Let’s face it – sometimes only the direct approach will do
When it comes to bringing about change, it is criticism delivered in person by random strangers that counts
What caused chief executive Michael O’Leary to make a U-turn on his business strategy? Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Earlier this month Ryanair decided that being horrid to customers was not a great business strategy and declared it would be a bit nicer. This was pretty remarkable and has, indeed, been much remarked upon.
Yet even more remarkable was what caused chief executive Michael O’Leary to make this U-turn. It was not market research. It was not social networks. It certainly was not anything to do with management consultants, whom O’Leary once said he would shoot if they ever darkened his doorstep. Nor was it due to pressure from the board.
Instead, the trigger was people who periodically accost him in McDonald’s to moan about his airline while he sits trying to enjoy a meal with his kids. As he said to shareholders at last week’s annual meeting, he is sick and tired of it.
So never mind big data. When it comes to bringing about change, it is criticism delivered in person by random strangers that counts. O’Leary is unusual in many ways, but in this one I suspect he is just like the rest of us.
On the face of it, placing so much emphasis on such meetings is irrational. The people who bearded him were surely no more disaffected than the thousands who for years have been posting their hostilities online. In the brief time since I started writing this article, several dozen angry tweets have been written, including this one, which I rather like: “That £50-100 difference between Ryanair and BA is taken not from your wallet, but from your soul.”
Such stuff is both endless and up there for the world to see, and yet turns out to be easier for executives to ignore than half a dozen cross customers they meet in person.
You might have expected that, as the virtual world has grown and data proliferated, the value of the real encounters would have shrunk, but the reverse seems to be happening. The more bewildering the virtual world, the more we fall back on “real” evidence, no matter how subjective, presented by strangers under our own noses.
It is not just O’Leary who puts disproportionate weight on chance meetings while he is eating his supper. Richard Dawkins recently told the [London] Times that he realised atheists such as him had won the battle over God because, at the dinner parties he goes to, he no longer meets anyone religious. When even scientists trust the anecdotal evidence of the dinner party more than data, you know something pretty fundamental has happened.