Mad Enough to Write a Song


Musician Dave Carroll watched as his expensive Taylor guitar was carelessly tossed by baggage handlers at O’Hare airport. His complaints to United Airlines flight attendants and ground crew were ignored so he was not surprised when he arrived at his destination to discover the guitar was damaged beyond repair.
Over the next few months he sent countless emails and letters and spent hours on hold and in conversations with United employees spouting company policy. A songwriter, he channeled his frustration into a song and a light-hearted music video.

He never imagined what would happen as the song entitled “United Breaks Guitars” was shared on YouTube. Within just a few days the video had been viewed more than 1,000,000 times. And United Airlines was calling him. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. He politely turned down their offer to pay for damage if he would take down the video and actually went on to record several more videos in the series.

While it is easy to look at this situation as say the issue was caused by big company bureaucracy, I have seen many of the same mistakes made by small companies. Where did United go wrong?

Front line employees didn’t care.

From the baggage handlers who thought it was ok to toss the guitar to the flight attendant who just wanted him to take a seat everyone was focused on their job rather than the customer. What kind of training do you provide your employees? And how often do you remind them the only reason they have a pay check is because customers choose to do business with you.?

Customer service more focused on policy than service

What kind of guidelines do you provide your customer service team? In the case of United Airlines the emphasis was on minimizing the compensation to the customer. This approach only works if you never expect a customer to return.
If however, your business model relies on repeat business you need to look at the complete picture of what a customer would be worth over their lifetime.

Management wasn’t listening

More than 1,000,000 people saw the video before it occurred to United Airlines they probably should reach out. News travels fast on the internet, and brands cannot afford to take their time responding. I am not suggesting you have to roll over every time a customer posts a negative comment, but you need to be actively monitoring your brand and acknowledging small complaints before they become public relations nightmares.

In contrast, the Taylor guitar company demonstrated good listening behavior. Within days of the initial video being released, they produced their own. This can be tricky. There is a risk of perceived as trying to turn someone else’s misfortune into a sales opportunity. Taylor found just the right balance. The video isn’t a sales message, but the direct, informative piece on how to travel with your guitar. Their quick response which was only possible because they were paying attention to social media brought tremendous positive publicity to their firm.

The end of the story

Dave Carroll has a new career. He wrote a book and today he is a motivational speaker, teaching businesses across the US how to provide better customer service.
And United Airlines is still haunted by the video which has been played more than 14,000,000 times.

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