United Breaks Guitars? How I’d handle this creative complaint as an airline reputation manager

United Airlines’ customer service policy looks great. They have a whole page that links to other pages that are all dedicated to how much the company values and respects and serves their customers.

But there are those who claim United breaks guitars.

It’s hard to tell exactly where the complaint ends and the artistic license begins. Or maybe the whole video is true right down to the bag-kicking airline employees. I can’t say I’d be that surprised (and that’s not necessarily directed at United, just a comment on airlines in general).

But let’s put our past airline luggage issues aside and think about how one would manage United’s reputation when a video such as this is released.

Well, ideally the situation never gets to this point. Someone along the customer service line should have helped this poor gentleman repair or replace his guitar that was broken in transit from Halifax to Chicago when he originally reported it. (Unfortunately, in real life, they didn’t.) But let’s assume we’re past that, and the video is already published.

  1. We would likely have to do some research since Dave says he was bounced around to so many different people. It’s going to take more than a few minutes to fully resolve the situation, so the first thing we do is reply to acknowledge we’re listening. Something like, “Creative video, @DaveCarroll! But we know a broken guitar is no laughing matter. We’re looking into it immediately and will be in touch.” (I purposefully didn’t start with his handle, because since the video is going viral, we want to address it publicly instead of limiting the audience by putting his handle first.)
  2. So we find an answer (quickly!). It’s our fault, and we have the OK to offer Dave money to repair his guitar. We reach out to him again with more information: “@DaveCarroll, we’re sorry. We take responsibility for the broken guitar and want to make it right. Please DM your email so we can talk more.”
  3. At this point, we’ve paid Dave and apologized privately as well as publicly, and now we offer him an incentive to come back — he and his band fly free to their next event in exchange for a sequel song. This incentive paired with a lighthearted request repairs the relationship with this particular customer as well as creates new marketing material. We don’t try to cover this whole situation up. We accept that it’s happened, we’re proud that we’ve handled it well, and we use it as a “we’ve learned our lesson” slash “look how we fixed it” story in our marketing plan.

That’s what I’d do. How about you?

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10 thoughts on “United Breaks Guitars? How I’d handle this creative complaint as an airline reputation manager”

  1. Hi Julie,

    I really liked the ideas you came up with to handle Dave’s situation. I think the best thing you “did” was acknowledge him as soon as you learned about the video. The key with content like this is to stop the bleeding before it gets bad. By addressing the issue you are practicing the first step in effective reputation management. I also like that you made it right by compensating Dave. But I think the most important thing you did was follow up with him. As with any business the fortune is in the follow up. We can turn a very negative experience into a positive relationship just by taking the extra effort! Great post!

  2. Very nice Julie. Two questions: good idea to invite Dave to make a sequel song but do you think it will be easy to convince him? Are there any ethical implications you identified?

    1. Ah, I meant to address the ethics in my post! Glad you asked. I think it was ethical for Dave to make the video. He gave United plenty of chances to make things right. He resorted to a video after going down the “right” route got him nowhere. He was out of choices; it was either give up completely or do something to get United’s attention.

      I think if United had addressed him earlier, they might have been able to convince him to make a sequel. But since he has already gone through so much with the unhelpful customer service reps, he could be past considering that. United might have to make their own video instead, showing how careful they are with instruments, among other things.

  3. I wonder why nobody has mentioned going to Ms. Irlweg directly. She was the main person mentioned in both this song and a follow-up song he created. Granted, that thought didn’t cross my mind until now, but I still would’ve thought somebody would have mentioned that. Interesting and thoughtful way to structure the tweets so the first one is public, but the other is more private. I never would have thought of that. I don’t really think giving him one free flight while also asking for something in return is going to give him much incentive to remain a customer. Sure, the sequel song will help him too, but it’s going to look like United is in it for the publicity more than helping Dave. Great post Julie!

    1. Yeah, it sounds like Ms. Irlweg doesn’t much deserve her job. I would think at the very least she needs to go back through “keeping the customer happy” training. I wonder if a personal apology from her might make Dave feel better?

  4. Hi Julie!

    I think you and I are on the same page when it comes to how we would handle the situation. First of all, the situation should have NEVER gotten to this point! Alas, it did and now we must deal with the repercussions. Researching the situation from both the customer’s point of view and your company’s point of view is crucial to successfully resolving the issue. Once the research has been done, it’s important to communicate with the customer in both private AND public ways. Since the video was obviously very public, you want the folks watching that video to know that you’ve handled the situation. In the end, thanking the customer for their creativity and taking the time to express their feelings to you is so important. Your goal should always be to make that disgruntled customer a brand advocate in the future.

    1. Right! Creating a brand advocate was what I had in mind with the sequel request — although as others have pointed out here, he may be past the point of considering doing anything positive for United after he’s already been driven to creating the video.

  5. I really like your ideas. I think confronting the situation as soon as possible is better than waiting a long time. I would like you make it a positive rather than a negative. I would acknowledge his complaint and publicly let everyone know that we are working on it. I do think it also important not to always give in to a customers demands. In this case it was justified. I am sure sometimes the customer is wrong but you can find a gentle way to letting them know policies.

    1. Oh yeah, in my real job (not United), I’ve definitely had to let some customers down easy. For example, just because one person sends us a press release and thinks it would be the MOST INTERESTING STORY EVER if we did it, that doesn’t mean that it actually is. But I think in this case, it’s clear that United was wrong in breaking the guitar and they should definitely make it right. I would be interested to know exactly what their reasoning was for initially denying his requests.

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