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Broken guitar spawns viral song, book, business

Dave Carroll never intended to become a consumer advocate. The singer/songwriter found himself thrust into the role three years ago, when United Airlines broke his guitar and wouldn't pay for the damage.

Carroll famously struck back with a music video, "United Breaks Guitars," that turned into an unlikely breakthrough hit on YouTube. And his world has never been the same.

In addition to the video with its 12 million views (and counting), Carroll has now turned the experience into a book and a website that aims to empower other consumers to strike back as he did, even if they don't sing and play guitar.

Carroll is a member of the Canadian band Sons of Maxwell. In March 2008, the group was flying from Halifax to Nebraska for a one-week tour. Carroll was not allowed to bring his $3,500 Taylor acoustic guitar onboard. When changing planes at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, United Airlines’ baggage handlers on the tarmac threw or dropped the guitar case, badly damaging the guitar.

“That turned into a nine-month ordeal of trying to get the airline to take responsibility for the damage," Carroll recalled. "And when they wouldn’t take any responsibility and in fact shut down the conversation, I had two choices: to do nothing or to do something else."

His something else, posted on YouTube July 6, 2009, used a humorous approach to his customer service nightmare that touched a nerve.

"It immediately went viral, changed my life and has had effects in social media and customer service and branding ever since," Carroll told me me.

After the video took off, the airline agreed to reimburse Carroll for the cost of repairing the guitar, plus $1,200 in travel vouchers. He thanked them, but turned them down.

“The matter was closed as far as they were concerned,” Carroll said. “It’s completely because of the video that they got back to me.”

To help others with customer complaints, Carroll has now launched the Web site In his new book “United Breaks Guitars: The Power of One Voice in the Age of Social Media” (Hay House USA, $19.95), he retells the frustrating experience and explains his philosophy about good customer service.

Carroll now consults with companies, including United Airlines, about listening to customers and responding to their complaints.

Lessons learned

It isn’t easy to get a big company to respond to your complaint. Customer service agents are often trained to stonewall. Social media has dramatically changed the playing field. Carroll says it gave him a voice and he’s convinced it can do the same for others.

“We can all be heard today thanks to social media. It’s so easy to tell people your story,” he said.

A recent online survey by the advertising agency Arnold Worldwide found that almost half the people surveyed in the U.S. (48 percent) have posted a positive or negative social media comment about a customer service experience. Most of those surveyed expect a company to respond to their comments.

Mari Smith, a social media expert and author of many books including “The New Relationship in Marketing,” has read Carroll’s new book. And she agrees that social media have forever changed the relationship between businesses and their customers.

“Consumers now have the power to voice their opinions, frustrations and concerns about any brand at any time,” she said. “It’s all about word of mouth, so if somebody has something negative to say they can do that.”

Smith says companies need to train their staffs to promptly and courteously respond to tweets and other online comments and questions.

“People just want to be heard and to know that somebody is listening and understands,” she explained. “Businesses must be able to listen and step in and take appropriate actions or they will miss out.”

Gripevine is there to help

During the last three years, people from all over the world have contacted Carroll to help them with their customer service problems. So he launched the Gripevine Web site.

“Gripevine is all about solving problems and not just brand-bashing and tearing a company down,” Carroll said. “Companies are encouraged to interact with these people because they’re notified when someone plants a gripe.”

The person posting the gripe gets to explain the problem and what they would like the company to do for them. The list of options: an apology, compensation, improvement, policy change, refund, repair or replacement. It’s possible to choose more than one preferred resolution.

Anyone can go on the site, read the gripes (arranged by company) and comment on them. A status bar indicates if they’ve been resolved. Gripes range from a defective cell phone to a dirty fast food restaurant.

“Every customer with a problem deserves to be heard and addressed,” Carroll said. “Some companies are and some aren’t doing that. And the ones who aren’t will become less relevant as we go forward.”