Jon M. Huntsman School of Business

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Friday, September 9, 2011

A customer makes an airline pay for breaking his guitar

Dave Carroll and the other members of Sons of Maxwell
mourn the broken Taylor guitar
Recently I had the opportunity to review a public relations case study and a very funny trilogy of YouTube videos that took place in 2009 called “United Breaks Guitars.” Now apparently this is a very popular video (Time magazine named "United Breaks Guitars" #7 on its list of the Top 10 Viral Videos of 2009) and it enjoyed enormous success. It gave Dave Carroll, the man affected by the incident, many more gigs and now he is a featured speaker on customer service.

For those of you who aren’t acquainted with the incident, Dave Carroll and his band, Sons of Maxwell, were taking a plane to Nebraska from Halifax to do a show and they had a layover in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. While on the plane they saw the baggage handlers on the tarmac man-handling their luggage and, as a consequence, breaking his $3,500 Taylor guitar. He tried to file a claim with the airline; however, he didn’t make it within the “standard 24-hour timeframe” so there he was, stuck with a broken guitar and no help. This rejection to replace his broken guitar went on for nine months.
So what did he do? He gave United Airlines an ultimatum to replace his guitar or he would write three songs about how terrible their customer service is. Well, you can imagine what happened. Big company like that has no reason to care about one passenger. Or do they?
Dave Carroll released the first video, “United Breaks Guitars,” and it went viral immediately. It amassed over half-a-million views within the first three days.

That got United’s attention. They tried to right the wrong but it was too little too late. Carroll responded that he would continue to release the next two videos and that United could go ahead and just give the money they were offering to a charity and then to let him know which one it was.

This was a terrible public relations move on the part of United Airlines. First of all, the age-old saying is that, “If you break it, you replace it.” Especially when there are so many people to attest to the fact that “Yes, we saw you break it, we all saw it.” I think the worst thing United Airlines did was to continue to ignore this man for nine months and then to act repented about it after the fact. It was a very easy fix, something that could have been taken care of in no time at all. United just decided to press their luck and, in this round, they ended up losing big time.
Now in regards to Dave Carroll, I believe he took everything like a champ. I don’t think he could have had any better PR to improve his image and the subsequent happenings attest to that. I think that even in his follow-up video to “United Breaks Guitars” where he says the people that work there aren't bad people, they just followed the rules when they should have been caring about the person.

I’m sorry if this seems like a tangent but today I had the opportunity to go to the Dean’s Convocation with the Huntsman School of Business up here at Utah State University. The speaker was Michael Glauser, the new Executive Director of Entrepreneurial Programs, and he gave a stellar presentation. During this presentation he spoke about how business needs to be more about the people and that once we put people first, the rest will follow and we will find success. Here in this case study it’s evident that United Airlines failed to put people first, instead deciding to stick to its guidelines and, in the end, suffering the consequences (whether its stock was directly affected by this or not is still up to debate, but there is no denying that soon after the event it went down by 10 percent, or $180 million).

If we look on the flip side, what a great learning opportunity for United to take away from this and to use in future trainings. There is a silver lining to every cloud; with this one we can rest assured that United is going to take this experience into account and build off of it. Why? Because United is a smart company and they haven’t been around as long as they have because they are bad at doing business.
Every big company make big mistakes sometimes; this just happened to be one of them.

- Rob Goates

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