YouTube: Where Customers Get The Last Word

United Breaks GuitarsProfessional musician Dave Carroll spent months trying to get compensation from United Airlines to fix his $3,500 Taylor guitar after it was damaged by baggage handlers at O’Hare Airport.  After getting the final “no” from United, he composed a 4-minute video called “United Breaks Guitars.”

He posted the video on YouTube.  As of this writing it has had over 2.2 million views — and climbing. That’s in just 4 days’ time.

On his website Carroll describes what happened with his guitar in detail. Here’s the short summary in his own words:

“In the spring of 2008, Sons of Maxwell were traveling to Nebraska for a one-week tour and my Taylor guitar was witnessed being thrown by United Airlines baggage handlers in Chicago. I discovered later that the $3500 guitar was severely damaged. They didn’t deny the experience occurred but for nine months the various people I communicated with put the responsibility for dealing with the damage on everyone other than themselves and finally said they would do nothing to compensate me for my loss. So I promised the last person to finally say “no” to compensation (Ms. Irlweg) that I would write and produce three songs about my experience with United Airlines and make videos for each to be viewed online by anyone in the world. United: Song 1 is the first of those songs. United: Song 2 has been written and video production is underway. United: Song 3 is coming. I promise.”

Even consumers who don’t fly much or have a guitar identify with his plight.  The lyrics of the country song capture the level of frustration that many customers feel when their complaint lands on deaf ears:

I’ve heard all your excuses, and I’ve chased your wild gooses.
And this attitude of yours I say must go.
United, United, you broke my Taylor guitar.
United, United some big help you are.
You broke it, you should fix it. You’re liable, just admit it.

The video is professionally produced, the story is creatively told, and the song is catchy. On top of that, Dave Carroll comes across as a likable credible person.  Making it wickedly effective.

This must be a PR nightmare for United. Not only has the video achieved viral interest, but the story has been picked up by major news outlets around the world. On its Twitter account, United writes that the  complaint video has “struck a chord with us.”  Just sample a dozen or so of the 12,000+ YouTube comments.  You’ll get a feel for the overwhelmingly negative sentiment toward United.

Dave Carroll has said it is no longer about the money.  He requested that United make a donation to charity, which they have done, donating $3,000 to the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz.  But in a subsequent statement, he said he would continue with his video series and another is due out “soon.”

If nothing else, this video shows how YouTube is becoming the court of last resort, when it comes to customer complaints.  The court of last resort used to be the Supreme Court.  But heck, YouTube is easier to get into.

Customers have power.  Ignore at your peril.


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

26 Reactions
  1. Anita,

    I read about this story at Business in General Blob (“Singing a Song of Customer Disservice”). Here is my comments there:

    “This has struck has a chord with us.” What a catchy line, don’t you think? What is Ms. Irlweg saying to her defense? Here is an excerpt from United Airlines’ “Our customer commitment”:

    “A message to our customers

    In the air and on the ground, online and on the telephone, our customers have the right to expect — to demand — respect, courtesy, fairness and honesty from the airline they have selected for travel.”

    I will in the near future tell a story about a company that handled a situation in a good way It has to with “space” & “pens”

    I wonder about the sales of Taylor guitars nowadays

    I wrote the following retweet:

    RT @bplans Singing a Song of Customer Disservice MY COMMENT: “struck a chord” by @UnitedAirlines is “priceless”!

  2. Hi Martin,

    And the moral for businesses everywhere is:

    Your customer service policies may make sense to you internally. But when they are put on trial in the court of public opinion — YouTube — they will be viewed in a different light.

    And to be fair to United, I know they have a tough job. Customers expect quick turnaround with luggage when making connections, on top of everything else.

    But if in general passengers were treated better and not like cattle, there would be less overall frustration with airlines. A lot of the frustration people feel is about the whole experience of flying on commercial airlines. These days it can mostly be described as: “miserable.”

