Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Pretty good guitarist strums pain of United Airlines baggage handling with his fingers

Companies sure have embraced social media, haven't they. They're tweeting this, vlogging that. They gush like gossip columnists over how wonderful life is with these tools in the world. What they forget is that consumers can use these tools to put the screws to you.

Submitted for your approval, the story of David Carroll , who constitutes 50% of the Nova Scotia-based band Sons of Maxwell. In spring of 2008, while traveling in the US to a gig, someone witnessed his $3,500 Taylor guitar being thrown by United Airlines baggage handlers during a stopover in Chicago. The guitar was smashed, and Carroll took action.

Being Canadian, and thus genetically hardwired to be polite, Carroll pursued the matter through official channels. He writes about the process in vivid detail on his blog, noting that, although no one at United denied the incident took place, no one was willing to take responsibility for it.

Well, polite as we Canadians can be, Mr. Carroll's dander rose over the next nine months as airline officials played hot potato with his complaint. When a Ms. Irlweg informed him the company would not accept responsibility, and that would be her last email on the matter, he responded that he would be writing 3 songs about his experience with United. A kind of Canadian Railroad Trilogy if you will, only this one about how United smashes the guitars of Canadian musicians.

And on July 6, Carroll posted the first song of his promised trilogy, United Breaks Guitars on YouTube. It's a very witty ode to incompetence and indifference that has, as of Wednesday July 8, been watched by more than 100,000 people. The ballad of the smashed guitar has also been featured in the Chronicle Herald, Nova Scotia's main daily newspaper, and highlighted on the LA Times travel blog.

As you may have guessed, the folks at United want to talk to Carroll about the matter now that he has drawn public attention to his plight. This demonstrates how effective social media tools can be in pushing a customer complaint. The thing is, it shouldn't have taken a video to force United's hand. If the company had dealt with Carroll in an appropriate timely manner*, the situation wouldn't have escalated into a very public complaint, one that puts the company at a significant disadvantage.

For one, Carroll's story and video encourage scrutiny and discussion of United's conduct from people who are not agreeably disposed to the airline's brand. His experiences have also encouraged others to share their own grievances about United and threaten boycotts. Just look at the talk back about his YouTube video. Attendant media coverage has been unflattering and dominated by Carroll's experiences. Thus the company is stuck in reaction mode. It is wasting time and money on efforts to undo the damage of a situation it could have avoided, even resolved more efficiently and cheaply, by quietly replacing Carroll's guitar. At the very least, it should serve as a tutorial to the company on the power of social media tools to damage a brand, and how not to handle such disputes in the future.

So, if you take anything from this story, it should be this: treat your customers with respect, take responsibility for your actions, and make sure private matters remain private. You never know when you're going to come up against a talented musician with an ax to grind, and a forum in which to grind it.

*I had said proactive + private when I originally posted this, but on reflection, those words seemed ill-chosen...

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