YouTube Breaks United

Who says customer service is dead?

Well, actually, a lot of us say that. With regularity.

I mean, who among us hasn't picked up the phone in an attempt to get a simple discrepancy sorted out, only to be reduced half an hour later to screaming incoherently at the sadistically cheerful recorded voice that mechanically informs you, for the 23rd time, "I'm sorry, I didn't understand your request"? And after 45 minutes of being bounced from department to department, you finally end up talking to someone in a call center halfway around the world who lackadaisically tells you that you have no further recourse. Sorry, sucker.

We've all been there, right? So has Dave Carroll. But unlike those of us who give up in resigned despair, Carroll went out and made a music video about his ordeal.

A chord of accountability
Carroll's band, Sons of Maxwell, boarded a flight on UAL's (Nasdaq: UAUA  ) United Airlines in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on their way to a tour in Nebraska. On a stopover in Chicago, a fellow passenger was shocked to watch the baggage handlers on the tarmac carelessly tossing around a couple of guitar cases. Carroll's heart sank, and when he got to Nebraska, his worst fears came true -- his guitar had been broken.

Carroll spent an entire year trying to get someone at United to acknowledge the company's negligence and offer some sort of recompense. But Carroll was greeted with a noxious mixture of indifference, buck-passing, and denials. A certain "Ms. Irlweg" brought down the hammer when she told Carroll that United refused to pay up. Sorry, sucker.

Left with nowhere else to turn, Carroll put his musical gifts to work and wrote an insanely catchy little country tune about his experience. Lighthearted and funny in its approach, yet also very poignant about what happened, "United Breaks Guitars" now has almost 2.8 million hits on Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) YouTube, and Sons of Maxwell have risen from relative obscurity to become a symbol of consumer rights for everyone who's suffered at the hands of a large, impersonal corporation's customer lack-of-service.

And now, suddenly, after the incident has been exposed to the entire world, United is willing to compensate Carroll. Imagine that.

Web 2.0 strikes back
Of course, most of us regular folks don't have the resources to make an entertaining music video about our customer-service horror stories. Nor do we usually have the talent to turn those ordeals into something so entertaining that millions of people will watch our creations on YouTube. But Carroll's case does illustrate the immediate and transformative power of the Internet. The likes of Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) and Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX  ) already give you the power to share your views on CDs, books, and movies with millions of other users. If you're looking for opinions on a matter of interest to you, you can simply head to Yahoo!'s (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) Yahoo! Answers and get instant feedback. Here at the Fool, we even give you a comment box with every story, so you can sound off as soon as you're done reading this story.

And now we're seeing how Web 2.0 is transforming the Net into more than just an information-gathering resource. Companies that are used to brushing off customer complaints with breathtaking apathy are going to be called out with more frequency as consumers harness the community-building power of blogs, Twitter, and YouTube, as well as social-networking sites such as Facebook and News Corp.'s (Nasdaq: NWS  ) MySpace, to make their dissatisfaction known in front of a global audience.

When customers are just impersonal figures on a ledger that can be replaced with ease, large companies can simply stop caring about good service. Rather than listen to the customer, they'll just as easily refuse to admit when they're in the wrong and present the disgruntled customer with a take-or-leave-it ultimatum. But nowadays, no matter how big and impersonal a company has grown, technology is putting the power back in the consumer's hands to hold those companies accountable for their actions.

Companies are beginning to listen. The tables are turning, one mouse click and guitar chord at a time.

Related Foolishness:

Fool online editor Adrian Rush never says anything in 140 or fewer characters. He owns no shares of any company mentioned in this story, and he invites you to follow the Fool on Twitter. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Amazon.com and Netflix are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy assures you that your call is very important to us, and it will be answered in the order in which it was received.


Read/Post Comments (9) | Recommend This Article (19)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On July 14, 2009, at 5:07 PM, iflyuasea wrote:

    I have to ask, did you do your homework on this issue? I agree he is quite the comic, but there is more to this story. You need to responsibility for your reporting here. If his guitar was broken, why did it take a month for him to report it?

    I want you to now post my experience, I bought a shirt from Nordstoms. I found a monthy later, after I had washed it 3 times I found a stain. They would not refund my money. Better jump on this on. I am a fan of United Airlines, and though you HATE all airlines. Be careful to imagine no airlines operating in this country. Is that what YOU want Motley fool brain surgeons?

    Thanks for listening.

