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Bite me, Michael O’Leary

Photo credit: Le Scribbler

I’ve never flown Ryanair before. And now I never will again. If I’d wanted to raise my blood pressure, I could have done that for free by reading the comments section of the Daily Mail website. To anyone contemplating a journey with Ryanair, I suggest you shut yourself inside a biscuit tin and ask someone to drop you off the top of a tall building, thus closely simulating the experience of flying with the world’s most hated airline. Although I should say that thanks to the air hostess’s desperation to sell everyone on the flight a packet of smokeless cigarettes, she failed to charge me for the macaroni cheese I ordered. The foot-flavoured rubberized pasta tasted like justice.

On my return to the UK I Googled Ryanair and found www.ihateryanair.co.uk, a site devoted entirely to rants about flying with the said accursed airline. This reminded me of the now-famous United Airlines PR disaster that was the song entitled “United Breaks Guitars”, written by an aggrieved Canadian singer after United broke his guitar and declined to pay compensation. The video of the song went global, the world’s media covered the story, and United’s shareprice dropped 10% four days after the video was posted on YouTube. Similarly, a letter of complaint sent to Richard Branson regarding the poor quality of the food on a flight to India (complete with photos of the offending foodstuffs) has been widely circulated through the internet thanks to the ability to share articles via Digg It, Facebook, and Twitter.

The point is that corporations should be wary of social media. It’s an amazing marketing medium, but this works both ways. Good stuff spreads, but so do the stories you really, really want to hide. This should result in a wariness on the part of corporations to screw over the customer, but in reality corporations are big enough to absorb the bad publicity. Occasionally the underdog has got a company by the short and curlies and you can almost hear a collective cheer go up from across the globe. But usually it doesn’t happen that way.

Of course, there are plenty of things companies who have screwed up can do to get the customer back onside, as Econsultancy’s recent blog post shows. But too often businesses decide that admitting a mistake is suicide. This is so wrong-headed. People respond to a ‘mea culpa’ by backing down a little bit, and they may well have a grudging respect for a company mature enough to take responsibility for its cock-ups without trying to blame former employees/another company/an Icelandic volcano. This holds good for B2B service companies as well as B2C. Sure, companies who’ve been screwed over by other companies are unlikely to start a toxic social media campaign because it just looks unprofessional.* But although they don’t have recourse to that, and rarely sue either, B2B companies are far from immune from bad karma. Word will get out, and when it does, you’ll find you’re about as welcome as a crocodile at a children’s party. There’s no quicker way to become a B2B pariah than by getting a reputation for poor service – it’s the closest thing companies have to halitosis. You’ve been warned. Floss your customer service systems regularly.

*Doug has pointed out that although companies rarely start hate campaigns, individuals within companies certainly do. Hence ihatemicrosoft.com, the ‘I Hate SAP’ group on Facebook, and the fact that Virgin Atlantic sacked 13 members of staff caught insulting customers on Facebook. And as that story shows, your own staff will sabotage you even if your enemies refrain.

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