According to the old adage, when customers have a good experience, they tell one person, but when they are disappointed, they tell four. Those numbers seem miniscule in the information age, when a dissatisfied consumer can tell millions of Facebook friends, blog readers, and tweeters in a matter of hours.

United Airlines learned this lesson the hard way. A member of the band Sons of Maxwell watched from a plane window as baggage handlers tossed his luggage, with little regard for the value or fragility of the instruments contained inside. He complained immediately to flight attendants but to no avail. Upon his arrival, the musician discovered a broken $3,500 acoustic guitar. In subsequent weeks, then months, he complained again and again to United about the damaged instrument—and shelled out $1,200 to get his guitar fixed. When United finally called, it was to tell him his claim was denied because he had not filed it correctly.

His unique but satisfying response was a triad of original songs and videos posted to the Internet. The first tune, “United Breaks Guitars,” scored five million hits in a matter of weeks. The second song, released a month later, poked fun at United’s customer service employees and its policies for handling complaints. The third tune is a cautionary tale: If United does not improve, customers will choose other options. Even though the music prompted mixed reviews, many bloggers responded with their own horror stories, creating a public relations maelstrom for the airline.

United’s ultimate response included a tweeted admission of guilt, a $3000 donation to a musical charity, and an ad campaign about how seriously it takes complaints about luggage handling. The company also saw an opportunity to turn a single customer service problem into a training opportunity: With the author’s permission, they are using the video for the third song to train passenger service personnel worldwide.

Discussion Questions

1. With today’s instant communication technology, what could United have done differently to squelch this public relations nightmare?

Christopher Reynolds, “Smashed Guitar, YouTube Song – United is Listening Now,” Los Angeles Times, July 7, 2009; Alison Bonaquro, “United Broke His Guitar and Learned a Lesson,”, July 10, 2009.