Feb. 15, 2012 at 2:11 PM ET
"I should have flown with someone else or gone by car/’Cause United breaks guitars."
Dave Carroll created perhaps the most successful gripe against a misbehaving company in the history of gripes, doling out Web-style justice with a remarkably viral -- and sarcastic -- music video. Now, he's trying to share his formula for success with other consumers on a website named Gripevine.com.
The site, which is free for consumers, is the latest in a crowded field of Web services that aim to act as a megaphone for aggrieved consumers who otherwise feel ignored when companies do them wrong.
Carroll suffered every traveling musician's nightmare in 2008. When he arrived at a gig after a flight, he found his guitar had snapped in two. The Canadian musician’s nightmare became United Airlines' nightmare after he posted the video.
Carroll's catchy and hysterical music video spread like wildfire in early 2009. As views crept upward toward 10 million, it was obvious that his song had become the gold standard in Web-based consumer revenge.
Carroll’s guitar catastrophe occurred six months earlier, when he tried to safely transport himself and his $3,500 Taylor acoustic from his home in Halifax, Canada, to Omaha, Neb. During a stop in Chicago, he says he and other passengers witnessed baggage handlers recklessly tossing bags on and off the flight. When he arrived in Nebraska, his instrument was critically damaged.
As recounted by Carroll, six months of haggling ensued. Carroll said he tried to make United fork over $1,200 to cover costs of repair. The airline refused. He said he'd accept the money in travel credits; United still wouldn't budge. As an act of desperation, he wrote the song and enlisted friends in the video production.
Within a few days, the song was viewed half a million times. Apparently spooked, United called offering Carroll $2,400 in cash and credits, which he said he declined, instead encouraging the airline to donate the money to a music school. The song rocketed up the iTunes music chart, and Carroll received two Taylor guitars from the factory to use as props in a follow-up video.
And with the experience offering a nice lift to his band, Sons of Maxwell, it also opened him up to an entirely new world.
"When it went viral, I was caught off guard by the reaction,” he said this week. “I received about 10,000 emails in first three weeks. It was a conversation starter. People were telling me they liked the video, but they really wanted to share their own story. And they asked me for help. Obviously, I couldn't write a song for everybody. But I had a passion to help somehow."
After a couple of false starts, Carroll settled on Gripevine, which offers a simple-enough platform. Annoyed consumers post their gripes on the site. An automated system informs the targeted company that a gripe exists and offers them a chance to solve the problem. If that doesn't work, Gripevine offers consumers a tool that "amplifies" the gripe, making it easy for social network friends to "support" the grievance by sharing it with their friends, who can then share it and their friends, and so on.
"The more times your gripe is viewed and the more people you share it with, the more the company will be motivated to work with you to resolve your issue," says Gripevine on its instruction page.
Gripevine users will also earn "credibility points," which will help companies learn if the griper is just a serial complainer or a genuinely aggrieved customer with a beef.
Carroll is not providing the service out of the goodness of his heart -- companies will have to pay a fee to get access to a "dashboard" that makes dealing with gripes easy. Carroll is hoping that companies view the fee as a small price to pay to stem a looming social media train wreck.
Although Carroll lives in Nova Scotia and his business partners are in Toronto, Gripevine handles consumer complaints across the U.S. and Canada. The site launched earlier this month; so far, 4,000 consumers have signed up and a dozen companies have claimed their Gripevine pages, which Carroll said will be free for the first six months. The website is also in talks with several Fortune 1000 firms, he said.
"Every customer is a potential ‘United Breaks Guitars’ customer," he said. "The right answer for them is solve each problem before it gets out of hand. ... United could have solved my problem with $1,200 in credits."
While there's an obvious pro-consumer tilt to such a service, and many companies have been initially skeptical when approached, Carroll says he genuinely wants to help both sides of the transaction.
"We call ourselves the Switzerland of customer service,” he said. “Users can't use profanity. We encourage them to be solution-based. It looks like the small guy taking on big companies, and they are worried about brand bashing. But if you are a good company, you really do want to treat people right. ... Gripevine is one way you can turn these things around quickly."
Gripevine is not alone, though it is more sophisticated than most. A smartphone app called "ComplainApp" makes it easy for users to post their complaints simultaneously on various social networks. A website named GetSatisfaction.com provides tools for companies to set up their own online customer service communities, encouraging quick problem resolution. Straightforward Twitter and Facebook posts often get results, as many companies actively monitor social network for potentially damaging viral moments. And various complaint websites like ConsumerAffairs.com and RipoffReport.com (not to mention the Red Tape Chronicles) offer consumers a chance to simply post their frustrations and hope someone sees them and offers help.
The key for companies, Carroll says, is not waiting passively for the next clever trick that makes an angry consumer a Web sensation.
"When I had this problem, at the beginning, I had no social media clout," he said. "If companies are solving people's problems based on how many Twitter followers they have, well, that's really short-sighted."
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