Lesslie Young: Wherever you are it pays to be nice

Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O'Leary. Picture: Greg Macvean
Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O'Leary. Picture: Greg Macvean
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RYANAIR’S half-year profits, announced earlier this month, have leapt by 32 per cent. So much has this increased the airline’s confidence for the future that it has placed an order for 200 new aircraft as it looks to double its business over the next decade.

To what has Ryanair’s famously straight-talking chief executive, Michael O’Leary, attributed this increase in profits? More leg room? Flying from closer to where you are to closer to where you want to go? Not quite, but sort of along those lines. Initiatives such as more carry-on baggage and allocated seating have made a contribution, symptoms of an underlying change in the business strategy. In his own words, O’Leary is clear about what has made the difference: “Since we changed the strategy, being fundamentally nicer to our customers, the business has boomed.”

Who would have thought that being nice to people would mean that they would more often be inclined to use your service? To be fair there was never any concealment of Ryanair’s offering. It transported you and a reasonable amount of what you ideally wanted to take with you to near enough where you wanted to go for a price that was as low as anything.

It was not that there was no customer service, just the minimum required. The thing is this was almost a unique selling point, this offering that the airline would not set out actively to treat passengers in a nasty way. It was as admirable in its way as marketing the absence of something, the mint with the hole. There is no such thing as bad advertising. But in adding to that strategy, in making the effort to be actively nice, the result has been business is “booming”. Maybe other start-ups could learn from this.

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Charities by reputation are meant to start from the opposite end of the service spectrum. They are meant from the outset to be nice and, most particularly, most essentially, helpful. For any charity, however, there is a balance to be achieved.

Put at its most obvious and simple, with a fixed or diminishing resource that does not match the cost of activity, do you help the greater number of people minimally or the smaller number of people maximally? In other words, do you allocate resources to a larger number of people with fewer needs to help them make big gains or a smaller number with greater needs where the gains are less but there are many more positive outcomes?

In the case of an airline such as Ryanair the customer will accept a certain amount of compromise for the service on offer. You are at location A. You want to travel to B. You want to fly there.

You need a seat on a plane with the capacity to carry some luggage. Unless you are very tall or very different in some other way, your seat needn’t be any different from anyone else’s. You might not feel the need for it to be especially comfy, or to watch an in-flight movie, much less the need for your own private plane with champagne on ice. But the aircrew and the wider company being nice to you would be nice. You might fly with them, and fly with them again.

People making use of a charity’s services will also be prepared to make accommodations if they perceive that it is not established or resourced to help them in a specific way but it does try its best. If a charity has choices to make about how and what it can offer, it also has choices about who it should be nice to, as opposed to constructively disagreeable.

How nice or not should it be to others in order to achieve something for the people it helps or seeks to represent? Some campaigning charities make the choice not to be that nice but to be challenging, towards governments or companies or other agencies or powerful individuals, if by doing so they succeed in bringing about hoped for changes.

Mostly it doesn’t advance a charitable cause to offend people. Mostly. For Ryanair it has paid to be nice rather than gratuitously offensive (O’Leary has used a more earthy phrase). I would like to think that my own charity is operating from a baseline of niceness somewhat above the historical level adopted by Ryanair. There is always room for improvement but perhaps not so much as to generate a 32 per cent rise in donations. Profitable or not though, it’s nice to be nice. «

• Lesslie Young is chief executive of Epilepsy Scotland

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