united loses daughters

Forget guitars. Dave Carroll should write a song called United loses 10-year-old girls. Apparently, United didn’t learn anything from the United Breaks Guitars fiasco.

While that story is deeply disturbing, Peter Shankman makes a good point. Your employees have to care to provide decent (or even minimally acceptable) customer service:

Customer service has to start at caring. No matter what employee of the company is approached first, that employee has to be trained to care. Because if the first person doesn’t care, the company doesn’t care.

How do you train someone to care? How do you instill empathy on the assembly line? I don’t think you can. It has to be central in the company culture and you have to beware of it in the hiring process. United and the other airlines will never have it.

united trilogy ends

Last July, I wrote a post about United Breaks Guitars.

Dave Carroll had promised to write a trilogy of songs about the sub par customer experience he had with United Airlines. The first song was an internet sensation. Currently, it’s nearing over 8 million views on YouTube and it was heavily downloaded on iTunes. The second song wasn’t as much of a hit but still did well with about 900,000 views.

Carroll is releasing the third and final song tonight. I doubt if it will be as hot as the first one, but these three songs make a great point about how companies need to act in this digital age. In fact, the United Breaks Guitars case study was a last minute addition to my book Brand Zeitgeist as an example of how one unhappy customer can use the power of social media to move the image of the brand in the zeitgeist.

As Dave says

I had hoped that creating these videos might make a big corporation rethink how they think of each and every customer but could never have imagined the potential hidden inside a music video and a few social media tools. Corporations of all kinds around the world now feel compelled, in part because of United Breaks Guitars, to build in a better model for customer care into their businesses. I’m proud to have been a part of it but the real credit goes to the millions of people around the world who took the time to laugh and tell a friend. The power behind the United Breaks Guitars Trilogy lies in the numbers of people from countries far and wide who are laughing with me.

Companies are worried about the effects of social media are having on their brands. Social media is not the danger. Businesses need to be concerned with customer service. People will tell their friends.

Update: The third song…

my God, they’re throwing guitars out there

So over the course of about two weeks, a Canadian folk singer has brought United Airlines to its knees with over 3 million views (and growing) of this viral video:

There’s been lots of talk online and in the MSM about how this is a great customer service lesson in the new economy. And it is. United has even said they will be using it in their internal training.

The customer service angle is the most important, but I think there are four other big lessons here:

Presentation counts.

There are thousands of consumer gripes at this very moment on twitter, facebook, youtube, individual blogs, and every other web thingy you can think of. What made this one stick and go national?

It’s because it’s well done.

The first time I watched the video, I watched the entire 4:36 (and then watched it again) and you probably did too. By comparison, see how long you can make it through another United Airlines consumer complaint video.

Unless they have no life and unlimited time, people will choose to spend their time with engaging online content instead of stuff they have to struggle to digest.

And the important part for online virility: they won’t pass it on unless it’s really good. Think about your other WOM recommendations to friends. “That restaurant is awful. You should go!”

You still need big media to make a big impact

The video got a response from United within a short time of being posted, but it didn’t really take off into the stratosphere until several new and old media like the Consumerist, LA Times, NY Times, CNN, and other “big guys” featured the video. It might have taken off itself, but these Digg/Oprah-type spotlights amplified the user-level passalong effect to make it go viral. It also helped that Sons of Maxwell already had a fanbase that could help spread the message.

You have to have a base to push off of — if you’re going to jump high.

Don’t back down

United has offered Dave compensation for his guitar and he refused, requesting that United give the money to charity (United is donating $3,000 to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz). And he is going ahead with the other two songs of his promised United trilogy.

In the end, he is going to come out way ahead. Taylor guitars has offered him some new guitars, other airlines are offering seats, and he and his band now have tremendous publicity.

Learn from your mistakes

It seems that United has no choice except to assume the Duck and Cover position for now. They’ve made the donation. The other songs are coming. (I hope one of them explains the sombreros.) At the minimum, the upcoming second one will get publicity. And United has said they are going to learn from the experience

Rob Bradford, managing director of customer solutions at United, called Carroll Wednesday to apologize for the foul-up and to ask if the carrier could use the video internally to help change its culture.

(My first suggestion: eliminate stupid titles like “managing director of customer solutions”)

I’d love to see a case study or something come out of United on how they handled this. I think they actually have an opportunity to shine here if they don’t mess it up. The best thing they could do? Offer to help Dave to make the third video a happy ending.

UPDATE (7/17/09): I have thought of a fifth point. From my perspective, Dave Carroll seems like a nice, decent genuine guy. Being a good guy counts probably more than anything.