel entitled to anything better and so do not suffer from relative depravation. By moving up the food chain, Ryanair will allow their customers to begin to compare the experience they receive with that of passengers of other similarly priced airlines and it is likely that over time they will become discontent and want more. Managing their customer’s expectation going forward will become much harder than it has been previously. But this is not the only challenge.

Michael Porter, a leading authority on competitive strategy, argues that there are three “generic” strategies a company can choose to deliver them competitive advantage: cost leadership; differentiation; and focus. According to Porter, there can only be one leader in each for a sector. Arguably, Ryanair is the leading budget airline as far as price leadership goes so what happens if they step up? They can’t become a leading differentiator because that requires the market not to be price sensitive or to have some as yet unfulfilled need. Can they lead on price and also enhance the customer experience they deliver which will inevitably come at a cost?

An engaging, inspiring and positively differentiated customer experience is not what every company should aspire to deliver. Their aims should be to provide an experience appropriate to the brand, the market they operate in and demands of their customers. It should also be affordable so that it can be consistently delivered and aligned with overall business strategy. Ryanair was arguably achieving this but poor financial performance has caused a re-think its customer experience strategy; or so we are led to believe. Personally I don’t think that is the case.

To me, Ryanair is simply planning to charge for something that its customers have grown to expect when comparing their experience to that on other airlines – i.e. knowing where they are going to sit and avoiding the stressful fight for a seat. They will improve their website as well but given where they were one could argue that this was necessary in order to continue to be a cost leader, such was the inefficiency contained within the booking process. They will continue to be the cost leader in the budget airline sector.

The wider context is that we have observed a rising of the bottom. Budget airline travellers are no longer prepared to put up with being deprived by Ryanair of the slightly better experience that is offered on other airlines. The travel sector won’t be alone and if you occupy the price leadership end of the market it is worth considering whether the minimum acceptable experience is rising. If it is you better act.

Paul BlundenPaul Blunden, has spent more than a decade working in the digital user experience sector as co-founder and CEO of Foviance and now founder and CEO of Usability247. During this time he has worked with a number of organisations including BskyB, CIPD, Nokia and Shop Direct helping them to improve the performance of the experiences they offer their customers and users.

usability247Paul is author of a number of papers about digital customer experience and was the driving force behind the publication of the first multichannel customer experience report. More recently he has focussed on mobile and multiplatform user experience with publications on mobile optimisation, multiscreen user behaviour and responsive web design. Paul is also a regular blogger at Usability247 on user experience trends and challenges.

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