United Airlines and the Social Media Double Whammy

Dear United Airlines: Welcome to the club.

This week, United Airlines joined a growing list of companies that has been flamed for royally pissing off customers. The airline joins Motrin, Domino’s Pizza and other brands on the consumer Sh*t List.

In each case, the offending company experienced what I’ve termed the Social Media Double Whammy: The brand is criticized first for a bad decision, then again for a lack of responsiveness.

Motrin’s biggest mistake wasn’t an insensitive ad, it was ignoring the groundswell after the ad debuted.

Domino’s big mistake wasn’t a disgusting video, it was failing to respond to the video quickly enough.

Now, United Airlines discovers what happens when you’re unresponsive to customers.

United Airlines Pays the Piper for Broken Guitar

To recap, musician Dave Carroll was on tour with his band, flying United Airlines, when he noticed baggage handlers throwing his $3500 guitar. After trying for nine months to get United to take responsibility for his broken guitar, Carroll vowed to write a song about United’s dismissive posture. This video is the first of three from Carroll.

As in the Motrin and Domino’s cases, United is experiencing a social media backlash for what amounts to ignorance and poor service.

Had someone at the airline stepped forward to be accountable for the broken guitar, Carroll likely wouldn’t have written a song that would go viral. And it’s not like they had no warning — he tried for nine months to get the problem resolved.

No Whammies? Simple: Ackowledge Your Customers

Jeremiah Owyang has a pretty thorough list of brands that have been “punk’d” by social media. It’s a reminder of the perils of corporate social media — and of ignoring social media.

Remember that old saw about the squeaky wheel getting the grease? Ten years ago, companies could erect roadblocks in front of disgruntled customers. But thanks to simple self-publishing tools, any customer — no matter how small — can become a squeaky wheel.

Are there whiners and miscreants out there? Sure. But if your default posture is to treat every customer as a miscreant, you’re destined for trouble. It’s better to apologize quickly for mistakes and take your lumps than to stick your fingers in your ears. The Social Media Double Whammy could be twice as damaging.

(Note: To read about my experience with United Airlines, see my Tweets here and here).

  • http://www.lindsaymallen.com/ Lindsay M. Allen

    A friend of mine had his luggage lost (after having his flight canceled) by United, and it took DAYS for him to get it back, with little communication from the airline in the meantime. (Oh, and did I mention he was at a professional conference and most of his conference wardrobe was in his suitcase?). I repeatedly retweeted his luggage-woe tweets, directing them to @UnitedAirlines … with no reply. I hope I have better luck on my upcoming flight w/them. If nothing else, I'm glad I'm just taking a carry-on.

  • http://www.lindsaymallen.com/ Lindsay M. Allen

    A friend of mine had his luggage lost (after having his flight canceled) by United, and it took DAYS for him to get it back, with little communication from the airline in the meantime. (Oh, and did I mention he was at a professional conference and most of his conference wardrobe was in his suitcase?). I repeatedly retweeted his luggage-woe tweets, directing them to @UnitedAirlines … with no reply. I hope I have better luck on my upcoming flight w/them. If nothing else, I'm glad I'm just taking a carry-on.

  • chemann

    Scott – as I commented on Twitter, and on other blogs dealing with the United Airlines fiasco, I think this problem has less to do with social media and more to do with a fundamental failing of United's operations. Baggage handling and customer service are two fundamental parts of any airline business. If you can't do either of those well, then what the hell is the point of being in business?

    Social media was just a mechanism for airing this grievance. It almost doesn't matter how well United Airlines uses social media, or uses social media to handle this problem. If they can't handle the offline interactions, nothing they do here will help.

  • http://www.lindsaymallen.com/ Lindsay M. Allen

    Oh, I also should have mentioned that I recently had a bad experience of my own — but with Delta/Northwest. And the companies have failed to respond, despite being “@”ed on Twitter when I posted about this blog entry: http://bit.ly/b1ro6

    I guess I'll have to resort to an old-fashioned “complaint letter.” Or write a song and put a video on YouTube …

  • http://faseidl.com F. Andy Seidl

    Some companies don't seem to appreciate the fact that customers now have a public voice.

    I recently had several conversations with American Airlines over an issue that they could have very, very easily corrected. After speaking with two different AA managers, I suggested that they were losing my loyalty and that I may begin to caution others about my experience. One manager said, “go for it,” so I did:

    AAdvantage and American Airlines: Something Not So Special in the Air
    http://faseidl.com/public/item/234415

  • http://amymengel.com amymengel

    I'll echo Chuck's comment below – United has a fundamental problem with customer service and so just about any response they would have made to this video probably would have sounded hollow to the thousands of others who have also been “wronged” by United and can relate. I wrote a similar post about this – United's major problem is that this video provides a “me too” platform and they don't have enough (any?) brand fans out there with good customer services who can come to its defense. The communications department can try and react to crises like these, but they will keep happening until there's a fundamental change in the company's culture regarding customer service.

