Cover Your Ears For A Second

by Jeff on July 13, 2009 · 1 comment

in Stuff I Like

Back to Batman and mixtapes tomorrow, gang.

I’d normally talk about this over on my agency’s blog, but we’re getting a site redesign and our blog is on hiatus temporarily until then.  And after a convo with Matt Springer earlier today, I’ve been thinking a lot about this particular topic.  Apparently almost 1500 words worth.

Since last week, I’ve been following the saga of Dave Carroll’s broken guitar out of professional curiosity.  I work in the social media sphere, and on its surface, 2.5 million views of a revenge video on YouTube might frighten as many companies or brands away from the mysterious Internet as it might attract to it.  It could happen to us, they might think, and there’s no way to combat it.

Carroll, of course, is the frontman of Sons of Maxwell, and had his guitar broken due to alleged mishandling by United Airlines employees.  His song, “United Breaks Guitars,” is the first of a planned trilogy of songs and videos about the incident and the customer service nightmare that followed it.

Much, much, much hay has been made about exactly how United should handle the viralsplosion (an immensely technical term that I’ve just now made up), and the results are a little bit pie-in-the-sky.  I’ve seen suggestions ranging from “United needs to create a response to the video on its YouTube channel,” to “United needs to hire Dave Carroll,” to “United should donate guitars to the studio audience of The Ellen Show.”  I’m not making that last one up.

Now, bear in mind that I’m not a PR flack.  I’m not one of the ‘big deal’ people out there.  This is not me pontificating based on any imagined authority I’ve got.  This is someone who’s worked a lot of undesirable customer service jobs in his past and who likes to think he understands a small, small bit about the web and marketing.

United replied to the situation via press within 24 of the story becoming viral.  According to their statement, they contacted the customer and were attempting to resolve the problem.  This is maybe the best they could have done under the circumstances.  Could they have done better?  Absolutely.  Does that mean giving out free stuff?  Yes and no.

Having gone through my own customer service nightmare earlier this year with Microsoft,  I’m incredibly sympathetic to the feeling of being a normal guy going through a problem with a monolithic bureaucracy that couldn’t care less about the inconvenience it’s causing you.  On the other hand, I spent years writing letters and emails on behalf of a student loan servicer, and I know the following because of it:

1. The people in the trenches who first have to deal with a problem like Dave Carroll are rarely empowered to resolve any situation that is more complicated than “How many payments do I have left?”  They may know how, and they are certainly sympathetic, but breaking the lawyer-approved veneer is verboten and escalating issues that turn out to be idle threats doesn’t look good when it comes time to review your productivity.  Which means that Dave Carroll and people like him get stonewalled right off the bat by well-meaning people who are often only trying to do their jobs to the best of their ability and meet managerial expectations (two things that are always at cross purposes).

2. Customer Service is very rarely focused on serving the customer.  Instead, it exists to explain to the customer why they are wrong.  Their good resolution is never the same as the customer’s, and is often at odds with it.

3. An overwhelming majority of the complaints and threats that come into any particular brand’s door are unfounded bluster.

4. When they aren’t unfounded bluster, nobody is prepared for them.  I once got caught in an anthrax scare at a prior job exactly because of a threat an angry customer made that nobody considered she might ever follow through on (an issue that could have been handled more sensitively months prior to the scare in question).

None of these forgive the customer service lapse in the United case, but I hope they explain them.  Reps are expected to respond by rote and stonewall customers; that’s something that needs to change.  That’s what people brazenly hope will happen when they respond through a nontraditional channel like social media.

The reality is that many companies that maintain social media presences still aren’t going to pay attention to you.   Because they’re social in name only (SINO?  That’s an unfortunately acronym).  Because, philosophically, they’re still an entrenched bureaucracy that isn’t empowered to solve problems.  They may not know which department should even be in charge of their social presences.  They may not be monitoring correctly.  In fact, they probably aren’t monitoring correctly.  They think that pandering to whingeing and stunts encourages more whingeing and stunts, and the worst part of that is that they’re correct in their thinking.

