When Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, stood up last week and admitted to shareholders that not only is there something wrong with the airline’s approach to customer service, but that his own character ‘deformities’ may be to blame, it marked a watershed for anyone still sceptical over whether customer service is a boardroom issue.

There were several major factors which contributed to the seemingly radical volte-face by the self-styled ‘enfant terrible’ of the skies.  For a start, Ryanair was deemed last week to have the worst customer service of Britain’s biggest 100 brands, achieving a customer satisfaction score of just 54%.

Even so, O’Leary, who courts controversy, might have shrugged off the poll findings - after all, he is the mastermind behind Ryanair’s most ludicrous proposals - such as ‘standing room only’ cabins, a ‘fat tax’ on corpulent passengers, and charging £1 for toilet access.

In fact, he has taken a perverse pride in being CEO of a ‘no-frills’ airline which makes money by penalising passengers, whether it is for having a bag one millimeter bigger than allowed, or for forgetting to print boarding passes.

But this time, a groundswell of customer dissatisfaction combined with sharper competition, is having an effect on the bottom line - hitting O’Leary and other shareholders where it hurts. Last week Ryanair issued its first profit warning in a decade, wiping more than £1 billion off the company’s market capitalisation.

O’Leary said: “We should try to eliminate the things that unnecessarily p*** people off.” 
As a customer service mission statement, it’s begrudging to say the least but it shows that even the mighty will eventually fall if they fail to take customer views into account.

O’Leary is not the only CEO or board member who could do with spending some time in his own contact centres to hear what customers really think. Preliminary results of new research we carried out with our partner Cisco show that in general, boards remain largely out of touch with frontline customer contact operations. One in three never visit, listen to calls or speak to employees while a further 21% only visit once or twice a year.

There is an argument to be made that if boards were more in touch with these vital parts of the businesses they govern, it would help to secure support for essential technology investment to equip contact centres for a more challenging omni-channel environment.

This is an issue preying on the minds of customer service directors of whom more than 58% say that a clear implication of more complex customer enquiries is a need for improved technology resources, including training so that they can get a joined-up view of what customers are doing and deliver joined-up service in response.

Ryanair plans to sharpen up its customer service by focusing on improvements to its website, mobile app and Twitter account @Ryanair. Targeting investment in these areas makes sense as these are increasingly important touchpoints for customers of all organisations.

However, once Ryanair makes it easier for customers to get in touch via these channels, it must be confident that it has the IT infrastructure and solutions needed to make sense of the data generated and the insight required to use it to improve customer service delivery. More prominent use of Twitter by airline passengers can result in seriously negative PR as we saw lately when the irate relative of a BA passenger bought a promoted Tweet to vent his anger about the airline’s service.

For Ryanair, technology investment must be accompanied by a significant improvement in the customer experience. Unless service on the ground and in the air - from the way guests are treated at check-in to disembarkation - ratchets up a gear, O’Leary may have to eat another slice of humble pie. And if you’d bet on the chances of that happening prior to last week, you might have thought it more likely that pigs might fly.