I have always described Ryanair as ‘the brand we love to hate’. Famed for its ‘no frills’ approach, for years, millions of consumers decided that despite the appealing cost, the un-acceptability of the Ryanair experience was a big turn off. Equally as many millions of consumers were prepared to put up with the ‘no service’ proposition and until recently, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary revelled in the financial returns that this strategy delivered.

Michael O’Leary became as famous for his ability to deliver remarkably positive financial returns for his company, as he did for his public disdain for the customer. These are just some of the things he has said about customers in the past:

“If drink sales are falling off, we get the pilots to engineer a bit of turbulence. That usually spikes sales.”

On passengers who forget to print their boarding passes: “We think they should pay €60 for being so stupid.”

“Anyone who thinks Ryanair flights are some sort of bastion of sanctity where you can contemplate your navel is wrong. We already bombard you with as many in-flight announcements and trolleys as we can. Anyone who looks like sleeping, we wake them up to sell them things.”

“MBA students come out with: ‘My staff is my most important asset.’ Bullshit. Staff is usually your biggest cost. We all employ some lazy bastards who needs a kick up the backside, but no one can bring themselves to admit it.”

If you can believe it, there are even worse examples than this with even fruitier language. The reason why the airline became the one that most loved to hate is not very difficult to understand. However, as a passionate defender of all things Customer Experience, I am about to write a sentence that I NEVER in a million years imagined I ever would…… brace yourselves…..

Michael O’Leary is the new HERO of Customer Experience!

Whilst I will never accept or codone the things Mr O’Leary has said and done in the past when it comes to his customers, I am absolutely accepting of a leader who is prepared to admit he is in the wrong. Too many business leaders do not have the humility to admit failure – those that do should be commended for having the balls to do so. Michael O’Leary has become one of those leaders.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, let me share with you this ‘up to date’ quote of Michael O’Leary’s following their latest round of financial results:

‘If I had known being nicer to our customers was going to work so well I would have done it years ago.’

Do not adjust your screens – you did just read that correctly. Michael O’Leary has finally acknowledged that improving the customer experience has had a POSITIVE effect on the financial performance of his business. He has admitted that he was wrong not to change the way the airline treated customers much sooner and is committed to making the Ryanair Customer Experience even better.

If I were any other airline in the industry, I would be very afraid. Ryanair’s co-founder, the late Tony Ryan, was desperate to make Ryanair the best-loved airline in Europe. Michael O’Leary vehemently disagreed with him and insisted that they should focus on being the lowest cost. They were actually both on to something – creating Europe’s lowest cost AND most loved airline  would be quite some proposition. This is now the proposition that Michael O’Leary is trying to fulfil.

Customer Experience Professionals all over the world are often challenged by business leaders as to the real benefits of Customer Experience. We are challenged with talking about ‘fluff’ rather than substance. Does it really make a difference? Well if you do not believe me, then speak to the new Customer Experience HERO – Michael O’Leary. For the greatest customer experience sceptic on earth to ‘see the light’, there is no better way of demonstrating to any business the potential reward for putting customers on the strategic map.

Over the last few weeks, since Michael O’Leary shared his epiphany with the world, I have discussed his new conclusions about the benefits of Customer Experience with many people. A significant proportion of those people have suggested they will now give Ryanair ‘another chance’. Improving the Customer Experience really does work. Ryanair could become the ‘brand we can now learn to love’. There is still a lot of work for them to do – to continue to improve the full ‘end to end’ experience, whilst convincing us that he will maintain and sustain his focus on Customer Experience indefinitely.

I for one am very grateful. Grateful for his admission. Grateful to have an amazing advocate of the financial benefits of improving Customer Experience. Grateful for any past, present or future customer of Ryanair. Long may we hear the Ryanair ‘trumpet’!