“United Breaks Guitars” and Trust with Customers

With 14 million YouTube views and counting, Dave Carroll’s “United Breaks Guitars” video is a hit song, but not in the traditional sense. In 2008, when United Airlines broke Carroll’s guitar, he decided to not just complain about it to the company, he decided to sing about it to the world. 

Since Carroll did not receive an immediate, or even relatively immediate, apology from the company, it’s clear the airline was not prepared for a social media “crisis” situation. Below is an action plan outline of how I would have handled the situation if employed as a reputation manager at United Airlines.

1. Act Quickly!

act nowWhen it comes to social media, there is nothing worse than a “silent” brand. Fans, followers, and users engage with brands because they expect a response, and a timely one at that. United Airlines could have saved itself a lot of bad PR if it had responded to Carroll’s complaint immediately. Instead, after a year-long battle with the company, simply for compensation for his broken guitar, Carroll took matters into his own hands. Customers are in charge, and don’t forget it! Whether an immediate post on social media, or one that comes a year later, customers will voice their opinions, and those opinions always have the chance of going viral.

After initially seeing Carroll’s video, United should have responded immediately. The brand could have done this in several ways, but publicly is the best bet. The brand could have commented on the initial YouTube post asking to speak to Carroll directly, while at the same time apologizing to him and letting him know they would like to resolve the issue.

2. Fess Up!

keep-calm-and-stay-truthfulAfter the initial response, United should have been preparing a more public response. This could have been done in the form of a blog post or the brand’s own YouTube video. I believe the CEO or the lead customer service representative should be featured. This not only gives the brand a voice (and face), but a more personal “human” response to a negative situation. The response should come across as real and truthful. The brand needs to fess up to wronging a customer, and apologize for the delay in resolving the issue. Owning up to mistakes in such a public fashion can go a long way with regaining trust amongst customers. By remaining calm the brand can appear genuine and not hostile toward the customer.

3. Spread the GOOD Word!

People Marching with BullhornsAfter responding a public way, the brand should begin highlighting some of its attributes. This can, of course, come from content created by the brand, but in United’s case it may be good to feature positive customer experiences. I would create a series of web videos (again showing, not just telling customers what makes the brand a good one), which could show things, such as families being reunited via airplanes, a child taking its first flight, a profile piece on great employees (again highlighting good customer service), and maybe a fun behind-the-scenes look video on a piece of luggage’s journey from one location to the next. The last video topic idea could prove that United does take care of luggage (customer’s personal belongings) as it travels through its system, and maybe also inadvertently show people that Carroll’s experience was a unique one and not the norm.

4. Follow Up!

followupAfter a brand has completed the previous three steps, it’s time to consider a follow up. Don’t forget this step! Assuming the previous three steps have lead to a resolution, publicly let people know the status of the situation. United could once again post  a comment on the Carroll’s YouTube video discussing the resolution, and maybe challenging Carroll to create another song about his more recent (and hopefully more positive) experience with the brand. United could also blog about the resolution and maybe include a quote from Carroll, again keeping the tone more personal than business-sounding. Or maybe if the brand is feeling really brave, it could wager an online campaign reaching out to more of their unsatisfied customers. This could be a form on the United website where people could post complaints or issues, and then the brand could respond (again publicly) showing others the resolution. This type of initiative would take lots of planning and resources, but again it would be a big way to show customers the brand recognizes it messed up and is willing to change.

While I believe my action plan could have helped United Airlines handle the Dave Carroll situation better, the bottom line is it took him over a year and an extreme measure to even elicit a response from the company (and even that took awhile!). It would be hard for any brand to change that type of situation from negative to positive.  If anything, United sure has boosted itself into the social media world of “what not to do!” I’m sure a lot of other brands have used this as an example for developing strategies on how to handle unsatisfied customers on social media. The goal for any business should be to listen to their customers and respond quickly. Not doing either can lead to very bad reputation, online and otherwise.





10 thoughts on ““United Breaks Guitars” and Trust with Customers

  1. Laura,

    You make an great point that companies should always follow up with customers in a situation such as this, or really any major complaint. It is something that often gets forgotten about if customer service departments simply look as complaints/customers as tasks to be crossed off a to-do list.

