Our guest this week on Marketing Smarts is Dave Carroll, the man whose guitar United broke. He joined us to discuss the book he wrote—United Breaks Guitarsabout the experiences that led up to his now famous music video, lessons he learned along the way about social media, and the keys to effective, meaningful customer service. 

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As part of our conversation, I asked him what companies need if they are to avoid a "Dave Carroll" in their future. This is what he told me.

1. You need employees who care and take responsibility for the company

When Dave initially tried to bring his problem—people throwing his guitar around on the tarmac—to employees at United, the response he got was almost literally, "Talk to the hand." 

What might have been the alternative?

"Having people who care about their jobs and the service that they provide," Dave said.

The "ideal situation," Dave told me, would be to encourage employees to "take responsibility for the entire company."

Cultivating such a sense of responsibility in a company that is gigantic and, in many ways, rigidly hierarchical (because of the nature of the business, there is always something quasi-military to airline operations), can present challenges, of course.

But if you give your employees a stake in the company's success, empower them to influence outcomes, and reinforce the message that as far as customers are concerned every employee IS the company, you will be taking steps in the right direction.

2. You need to apologize

One of the things that was so strange about Dave's saga was how long it actually took United to apologize to him. Indeed, he received an apology months after the fact—once his video had been picked up by the mainstream media—and after, for all intents and purposes, the whole world had heard about it.

If people have had a bad experience with your company, they shouldn't have to make the national news before you acknowledge it. Focusing on what the customer did wrong (failed to file a timely claim, filed a claim in the wrong location, etc.) doesn't help. In fact, even when the customer is in the wrong, you should start your conversations with, "I'm sorry."

As an old boss of mine used to say, "People don't care about bad outcomes; they care about bad feelings." Addressing those feelings with an apology can actually make bad outcomes easier to accept.

Or, as Dave put it, "Saying you're sorry is sometimes the least expensive solution to a potentially very expensive problem."

3. You need to be open to alternate solutions

Dave's guitar originally cost him $3,500. The post-breakage repairs, as imperfect as they were, cost him $1,200. Accordingly, he offered United a solution: Give him $1200 worth of travel vouchers. By doing so, as he saw it, it wouldn't incur any costs (to the extent that the company wouldn't have to write a check) and would help him defray travel costs when he was touring.

United refused.

"Too many big companies," Dave explained, "have a set of policies that they put everybody into and say everybody must fit into this can of policy solutions. And if they don't, that's too bad for them."

"But really," he continued, "if a reasonable offer is made, somebody should be empowered to be able to consider that and solve the problem."

And that brings us back to employee empowerment. If you reward employees for following proper procedures, at the expense of customer satisfaction, you're making a mistake. 

If, on the other hand, you reward employees for solving customer problems, you will have happier employees—and happier customers.

And that should be Job No. 1, right?

If you'd like to hear my entire conversation with Dave, you may listen above or download the mp3 and listen at your leisure. You can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!