  • http://twitter.com/ScottHepburn Scott Hepburn

    I disagree. I think this IS a social media problem AND a customer service problem. It's obvious United Airlines failed at customer service, but it's a social media problem because United failed to recognize that unresolved customer service issue quickly spill onto the social web.

    Heck, if United had gone out of their way to provide a top-notch resolution, this could have been a Social Media coup. Imagine the positive press they'd have gotten if Dave Carroll had written a love song!

  • http://blogs.dix-eaton.com/measurementpr-spectives/ Chuck Hemann

    This has turned into a social media coup because they couldn't handle an offline situation. Sure, now it's become a full-fledged circus, but if the company was diligent in maintaining offline relationships FIRST this would have been less likely to occur.

    My only point being that no amount of relationship building online will help you overcome your shortcomings in developing relationships offline.

  • http://twitter.com/ScottHepburn Scott Hepburn

    It ASTOUNDS ME that a company would let it's employees say something like that. Companies need to do a better job educating front line employees about the power of consumer voices.

    Losing you as a loyal customer may cost a few hundred dollars. Your influence over friends probably costs a company a few thousand dollars. That scenario played out over and over can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And if the root of the problem is a feeble commitment to customer service, it causes companies to go bankrupt.

  • http://twitter.com/ScottHepburn Scott Hepburn

    Agreed.

    I have a new catchphrase for this: “Failure is viral.”

  • http://blogs.dix-eaton.com/measurementpr-spectives/ Chuck Hemann

    Scott – as I commented on Twitter, and on other blogs dealing with the United Airlines fiasco, I think this problem has less to do with social media and more to do with a fundamental failing of United's operations. Baggage handling and customer service are two fundamental parts of any airline business. If you can't do either of those well, then what the hell is the point of being in business?

    Social media was just a mechanism for airing this grievance. It almost doesn't matter how well United Airlines uses social media, or uses social media to handle this problem. If they can't handle the offline interactions, nothing they do here will help.

  • http://www.lindsaymallen.com/ Lindsay M. Allen

    Oh, I also should have mentioned that I recently had a bad experience of my own — but with Delta/Northwest. And the companies have failed to respond, despite being “@”ed on Twitter when I posted about this blog entry: http://bit.ly/b1ro6

    I guess I'll have to resort to an old-fashioned “complaint letter.” Or write a song and put a video on YouTube …

  • http://faseidl.com F. Andy Seidl

    Some companies don't seem to appreciate the fact that customers now have a public voice.

    I recently had several conversations with American Airlines over an issue that they could have very, very easily corrected. After speaking with two different AA managers, I suggested that they were losing my loyalty and that I may begin to caution others about my experience. One manager said, “go for it,” so I did:

    AAdvantage and American Airlines: Something Not So Special in the Air
    http://faseidl.com/public/item/234415

  • http://amymengel.com amymengel

    I'll echo Chuck's comment below – United has a fundamental problem with customer service and so just about any response they would have made to this video probably would have sounded hollow to the thousands of others who have also been “wronged” by United and can relate. I wrote a similar post about this – United's major problem is that this video provides a “me too” platform and they don't have enough (any?) brand fans out there with good customer services who can come to its defense. The communications department can try and react to crises like these, but they will keep happening until there's a fundamental change in the company's culture regarding customer service.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    I disagree. I think this IS a social media problem AND a customer service problem. It's obvious United Airlines failed at customer service, but it's a social media problem because United failed to recognize that unresolved customer service issue quickly spill onto the social web.

    Heck, if United had gone out of their way to provide a top-notch resolution, this could have been a Social Media coup. Imagine the positive press they'd have gotten if Dave Carroll had written a love song!

  • http://blogs.dix-eaton.com/measurementpr-spectives/ Chuck Hemann

    This has turned into a social media coup because they couldn't handle an offline situation. Sure, now it's become a full-fledged circus, but if the company was diligent in maintaining offline relationships FIRST this would have been less likely to occur.

    My only point being that no amount of relationship building online will help you overcome your shortcomings in developing relationships offline.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    It ASTOUNDS ME that a company would let it's employees say something like that. Companies need to do a better job educating front line employees about the power of consumer voices.

    Losing you as a loyal customer may cost a few hundred dollars. Your influence over friends probably costs a company a few thousand dollars. That scenario played out over and over can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And if the root of the problem is a feeble commitment to customer service, it causes companies to go bankrupt.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    Agreed.

    I have a new catchphrase for this: “Failure is viral.”