  • Report this Comment On July 14, 2009, at 6:16 PM, dathompson wrote:

    @iflyuasea

    Apparently you don't know the story either. After he landed, Dave Carroll immediately found his guitar and noticed the damage. He spoke with 3 United agents (as the song alludes to) and got no where. The time lag you refer to had something to do with, uh, that tour he was on in Nebraska. Anyways, the complete store is available at his myspace page. But, gee, iflyuasea, even after he starting talking to United after a month, are you defending the ensuing 11 months of runaround and poor customer service that United Airlines put Dave Carroll through? We're not talking about the demise of all airlines in this country. We're talking about a simple case of a broken guitar that is entirely the fault of one company, United Airlines, and how this one company's customer service policy failed to let them admit they caused the guitar damage for a whole year, until they were forced to through the power of social media. iflyuasea, I'm a fan of United Airlines, too, but, unlike you, I am NOT a fan of shoddy and evasive customer service. Thus I find Dave's saga a compelling lesson for United.

    Btw, your Nordstom's shirt example is just plain dumb, it is not equivalent to Dave's story.

  • Report this Comment On July 14, 2009, at 8:51 PM, TMFMitten wrote:

    dathompson, thanks for understanding the point I was trying to make in the article. This isn't a blanket criticism of airlines; this is a story about how social media are putting pressure on companies with poor customer-service practices to change their ways.

  • Report this Comment On July 15, 2009, at 11:58 AM, jpanspac wrote:

    The really sad thing is that there's no point in saying, "well, I'm going to boycott UAL and fly the other airlines" because the other airlines are just as bad.

  • Report this Comment On July 15, 2009, at 3:22 PM, dathompson wrote:

    @jpanspac

    Ah, but there is a point to boycotting, if you can successfully combine it with respectful uses of social media found on the internet.

    You'll note that YouTube is just a tool here. Dave's video contains a message that even 10 years ago could not have been easily disseminated beyond a few hundred (or thousand) friends & family & fans.

    As a social media tool, YouTube has expanded the reach of Dave's experience to almost 3 million people.

    That is power, my friend, extreme game-changing power.

    Imagine how many companies would hate the bad publicity if your boycott campaign became a social media phenomenon.

    That, I believe is the point of the article: social media is an untapped mining operation to effect pressure for social change.

  • Report this Comment On July 15, 2009, at 3:40 PM, TMFPeterV wrote:

    Under the linked YouTube video, a comment by "rankthis" amuses me:

    - i salute united airlines for their tireless crusade to rid the world of tedious, insipid country music like this -

  • Report this Comment On July 15, 2009, at 5:16 PM, hanlen wrote:

    Ok cool so why don't you all just turn to youtube and myspace for your investment news and reporting?

    I submit it is because they are stupid places (TMFPeterV's quote notwithstanding) and you all read the Fool because, all kidding aside, there is a strong commitment to responsibility here.

    If you really care about anything, you would put up a consumer advocacy site here on TMF. Like CAPS but strictly about consumer experience for EVERYONE IN THE WORLD to use.

    Every time I am rolled over and loved by corporate culture I can just log on and report it.

    I would submit, further, that you would benefit more from maintaining a consumer advocacy site here that from CAPS, for financial advice alone.

    But further, you would see your traffic revenues spike as people realize they have a voice and can report their criminal assaults to a global audience. They can also reward good service by reporting that.

    Best of all it's easy. Your insipid microsoft drones can do it with your childish microsoft toys, or, if you are ready for an Amazon grade experience, I will do it for you with real computers.

    You just have to decide if you want to be part of the solution or part of the noise.

  • Report this Comment On July 15, 2009, at 9:52 PM, TMFBuySellBelle wrote:

    "Insanely catchy" is certainly right. For so many reasons, I hope this goes triple platinum. And to think that years ago, someone else even devoted an entire website to the much-griped-about airline: http://untied.com.

  • Report this Comment On July 31, 2009, at 5:28 PM, rgseverini wrote:

    I recently commented in my blog as well as LinkedIn within the Brand Mgt group on how just ignoring this can have a negative impact on the UAL's brand.

    http://rgsmanagement.com/SeveriniBlog/2009/07/can-a-youtube-...

    Comcast has a group within customer service just to monitor this type of thing. Cable may be more profitable than airline stocks.

    But I guess this shareholders are happy this month at least, decent profits reported and stock is on the uptick overall. How that can lead to a false sense of prosperity though!

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