The unfortunate thing is that, for this kind of bean-counter mentality, no amount of social complaining or campaigning is going to show up on the radar until it goes viral.  And once it well and truly goes viral, the mainstream media’s going to cover it.  Which means it’s going to get more viral.

The greatest myth of social is the myth of access; that, just maybe, Miley’s going to tweet back to me.  The truth that we’re quickly discovering is that social is still a very good way for people to connect with the things and people they’re already connected with, but a much more limited one for getting the attention of a new audience unless you have what Princess Leia might term “powerful friends.”

What does this have to do with the United situation?  Well, someone at United dropped the ball when they had to wait until this got traditional media coverage to handle it.  There are three important things to consider about the video when evaluating just what to do next, completely independent of the press.

1. The customer’s claim – that United broke his guitar and stonewalled him for several months – is sound.

2. The audience is willing to believe that airlines have a complete disregard for passenger baggage the way it is.

3. The song is really, really catchy.

With that in mind, how do you respond?

On the surface, replying to this via YouTube seems like a social media coup.  But if the message isn’t right on target and the personality on the screen isn’t winning, then you’ve just provided fodder for the YouTube community to cannibalize and parody, which is not a social media victory, no matter how much you might argue that pageviews/hits are good no matter what.  I’m not saying don’t do it; I’m saying don’t rush into it foolishly.

The important things to do are, in this order:

1. Contact the customer.  Apologize deeply – not just for the guitar, but for the poor service he’s received.  Offer a resolution, but be prepared to accommodate; by the time United gave a public comment, just shy of a million people had viewed the video.  Right now, it’s close to 3 million.  Every time that hit counter rises, that’s a little bit more that it might cost to placate the customer.  Don’t undersell; don’t insult; but don’t promise the moon right off the bat, either.  Find out what the customer wants and give it to him if it’s reasonable.  Unfortunately for United, Carroll’s calculated that he’s getting more benefit out of the exposure he’s receiving than any resolution United has offered him.

2. Respond to the media, tell them that you’re working on a resolution.  Own your bad customer service. Praise Dave Carroll’s ingenuity/creativity.

3. Consider a social media outreach to counter the negative mentions – corporate blog, YouTube response, Twitter or even a UGC contest.  Whatever is the mostly likely to be successful and engage the video’s audience.

4. Put the video on your company homepage, explain the story.  Use it as a springboard to talk about new customer service policies or how baggage handling is getting revamped.  Ask people to share their baggage stories.  Optimize your site for “United Breaks Guitars” and similar keywords.  Corral the search traffic being generated by media coverage onto your domain and show them your story.  Like above, own what you did wrong and make it work for you.

5. Put the song into your TV spots, and be sure to cap them off with an invitation to visit your website to learn more about the story.

Each of these suggestions does two things.  First, it acknowledges the problem and attempts to use it as a negative example to reinforce that you’re committed to changing.  Second, it gives credit where credit is due to a talented artist and gives him something he clearly wants: increased exposure.

If you’re here to read me ramble on about girls and summer movies, you can unblock your eyes now.  Look for a post about Wednesday Comics and maybe another mixtape (rein in your enthusiasm).

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

William Gatevackes July 13, 2009 at 11:11 pm

Something tangentally related to customer service:
When I started at the Company That Once Employed Both Of Us, all through training they kept telling us that our main goal was to make sure we answered the caller’s question, no matter how long it took, so they would not have to call back in. It was repeated so much that I thought there would be snipers on the mezzanine ready to take me out if I ended a call too early.

When I actually got on the floor, it was all about call volume. Get the customers off the phones as quickly as possible. We were told we were expected to take about 100 calls per day. That would make the type of customer service drilled in our heads in training impossible.

Why do I think this was? Because calls answered is easier to calculate than problems solved. “Bob answered 150 calls today! He’s a stallion!” instead of “Bob only took 25 calls today, but those 25 people will be our customers for life!”

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