  • http://e-StrategyBlog.com/ David Erickson

    Your last paragraph is the most challenging for most organizations, especially huge ones like an airline: It's much easier to treat your customers like crap and to abdicate responsibility if there are layers upon layers of bureaucracy under which to hide.

    The top of the organization has no idea what's going on in the bottom half and it's too easy to justify passing the buck the further you are from ultimate accountability.

    I don't know that there's an easy fix for that problem, but they need to figure it out because if a company won't hold themselves accountable, their customers will.

    Great post!

  • http://www.socialmissfit.com/ Nicole Hamilton

    Scott, I would even take it one step further and say that an apology/quick response is not good enough unless 1. it is sincere and 2. the proper actions are taken after the apology to correct the problem. An apology does not stand alone, nor it is a quick fix, regardless of where it is made. This goes back to the fundamental principles and/or culture United is built on (and I think this is what Chuck was getting at). Apologizing in the social media space may kill the buzz a bit, but won't fix the issue unless there is a long term strategy with actionable steps to correct future issues of this sort in place.

  • http://e-StrategyBlog.com/ David Erickson

    Your last paragraph is the most challenging for most organizations, especially huge ones like an airline: It's much easier to treat your customers like crap and to abdicate responsibility if there are layers upon layers of bureaucracy under which to hide.

    The top of the organization has no idea what's going on in the bottom half and it's too easy to justify passing the buck the further you are from ultimate accountability.

    I don't know that there's an easy fix for that problem, but they need to figure it out because if a company won't hold themselves accountable, their customers will.

    Great post!

  • http://www.socialmissfit.com/ Nicole Hamilton

    Scott, I would even take it one step further and say that an apology/quick response is not good enough unless 1. it is sincere and 2. the proper actions are taken after the apology to correct the problem. An apology does not stand alone, nor it is a quick fix, regardless of where it is made. This goes back to the fundamental principles and/or culture United is built on (and I think this is what Chuck was getting at). Apologizing in the social media space may kill the buzz a bit, but won't fix the issue unless there is a long term strategy with actionable steps to correct future issues of this sort in place.

  • http://dannybrown.me Danny

    Seth Simonds has an excellent counter view to the majority of posts about Dave Carroll:

    http://sethsimonds.com/business-response-to-soc

    Speaking of Mr. Carroll, I think he's basking in the limelight just a little too eagerly. Any sympathy I had for his plight is quickly disappearing with each video message he comes out with.

    I'd go with Chuck in that this isn't a social media issue. The original complaint began long before Carroll made his Youtube videos. So I'd say that the real issue here is United's lack of response to a physical as opposed to virtual complaint. After all, they did reply when Carroll started his viral tirade, so they were listening from that point of view.

  • http://dannybrown.me Danny Brown

    Seth Simonds has an excellent counter view to the majority of posts about Dave Carroll:

    http://sethsimonds.com/business-response-to-soc

    Speaking of Mr. Carroll, I think he's basking in the limelight just a little too eagerly. Any sympathy I had for his plight is quickly disappearing with each video message he comes out with.

    I'd go with Chuck in that this isn't a social media issue. The original complaint began long before Carroll made his Youtube videos. So I'd say that the real issue here is United's lack of response to a physical as opposed to virtual complaint. After all, they did reply when Carroll started his viral tirade, so they were listening from that point of view.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    I would agree that this wasn't a social media issue to begin with, Danny, but it became one.

    As Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li explained in “Groundswell,” the balance of power is shifting. Companies have attempted to marginalize, ignore, or muzzle customers for years. In a dispute, the customer was most often outgunned and took the financial hit. The groundswell levels the playing field, and companies that ignore it — or think a customer service problem is not a social media problem — are putting their profits and reputations at risk.

  • http://dannybrown.me Danny

    I agree. And that's where United got it right – by responding through social media as well.

    The danger is when you give people too much “power” – a valid claim can soon become a witch hunt, and no-one wins there. Then business gets held to ransom by people with agendas (and I'm not saying Carroll has/had one in this case) and soon we don't need customer service because we're at the hands of customer blackmail.

  • http://mediaemerging.com Scott Hepburn

    I would agree that this wasn't a social media issue to begin with, Danny, but it became one.

    As Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li explained in “Groundswell,” the balance of power is shifting. Companies have attempted to marginalize, ignore, or muzzle customers for years. In a dispute, the customer was most often outgunned and took the financial hit.

    The groundswell levels the playing field, and companies that ignore it — or think a customer service problem is not a social media problem — are putting their profits and reputations at risk.

  • http://dannybrown.me Danny Brown

    I agree. And that's where United got it right – by responding through social media as well.

    The danger is when you give people too much “power” – a valid claim can soon become a witch hunt, and no-one wins there. Then business gets held to ransom by people with agendas (and I'm not saying Carroll has/had one in this case) and soon we don't need customer service because we're at the hands of customer blackmail.

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