    I also like that you mentioned spreading the word. United should, as you said, admit wrong doing publicly. But just because they made a mistake, it does not mean they can’t take credit for dealing with the fall out in an appropriate and positive manner.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Casey. I can even admit in my job, I don’t think I’ve ever followed up with a complaint or concern after it’s been resolved. After this week’s lecture and readings, I think I’ll be changing my processes a little. As brand advocates, if we want customers to remain loyal or become repeat customers we need to make sure they are happy, but then keep them happy. A follow-up post or message can go a long way with customers I think.

  2. Hey Laura,
    I also thought United Airlines should have made videos in response to Carroll. It’s one thing to say you’re doing something, but it’s another to show it. I liked your idea of having the CEO in the video. Featuring him would have showed how serious they were handling the response.
    You’re completely right though. Unless a brand does something to improve their business, these situations will just keep happening. A brand has to apologize for a situation and then find a way to fix their business. Complaints are a way to help a business. There’s no need to get offended or defensive!
    On a side note, everything I have seen about United has pointed to an overall bad airline. Just the other day I saw someone on LinkedIn post about how terrible his experience was on United. Then someone else commented in agreement! Obviously the airline hasn’t done much to repair their reputation or even improve their processes. What a shame!

    • Thanks for the comment, Sean! It’s a shame when brands cannot learn from their own mistakes. United could have really changed the course of this situation, but they didn’t. Brands should use any negative feedback as a learning tool. I know at my organization when we make mistakes we are always asking “how can we make sure this does not happen again.” I’m not sure if this type of dialogue happen within United, but as you mentioned, clearly they haven’t stepped up their reputation for customer service in the years since the Dave Carroll incident. While social media may not have then what it is today, the brand is still clearly struggling to connect with their customers on an engaging level.

  3. I’m not sure why United was ok with being silent. Yes social media wasn’t what it is today back in 2009 but their lack of response is surprising. My guess is legal and C level executives put a stop to anything being said but unfortunately for them that only made it worse.

    I also love how Dave Carroll has gotten a new career out of this PR nightmare. His brand awareness skyrocketed and now he is a public speaker. It’s crazy how that happened.
    I agree that had United owned up to the mistake that would’ve gone a long way. Maybe they should’ve gotten on a morning news show with Carroll and talked about it together. It wouldn’t have stopped the video from spreading but it would’ve given United a voice.

    I think you’re on to a great idea with United creating a series of videos with positive message and that one about baggage should be last. I wouldn’t want the timing of that one to be too close to when the PR nightmare died down.

    • Thanks for the comment, Stacy. I agree, I’m sure some executives put a stop to the company responding. If I had to guess, I’m sure those working the “front lines” of the company were not too pleased with the brand’s lack of response. I think this type of thing happens too often. While I’m not trying to make a generalization, too often executives are out of touch with the day to day happenings of their employees and with the brand overall. Then, they make decisions that don’t help but actually hurt the brand. More executives should listen to their employees and have that dialogue help guide decision making.

      It’s funny you mention the brand and the customer (in this case Dave Carroll) coming together to discuss the situation. I recently saw a similar situation on The Today Show, where the editor of Shape magazine was addressing a controversy where a picture of a woman, who had lost a lot of weight was censored from the brand’s website. The editor blamed it on a miscommunication with a freelance writer, but she ultimately took responsibility for the situation and made the decision to then feature the woman in the actual magazine. I was impressed by the editor’s decision to take on the controversy in such a public way, but I think it worked for them. Again, have a brand’s leader come out in a public way to apologize and then try and make the situation right proved to better than ignoring the controversy. More brands should pay attention to this!

  4. Great post. I also liked the idea about the CEO tweeting. The current boss doesn’t seem to have an account although there are fake ones. Uh oh.

    • Fake accounts can really hurt a brand (whether it’s an overall brand or someone like a CEO). This is another important reason brands should be “listening” online. You need to know what people are saying about you, and if anyone is impersonating you. United not only seems to be struggling with customer service online (and probably in person), but also with maintaining a good brand reputation as well.

    • I could see some ethical implications in my action plan with step 3. Spreading the “good” word, may seem forced or fake in certain situations. I think brands need to look at this as a way to highlight their loyal customers, and not so much as a reputation boost that may seem insincere. Brands that will succeed on social ultimately have to appear honest and truthful to the public.

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