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Technology & Innovation

Social Media Makes Lousy Customer Service a Very Costly Proposition

In the pre-Internet world, you might have told a few people about a lousy experience you had with a company. Now the Web lets you tell millions… and your message never goes away.

Ah, the sweet satisfaction of being able to vent. 

You know the feeling: you have an awful customer service experience and vow to tell every man, woman and child all about it until the day you keel over.

And so you do.But how many people is that – 5, 6, maybe 10?  And how quickly did you stop telling anyone about it – a week?

Brands often still behave as if they live in that world when – in reality – that world is gone forever. 

The “social media” phenomenon has seen to that.  And I preach this as often as possible, even making presentations on the topics of online reputation management, the implications of new sites and technologies for marketers and how companies need to adjust to survive.But we all know that this doesn’t happen. 

Three of my all-time favorite this-reputation-disaster-could-have-been-avoided stories are Jeff Jarvis’ Dell Hell, the recording of Vincent Ferrari trying for 15+ minutes to cancel his AOL account and KFC/Taco Bell doing nothing for hours and hours while local NY news crews shot video through the front window of a closed store while rats scurried here there and everywhere, thereby turning a gross story into a global event (not a good day for Yum Brands…).

Today, I share my latest fave: Sons of Maxwell creating an absolutely masterful video and song, “United Breaks Guitars,” about an awful experience it had with United Airlines.It seems that the band, Sons of Maxwell, were on the tarmac in Chicago when some fellow United Airline passengers looked out the window and saw one of the bandmember’s $3,500 guitars being thrown by United baggage handlers. The guitar was severely damaged and unplayable.  United did not deny responsibility, but tortured the band for nine months until finally refusing to compensate the guitar’s owner, Dave Carroll, for the loss.

Mr. Carroll subsequently vowed to “write and produce three songs about my experience with United Airlines and make videos for each to be viewed online by anyone in the world.”  Click HERE FOR THE FIRST of the three.

The video was viewed 1.5 million times in its first 3 days and several comments on its YouTube page are from those who say that the band’s experience has negatively impacted their opinion of United Airlines.  One person remarks that, based on the video, he shifted a group’s travel plans to another airline, thereby costing United about $10,000.

Now I’ve worked in plenty of places, and know that sometimes individual employees can be dimwits (the video dramatizes the apparent reaction three in-flight airline employees had when first alerted to the problem).  I also know that it’s a fact of life that a company can’t resolve every customer service complaint to a person’s satisfaction: some companies even calculate the likelihood and cost of getting sued, based on past experience, and consciously do not address costly errors.  History dictates that it’s more cost effective to take the risk of a lawsuit. 

But this… is not that.The guitar cost $3,500.  United Airlines does not deny responsibility.  By the time Carroll is finished, I predict well north of 3 million views of his videos: videos that will last forever and be ”rediscovered” from time to time.

We’ll see.  United says it has contacted Carroll, but first reports say that the airline likes the song (gee, thanks) but has not yet offered remuneration.In the meantime, the band sold 40 albums on its website in the 24 hours after releasing the video. It usually sells one per day.


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