Dave Carroll's hit song "United Breaks Guitars" has become a textbook case study in the customer service industry. It's a loveable story, really. The fearless David slung a tiny stone at a Goliath of a corporation because there was no other option, and against all odds, David emerged victorious. As a theme of Malcolm Gladwell's recent book David and Goliath suggests, underdogs often win because they must be innovative and try new methods.

When the traditional means of getting a company's attention (phone lines and other customer service channels) failed, sparked by the "digital disturbance" of the internet and social media, Carroll tried a different approach...

...make something catchy, get others to see and discuss it, and create a buzz loud enough to force his Goliath to listen.


It worked.

 If you'd like a little more background on the story, here's a quick synopsis:

  1. Dave Carroll, a musician from eastern Canada, travels on a flight in the US
  2. United Airlines damages his guitar in transit, an event Dave witnesses while looking out the airplane window
  3. Dave follows all appropriate protocols with the airline, thinking that he'll be able to get his guitar fixed or replaced, since after all, United damaged it
  4. On his customer service journey (extended over a number of months), he gets nothing but answers like, "I'm sorry, there's nothing we can do" from every level of the United customer service chain that he can reach
  5. Exasperated, Dave writes a song (with his band) telling of the experience and hoping to catch United's attention in other ways
  6. He posts the song (with music video) on the internet
  7. It goes viral, having more than 12.5million views to date

Did Dave Carroll, private citizen, individual customer, actually manage to get United's attention with this song? Well, yes, and pretty quickly once they realized the PR nightmare they had created. So they quickly replaced his guitar. But, there was nothing they could do about the negative PR, because the song lives on, as do the negative impressions of United that it's spread around the world.

"United Breaks Guitars" has also spawned numerous spinoff videos, a book, and even a creative customer advocacy website called www.gripevine.com

This is the first, and perhaps the greatest example thus far which suggests to us that the internet and social media are proving to be quite a "digital disturbance" in the hands of a determined, connected customer. It also points to the fact that today, the customer can hold the company accountable or exert pressure on it in ways never before seen. This implies that the balance of power is shifting, and companies are no longer fully in charge of their Brand, activities, or even their direction - rather it is customers and employees who will soon set the course in these domains.

This will mean many changes for the way companies work, but for starters, they will come to recognize that "Authenticity is the new coin of the realm."

What other ripple effects will this "digital disturbance" cause for companies?



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