    — Anita

  3. Anita,

    Yes, your policies have to be integrated into the whole organization. It is a living document. I agree that United has a tough job with the turnaround time. Ryanair has been a leader of this route, shortening the lead times at every step in the process. The company has got pretty “bad rap” in the press and by the media, but the head of the company, Michael O’Leary, has good leadership skills. He has a great vision for the airline industry. I think he has said sometime in the future you will be able to fly for “free” by sponsored seats / flights. Here is a quote from the article, Ryanair To Ban Check-In Baggage And Airport Check-In, in WSJ (June 23, 2009):

    “O’Leary envisages a system that allows passengers to carry their baggage through the airport, check it into the cargo hold at the steps of the aircraft and collect it as they disembark at their destination.”

    So, which airline should I pick the next time I visit the land of opportunity – USA? For more on this topic, please read my post, Sweden – USA Flights By Ryanair. Click on “Martin Lindeskog” Says:

  4. In business school, our ethics professor told us to vet decisions and actions by asking ourselves: “What would it look like on the front page of the Wall Street Journal?” (Props to Marianne Jennings, W. P. Carey School of Biz)

    Well, add to that “What would it look like on YouTube?”

    Hey, Business Owners/Corporate: Why not simplify your PR damage control, and empower your front-line people to look through the customers eyes, to think about the thoughts and emotions driven by the customer service the employee (or YOU) provide, and just DO THE RIGHT THING?

  5. Hi Anita, I tried playing the youtube video you embedded and it says, invalid parameters. You might want to check this out.

    Youtube has really become very powerful I should say. What a devastating experience is this for United Airlines. I hope they learn their lessons.

  6. OOps, it’s okay now. Your embedded video now works.

  7. Wow. Yes, a nightmare for United. I can think of lots of words, but foolish is the kindest one.

    I don’t feel sorry for United, and they brought this on themselves, but you have to wonder if this will just drive the consumers who just like to complain and who don’t really have a complaint to increase their threatening stance to companies. I guess the complaints that are valid and have merit will make it to the top of the charts…

    I see Dave’s point about it is not about the money, but why keep doing the videos? One seems to have done the job.
    2.2 Million views? Amazing. They should still just buy him a new Taylor guitar and have a senior exec who wrote the customer service policy deliver it personally. The donation is nice, but the smartest move would be to insist on fixing the problem — which is they were irresponsible and broke his treasured, and income-producing, guitar. Probably wouldn’t hurt to fly him somewhere first class and put him up in a nice hotel for a fancy dinner or something.

  8. I gotta chime in again. This is going to make it into university and college classrooms all around the world. Business schools. PR programs. Marketing classes.

    Dave is probably going to have a new business of speaking to people about how to do customer service right. And train your people properly.

  9. People are fed up with the airline industry because they treat you like cattle! I don’t give a hoot about the guy’s guitar, but this story makes me think of all the little indignities I have to go through when flying. Being scolded by the flight attendants to hurry up and sit down, and then sitting on the tarmac in a hot, crowded plane for an hour. Sitting in a seat that’s much too small, on a plane that is just dirty. Squeezed much too close to a stranger next to you who is coughing and sneezing and has who knows what disease.

    Come on, treat us like human beings!

  10. Corporate customer service needs a little common sense.

    Did Dave trust they would take care of his guitar? Yes.

    Did United break his guitar? Yes.

    What is more valuable, customer trust or a Taylor guitar? Hopefully United now knows the correct answer to this question.

  11. Christian Leadership

    The song is real catchy! The video’s cute too. Very funny. Businesses need to start realizing that the best investment is in the best interest of their customers. Thanks for bringing this up!

  12. What further twists this story is the revelation that the $3,000 donation did not go to a neutral third-party charity, but instead went to The Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz, which has on its Board of Trustees one Ms. Sonya Jackson, Managing Director of Corporate Social Investment for United Airlines and president of the United Airlines Foundation; furthermore, the Thelonius Monk Institute uses United exclusively as their ‘official airline’. This is not entirely surprising, nor is it entirely kosher.

  13. Great video and song! Love how they were able to use their talents to make some much needed noise. Big dogs are constantly trying to run everyone out of their yard becasue they believe they are unstoppable. These guys did a great job letting everyone know all about their friends at United! 🙂

  14. Whats with the Sombreros ? Great video….guys…