A Bollywood actor was recently upset about Kingfisher Airlines’ mishandling of her sister’s onward flight connection and expressed her displeasure with the airline staff on the social media site Twitter. Soon, the airline founder Vijay Mallya’s son, Siddharth Mallya, responded. He suggested that she was getting it all wrong. The spat, which went on for a while in full public view, ended with the scion backing off.
Given how things go, it’s likely that an airline’s response to a Bollywood actor’s travel travails will be speedier than in most other cases. Many people in India use social media such as Facebook and Twitter to express their outrage at various products and services. The response usually is a polite “Thank you; we will look into this”, or the complaint is just ignored. I can testify to the latter.
That’s the first consumer lesson Canadian musician-turned-“social-media innovator” Dave Carroll proffers in his new book, United Breaks Guitars. Even in a digitally connected world, it takes effort and creativity to attract attention, particularly if you want to raise hell. But if you package your story with the right blend of fun and genuineness, you can bring down the biggest of corporations. As Mr Carroll did.
Mr Carroll’s tale begins with an airplane journey from Halifax in Canada to Omaha in Nebraska via Chicago. Mr Carroll and his small music band, “Sons of Maxwell”, were to perform in a five-stop tour and were carrying their equipment. Since United Airlines did not allow them to carry their two – expensive – electric guitars on board, the instruments had to be checked in. Just after the aircraft landed in Chicago, a fellow passenger exclaimed: “Oh my God, they’re throwing guitars out there.” Mr Carroll’s brother Mike, a band member, also saw the handlers chucking the guitar case some distance from the belt onto the luggage cart. When Mr Carroll arrived in Omaha, he found his guitar in two pieces — even though it had been kept in a hard shell case with a nylon lining inside.
After being kicked around at Omaha airport, the author embarked on a seven-month exchange of mails with the airline, demanding compensation. Along the way, he got his guitar repaired for $1,200, though “it had lost some of its magic when plugged in”. The airline refused to budge from its stance that Mr Carroll had not filed a damage claim in time. His response: “I would have if I could have.” And he kept pushing them. The royal runaround culminated with United Airlines saying it was closing the case. In response, Mr Carroll threatened to compose and post on YouTube a trilogy of music videos highlighting his plight. Evidently, the airline did not respond to the threat.
The rest is social media history. Mr Carroll’s 2009 video titled “United Breaks Guitars”, shot with clever lyrics, peppy music, smart shooting, friends and a budget of $150, went viral — it got millions of views and popularity worldwide. Four days after Mr Carroll released the video, United stock went down 10 per cent, leading to a loss of $180 million.
Mr Carroll then quickly evolved into a guru on how companies should deal with customers, particularly in the age of social media.
But there are some useful questions. One, should corporations invest in dedicated social media cells that listen to individual customers, as opposed to one-way communication? The answer is yes. The Dave Carroll incident shows how stories about bad experiences with products and services can spread like wildfire on the internet, particularly if narrated well. The traditional approach of ignoring the problem till it dies down can be dangerous.
The second question centres on the very approach to customer service. Mr Carroll narrates a story in this regard. At a Senate Hearing for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, a former airline CEO, he says, gave the airline’s view. Significantly, he said while it was unfortunate that some passengers were trapped inside planes during excessive delays, such examples were statistically insignificant. Mr Carroll probably echoes most consumers’ grouse: “The experiences of those affected by horrible customer service are insignificant as long as they are statistically rare!”
Interestingly, Taylor Guitar, the company whose guitar United Airlines mishandled, used the situation to its advantage: by gifting Mr Carroll a brand new electric guitar and then riding on the collateral publicity. United Airlines, by the look of it, buried its head in the sand. It raised its head occasionally, perhaps all the while wrestling more with internal bureaucracy than external pressure. Mr Carroll’s writing has an amateurish, warm air about it. Don’t expect the slickness of a Fortune 100 CEO biography. Maybe that’s what makes it a little more interesting. Look for a quick blend of insights into modern customer behaviour, technology, the internet and, of course, the power of music videos — all in one book.
UNITED BREAKS GUITARS: THE POWER OF ONE VOICE IN THE AGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Hay House India
197 pages; Rs 299