Revenge of the Customer

By David Borcherding

Last night, I found myself humming a catchy little tune called “United Breaks Guitars.” You know the tune, right? No? Well, sit right back and you’ll hear a tale. A tale of a fateful trip. (No, not that one.)

This story involves a traveling band, a broken guitar, and a customer service headache that turned into a PR nightmare for United Airlines. I first learned of it after David Meerman Scott blogged about it. Then I followed up and got the whole story.

Go read it, and then watch the video. I’ll wait.

Catchy tune, isn’t it? Pretty funny video, too. No wonder it’s gotten — as of this writing — over 3 million hits.

Five Bucks

A few weeks ago, Expert Access published an article I wrote on the price of good customer service. In it, I describe how a five-dollar part cost a local pool company my business, and how I spread the word of their poor customer service to my (admittedly small) blog audience.

“United Breaks Guitars” highlights my point. And underlines it three million times. It’s the same story, only on a much larger scale.

In Dave Carroll’s version, the five-dollar part was the $1200 repair to his guitar. I know the airline industry is hurting, but $1200 is to them what five bucks is to my local pool company — a drop in the bucket. But instead of graciously apologizing and cutting Carroll a check, they gave him the run-around for a year, until he was so fed up that he promised to make three songs about United’s bad service and spread them on the Internet. “United Breaks Guitars” is the first.

Carroll said his goal was to get a million hits within a year. He got three times that in less than a week.

It Doesn’t Stop There

Revenge of the Customer

Source: Thinkstock

But wait, as the infomercials say. There’s more. Did you notice the videos featured on the right side of the YouTube page? When I was there, the top video was called “United Airlines Sucks.” It is a video rant recorded while a young woman was stuck on a bus after United screwed up her flight. I wish I had caught it before the Carroll video went up, so I could see if she got a boost from being associated with “United Breaks Guitars.” Regardless, she’s got over 83,000 views. Anyone else who posts a video about United Airlines will probably also get tagged as a related video, feeding the anti-United hurricane.

And then there’s the news media. Right below “United Airlines Sucks” is (again, at the time of writing this) a link to the CNN story on Dave Carroll’s video. Yep, Carroll’s story made CNN and was broadcast to countless millions. Since then, it’s been picked up by the other major news outlets, as well.

Remember, this is only the first song of three.

Could United have avoided this PR disaster? Sure. Obviously, they could have trained their baggage handlers and customer service staff better, and avoided the entire issue. They could have ponied up the cash for the repairs to Carroll’s guitar. At the very least, they could have apologized.

But they didn’t and now they have a social media disaster to deal with. What should they do? What would you do, if this happened to your business?

Have a Social Media Response Plan

If you have a social media response plan, you know exactly what you’d do. If you don’t, now’s the time to assemble one. Don’t wait until after the fact; it’ll be too late.

A good social media response plan involves three basic stages: Identify, Evaluate and Respond. Let’s take a look at each stage.

Identify: The first step in dealing with the Dave Carrolls of the world is knowing they exist. Create Google alerts for mentions of your company and products, and use a service like HootSuite to track Twitter mentions. (Google alerts will pick up some Twitter traffic, but not all, in my experience.) Assign someone to monitor these and keep an eye on who’s talking about you.

Evaluate: When you identify negative blogging or tweeting about your company, take a good look at what’s being said and who’s saying it, and decide how you want to respond. Not every unkind mention needs a response; some will come from “trolls” or “ragers” who thrive on trashing things. Responding to them only makes it worse and it’s usually best to ignore them. But misinformed bloggers or unhappy customers should be addressed.

Respond: If you determine a response is needed, then you need to decide how to respond. If the blogger is posting erroneous information about your company and products, perhaps correcting them with the facts will bring them around. If it’s an unhappy customer – like Dave Carroll – perhaps you’ll need to apologize and try to find a way to correct the problem … even if it’s not your company’s fault.

The best social media response plan I’ve come across comes from the US Air Force. It involves this simple blog assessment, which – although it surely isn’t their entire social media response plan – is a great place to start for building your own plan.

All you have to do is replace “Air Force” with your company’s name, and you’ve got a great start toward building your own “disaster plan” for social media.

Fly High, or Crash and Burn?

The USAF is prepared. United wasn’t and now they’re scrambling. Within a day or so of the “United Breaks Guitars” video going up, they had contacted Dave Carroll and tried to make amends. Dave then posted a very polite video response, saying basically that it was too little, too late and that the second song would be coming soon.

Publicly, United is saying nothing. Perhaps they’re just waiting for it to blow over. I hope not, because that would be a huge missed opportunity for them. They could turn this around and do something that gets them some positive publicity from it, like donate a dozen Taylor guitars to an inner-city music program. Maybe they could put together a “We’re Sorry for Breaking Your Guitar” music video in response – before some other airline swoops in. (That’s a critical part of your response plan – acting fast.)

Of course, the best thing you can do is keep the customer happy in the first place. Replace that five-dollar part or fix that broken guitar, and maybe you’ll have a song written in praise of your company, rather than bashing it. But when the social media winds turn against you, having a response plan will keep you flying high.

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