A Lesson In Customer Service

I received an email this week calling my attention to musician Dave Carroll’s fight with United Airlines. It seems, while on a flight from Canada to the US Carroll watched, helplessly, as baggage carriers tossed around his precious guitar before loading it into the plane. When he got to his destination and retrieved his guitar from the baggage claim he wasn’t terribly surprised to find that the neck of the $3,500 Taylor had been broken. When he attempted to seek compensation from United through their customer service channels he was continually passed from person to person, each claiming they had no power before passing him along to the next person. Finally he reached someone willing to give him a concrete response: No. United Airlines would not compensate him for his damaged guitar. 

So, Carroll took things into his own hands and did what he does best; wrote a song, made a video and posted in on YouTube.


United Breaks Guitars quickly became an internet hit. As of today it has been viewed 7,682,624 times, spawned two more videos and been made available on iTunes. Carroll also made a slew of appearances on news programs as the video made the social networking rounds. After four days of a rapidly growing negative PR storm United’s stock dropped 10% costing investors (in an already weakened industry) $180 billion. United could no longer ignore the claims of this angry customer and, after Carroll refused any money – he felt it was too little too late – they made a $3,000 donation to Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. What is the moral of this story? Social networking has made consistent high quality customer service essential to controlling your brand image.

YouTube, Yelp!, Four Square, Facebook, Twitter they have all given customers a forum to voice their praise and, all too often, complaints. The ripple effect of a singular bad experience is no longer limited to a person’s immediate social circle. Now, after notably bad table service you can hop on any number of sites/aps and voice your disdain therefore broadcasting your ills to, potentially, millions – as uneducated or unchecked as they may be – and immediately influencing that restaurant’s image.

This new customer service dynamic poses a number of challenges for businesses; how to get a bad review removed, how to politely respond to a negative tweet, what to do about an unwarranted attack. All of these questions now haunt small and large businesses alike. However, the answers aren’t as high tech and complex as you may believe. The answers can all be found in establishing and maintaining exemplary service from the very first moment of customer engagement. Spend the extra money to train your servers properly, take the time to revisit customer service values, enforce high standards of worker responsibility and review and promote easy to use customer friendly channels of communication. If United had spent the time to consistently train and review the work of their baggage handlers, stewardesses, and CSRs they would have avoided the drastic market response and costly image saving campaign. If you invest in high quality service, anticipate problems and determine solution methods you not only prepare yourself properly for when they occur but, most likely, you will find you don’t have many problems to fix.