United Breaks Guitars. Delta Saves iPads. And Psyches.

Dave Carroll’s experience with the baggage handlers (and customer service staff) for United Airlines has become legendary thanks to his ballads about the matter, which have accumulated 12.9 million views together. Here’s the first and most famous of the videos:

And here’s the sequel:

And finally the third installment:

I had a somewhat different experience this week on Delta, as I flew into La Guardia for a couple of days in New York. It seems I had tucked my iPad behind me after using it during the flight, and I hurriedly got off the plane and left it behind. About a half hour after I left the airport, I got a call from the gate agent who said they would hold it at the Delta baggage office until I got back to the airport on Friday. Definitely nicer than Ms. Ihrlweg.

I hadn’t yet noticed my iPad was missing, and wouldn’t have until i got to my hotel room and wanted to use it. Then I would have freaked out and been frantically calling Delta, or possibly would have resigned myself to the loss, or at minimum would have been anxious and distracted for two days until I could back to the airport and check at the baggage office. So it was great that Delta saved my iPad. Also great that someone called to tell me they had it, to save me the anxiety.

Thanks, Delta!

What Brown did for me

This is an example of how treating customers right (or at least correcting errors) not only avoids a United Breaks Guitars fiasco: it can actually lead to positive social media buzz.

As I reported in October, Meredith Gould is a great humanitarian, having bailed me out by recovering the Flip video camera I left on the podium at a speaking engagement in Philadelphia. She sent it to me via UPS, and said she would let me know the cost when it showed up on her credit card statement.

I was more than a little surprised, however, when she sent me a direct message tweet in early December, with the bad news:

Although I was shocked at the bill, I told her I would of course reimburse her, but asked if she could send me a scan of the statement. As I tweeted:

I just want to use it as a graphic for a fun post: “What did Brown do to you?

I figured that if it was going to cost me nearly $80, I should at least get a blog post out of it…especially since I had forgotten my iPod in Florida in mid-November and the FedEx bill for that shipping was $17.97. But then Meredith said:

In subsequent consecutive tweets, I told her:

  • “If you wouldn’t mind calling UPS about it (and telling them the FedEx charge in a similar situation was $18) it wld be cool”
  • “And depending how it works out, we’d either get a smaller bill or a better story to tell on my blog ;-)”
  • “Might as well have some fun with it…like I do when I run out of gas.”
  • “Between leaving a Flip and an iPod behind, and running out of gas, maybe I should stop and think a bit.”

(By the way, here’s the post I did about my out of gas experience.)

Meredith’s response:

Two days later, I got this happy email:


  1. If you think a bill is outrageous, don’t just pay it. Contest it. It may be a mistake.
  2. If your business made a mistake, fix it, and you’ll not only avoid the bad word-of-mouth, but will instead get kudos. Fixing a mistake can be better for you marketing-wise than not having made the mistake in the first place. If the UPS bill had been correct originally, I wouldn’t have been the subject of my conversations, much less a blog post.
  3. Don’t make mistakes on purpose so you can benefit from fixing them. If you’re systematically overcharging and hoping people won’t notice, it will catch up with you.
  4. Hire more customer service people like Tiffany, and fewer like Ms. Irlweg.
  5. Don’t mess with @MeredithGould!

Thesis 10: Social Media Can’t Make Up for Bad Products or Poor Service

Picture 7

Social media are not the panacea for all that ails the relationship between organizations and their customers or other stakeholders.

If you treat people badly, they now have not only the opportunity to take the story public, which they always had, but also the ability to tell the story themselves instead of having to rely on third parties like the news media to spread the word.

And of course, as we saw this year in the case of Dave Carroll’s spat with United Airlines, sometimes the story can both go viral and lead to mainstream news media coverage.

The basic story, if you haven’t heard, is told in this United Breaks Guitars video. The customer service representative could have kept the video from being made by simply agreeing to Mr. Carroll’s request for $1,200 in flight vouchers to reimburse his expense for fixing is $3,500 Taylor guitar. It would have cost United nothing in cash, but when Ms. Irlwig said “no” he said something to the effect, “Fine, I will just make a series of three YouTube videos with my story.” Here’s the second installment. If you haven’t watched both of those, take a minute to do so now. I’ll wait.

OK, now that you’re back, here are a few lessons or observations from this saga:

  1. This video didn’t happen because United had a YouTube channel. One of the fears some people have about engaging in social media is, “What if people say bad things about us?” But this video wasn’t posted to the United channel: it was on the SonsofMaxwell channel, which belonged to Mr. Carroll’s band.
  2. This video resonated, which is why it went viral. Anyone who has traveled by air extensively likely has some kind of horror story about poor customer service. If the video didn’t fit built-in perceptions, it wouldn’t have gotten anything like this attention.
  3. Treating the customer right is the solution. After nine months of haggling, Mr. Carroll was just looking for a way to recover what he had spent on guitar repairs. From his perspective, flight vouchers would have been almost as good as cash, as it would at least let him pay less out of pocket for future travel. If Ms. Irlwig agrees, the video doesn’t happen.

Social media can provide great listening tools to alert you to a problem that could blow up into a PR nightmare. But they don’t do any good if you don’t act based on what you hear. In this case, Mr. Carroll was right in Ms. Irlwig’s ear. No complicated listening tools needed. If you’re not going to do the right thing for your customers, social listening tools will be of little value.

As Amy Mengel put it at the time, the secret to avoiding a YouTube crisis is: “Don’t suck so much in the first place!

Public Affairs Council Webinar

I had an opportunity last night to present at a Webinar sponsored by the Public Affairs Council on integrating social media into your Web strategies. At least it felt like night, because I was calling in from the Netherlands, where I have been for some Health 2.0 conferences. It was 8 p.m. my time, but only 2 p.m. EDT.

Here were the slides I presented (which have some resemblance to my typical presentations, but also have some new wrinkles):

One of the questions raised was about how you get the executives of your company to accept the risk of being involved with social media. My response was to highlight this video targeted at United Airlines, which had nothing to do with whether the company had decided to be involved in social media. It was completely the decision of a disgruntled passenger.

“Control” over your brand messages is an illusion.