What Football can learn from Ryanair

Wednesday 16th September 2015 at 7:40AM

It’s funny how some companies provoke strong associations when you mention them. I name companies like Apple, Pret, First Direct, Disney or Virgin Atlantic and most people (including many who have never used them) will glow with admiration.

Mention most companies and people say ‘meh’. Mention Ikea and you split the room. But mention Ryanair and you often empty it.

Ryanair has always been of interest to me. As someone who believes customer engagement is the principle reason for business success, I had to give begrudging credit to a company that was apparently prepared to undertake a massive consumer experiment proving the opposite: that people will put up with all sorts of pain just to get a cheap flight.

But in 2013, something happened. One minute, I’m trying to opt out of purchasing Ryanair’s travel insurance by carefully scrolling down to find the ‘I don’t need insurance’ option (somewhere between St Kilda & Surinam).

The next? I’m greeted with the new Always Getting Better customer service strategy: more carry on baggage, allocated seating, the removal of punitive charges and friendly and engaging air crew.

What’s more, it’s worked. Passenger numbers are up, advocacy is up, complaints are down and the business has had one of its best years financially. And all of this, amazingly, for an organisation whose name had become interchangeable with the phrase ‘awful customer service’.

So can Michael O’Leary’s Damascene conversion teach football a thing or two?  

I think it can. You see Ryanair’s success largely depended on the readiness of all customers to value price above anything else. Some customers were happy to adopt the dead-eyed stare of the automaton for the purposes of getting to Deauville or Dubrovnik.  But however much we learned to embrace this costly maze of multiple clicks, limited options and heavy penalties, a deeper frustration inevitably began to brew.  ‘Your flights and cheap fares are convenient, thanks, but don’t expect me to LIKE you.’

And that is the issue. Ryanair wasn’t generating any advocacy. For every flight on time to Krakow, another customer complaint story went viral. For every new route created, Mr O’Leary was being taken apart in the media.

Doing the basics (which in Ryanair terms was ‘extremely’ basic) had got the company into the game, but times change and this was no longer enough.

Football’s mind set is changing, however, and it has learned to embrace change in recent years, but the vestiges of the ‘sit down and shut up’ culture of the past still continue to undermine wider fan engagement.  

Take away fans, for example. Their presence in a stadium is not only a guarantee of noise and atmosphere, but is increasingly a symbol of what makes football in these islands so special.

The revenue generated by visiting fans for the host club (both directly through ticket purchases and indirectly through secondary spend) is vital to sustainability and yet the ‘experience’ provided is often not too far removed from the Ryanair one: we’ll take your money, but don’t expect any genuine warmth or a hassle-free experience.

And more generally, fans at many clubs still have to jump through hoops to obtain tickets or other services. One friend of mine renewed his membership recently. He buys family tickets (which can’t be bought on line).  So does the new membership card display a ticket office phone number to make it easy for him? Er, no.

Membership should be the opportunity for the club to demonstrate their familiarity with individual fans, to make them feel special, to anticipate their needs and to reciprocate their love for the club.  Sadly, for some clubs, it often ends up being nothing more than a ‘tax’ on those desperate for tickets.

And there’s the couple who attempted to buy family tickets at a club last year only to be told (presumably because their reckless ‘two parent, one child’ domestic set up couldn’t possibly have been anticipated by those designing the ticket options) that ‘you’re not a family.’

Football is changing, though. The arms-length attitude to fans is being eroded by forward-looking clubs with strong engagement strategies and fresh attitudes.  The assumption that it’s ‘all about the football’ is being replaced by a willingness to appreciate that different fans have different needs and that the supporter’s bond with the club transcends anything that happens on the pitch. Clubs are consulting more, becoming more transparent and starting to make things easier for fans.

But they’re also doing things that really do signal a massive mind set change from the past.  One example is Doncaster Rovers who responded to the continuous complaints from a fan who wanted to know why the club was taking so long to recruit new players by inviting him in and arranging for him to announce the club’s first new signing of the summer via his own Twitter account.

And this followed the lovely self-deprecating ‘official highlights’ video of the forgettable 0-0 v Fleetwood Town.  The video lasted 27 seconds and featured the teams walking on to the pitch, the referee blowing the full time whistle and the players walking off again.  The video has been viewed more than 860,000 times.

That’s not what you expect from football. But customer engagement wasn’t what you’d expect from Ryanair either. Prepare for interesting times ahead.

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