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Looking Back on United Airlines – Did Broken Guitars Save or Destroy Customer Service?

Brian Cantor

Chances are good (hell, it’s a certainty) that if you have read an article, listened to a podcast or attended a webinar or conference on social media, you know the iconic "United Breaks Guitars" story.

That story, the now-legendary tale of a disgruntled United Airlines customer who musically-conveyed his frustrations over damaged luggage to millions of YouTube viewers, has become the poster child for the evolution of customer service. Thanks to social media, an angry customer’s message is no longer restricted to those within earshot of the complaints counter. Any disgruntled customer now has the entire world with which to share his bad experiences.


In that sense, the single video series has been used as an impetus for investment into social customer service. Have a boss that doesn’t believe a Facebook, YouTube or Twitter presence is necessary? Show him what happened to United Airlines!

Rapidly, however, the social media debate changed, and so too did the possible interpretation of the United video. The fundamental question was no longer whether your business should develop a social media presence but what that presence should entail.

The "United Breaks Guitar" movement was immensely powerful in selling the importance of social media monitoring and response, but what did it say about proactive social media engagement and the overall value of a customer-centric strategy within the company?

Thanks to an intense back-and-forth between customer management bloggers and Dave Carroll, "Guitar Man" himself, that important line of questioning recently moved deeper into the limelight.

First fueled by a CRM Advocate post, which questioned whether Carroll was justified in taking his frustration to YouTube, the issue reached a boiling point when MyCustomer’s Vlad Dimitroff accusedthe "United Breaks Guitars" phenomenon of setting customer engagement on the wrong path.

To Dimitroff, the video did not truly spur a more customer-centric culture and instead framed customer service as a fear-driven tactic for controlling damage. "United Breaks Guitars" clued customer management professionals into the concept of social complaints, urging them to monitor and respond to those words, pictures and videos that could hurt the brand. It did not necessarily drive them to rethink their entire approach to dealing with customers.

The blogger takes particular issue with the "bully" mentality that seems to influence how companies respond to complaints on social media. Individuals like Carroll, who have celebrity and wide reach, are able to wield their influence to pressure organizations into delivering the customer experience they want…or else. But shouldn’t companies be just as committed to improving the experience for those with little to no social presence who essentially suffer in silence?

Dimitroff’s somewhat-paranoid assertion might be viewed as bitterness over how Carroll fell ass-backwards into customer management prominence (and it indeed seems oddly-personal), but it is not without merit.

This past summer, Peter Shankman, a prominent figure in the space with thousands and thousands of Twitter followers, jokingly Tweeted that his desire to be greeted with a porterhouse from Morton’s when his plane landed at Newark Airport. He, surprisingly, was, and he called it the "Greatest Customer Service Story Ever Told."

Undoubtedly a cool story, was it really the greatest customer service story ever told? Should one publicity stunt, designed cleverly to maximize the social media exposure, be used to even-partially define a company’s commitment to customer service?

Moreover, isn’t the fact that they responded to a Tweet from a minor Internet "celebrity," who they knew could get the message out, worthy of particular cynicism? Isn’t the Morton’s lover who has 12 followers on Twitter just as deserving of elite customer service?

And Morton’s is hardly the only company to view its social customer service through this cynical lens. In a Call Center IQ presentation, a manager for one of the world’s largest brands showed examples of how her company interacted with customers on Twitter. Each time, she was quick to mention the number of Twitter followers the customer had (always in the thousands) to emphasize the marketing value of the engagement. Customer-centricity, it would seem, was not the priority.

In his aggressive response letter, Carroll takes issue with the bullying categorization, noting that he feels compelled as a customer to share bad experiences socially—his level of social reach should not turn suffering in silence into an act of moral superiority. He also adopts an ends justify the means philosophy, noting that while he agrees there is a fear component to how companies approach the "United Breaks Guitars" video, if the result of that fear is better customer service, what’s the difference?

Carroll is entirely correct to stress the fact that his social "celebrity" should not preclude him from getting to air his grievances about the brand, but he does seem to be missing (or deliberately ignoring) the overall point: is service driven by the marketing impact of the customer engagement truly a sign of customer-centricity?

It’s the "tree falls in the forest" scenario. No, Carroll cannot help where his tree is located, but is a customer service culture really about prioritizing those trees that are in populated metropolitan areas? When companies blatantly cater to those customers who have the loudest voices, they are not truly committed to overhauling the customer experience. They are committed to improving the perception of their customer experience.

Like it or not, far too many organizations approach social media in this manner. Sure, most publicly stress the customer "engagement" benefits—and many even run contests, promotions and other endeavors to cultivate loyal followers. But even those who do not overtly focus on the "fear" element of social media are still really concerned about the same thing: using the interconnected network of brand advocates and brand detractors to put a net-positive message into the market.

And that is a problematic mindset for customer service. Even if an organization does not perform the equivalent of giving its lunch money to the Dimitroff’s "bullies" by catering to the needs of the most socially-relevant, it can be argued that any significant emphasis on social complaints can skew the customer experience. Beyond the individual complainer’s Twitter reach, it is unquestionably true that it takes a certain kind of complaint to make waves within social networks. This means that companies will most be exposed to negative feedback of a "viral" nature—the kind that is attractive, interesting and exciting.

Getting the entire organization behind an effort to prevent such a complaint from ever again coming through is indeed a customer-centric, pro-experience means of reacting to social media. No matter how one feels about the "stunt" nature of social customer service, that person simply cannot condemn an effort to learn from customer feedback and make universal adjustments to how it interacts with customers.

But that does not mean it is the right strategy for shaping the customer experience. Those who use contained customer service channels like phone, email and live chat could be sharing very real, very legitimate, very pressing concerns with the organization. They may not be throwing companies into the court of public opinion, but their cases against the companies could be far stronger. And, in dealing with these customers (who could also be very loyal ones), should a company minimize its willingness to act on their insights because those insights come from someone who does not feel the need to share every gripe with the world (or, perhaps, doesn’t see his complaint as "sexy" enough to make waves)?

"United Breaks Guitars," at the end of the day, presented more meaning for marketers than customer service professionals. Of course companies should be concerned with preserving how their image is defined by social media users—just as they care about their image in traditional media and in-person channels. And, sorry, Vlad Dimitroff, but prioritizing the needs of the most vocal and the most powerful is a way of life, and if the result of that human phenomenon is a company feeling forced to take notice of its shortcomings, why complain?

If it is the complaints of the football captain, not the shy introvert, that drive an end to bullying within a high school, should we refuse to accept this improved environment on principle?

Still, as a customer service lesson, the takeaway of "United Breaks Guitars" should not be that social complaints need to be nipped in the bud, because there is no guarantee that viral beef is the most pressing. The only real takeaway is that customers are using social media to interact with brands, and as a great customer experience allows users to reach the brand on convenient terms, it makes sense for companies to offer customer service over channels like Twitter and Facebook.