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United Breaks Guitars: The Power of One Voice in the Age of Social Mediaby Dave Carroll
Songwriter Dave Carroll wasn’t the first person abused by an airline’s customer service. But he was the first to show how one person, armed with creativity, some friends, $150, and the Internet, could turn an entire industry upside down. United Airlines had broken Dave’s guitar in checked luggage. After eight months of pestering the company for… See more details below
Songwriter Dave Carroll wasn’t the first person abused by an airline’s customer service. But he was the first to show how one person, armed with creativity, some friends, $150, and the Internet, could turn an entire industry upside down. United Airlines had broken Dave’s guitar in checked luggage. After eight months of pestering the company for compensation, he turned to his best toolsongwritingand vowed to create a YouTube video about the incident that he hoped would garner a million views in one year. Four days after its launching, the first million people had watched “United Breaks Guitars.” United stock went down 10 percent, shedding $180 million in value; Dave appeared on outlets as diverse as CNN and The View. United relented. And throughout the business world, people began to realize that “efficient” but inhuman customer-service policies had an unseen costbrand destruction by frustrated, creative, and socially connected customers. “United Breaks Guitars” has become a textbook example of the new relationship between companies and their customers, and has demonstrated the power of one voice in the age of social media. It has become a benchmark in the customer-service and music industries, as well as branding and social-media circles. Today, more than 150 million people are familiar with this story. In this book, you’ll hear about how Dave developed the “just do it” philosophy that made him the ideal man to take on a big corporation, what it felt like to be in the center of the media frenzy, and how he’s taken his talents and become a sought-after songwriter and public speaker. And businesspeople will learn how companies should change their policies and address social-media uprisings. Since “United Breaks Guitars” emerged, nothing is the samefor consumers, for musicians, or for business. Whether you are a guitarist, a baggage handler, or a boardroom executive, this book will entertain you and remind you that we are all connected, that each of us matters, and that we all have a voice worth hearing.
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UNITED BREAKS GUITARSTHE POWER OF ONE VOICE IN THE AGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
By DAVE CARROLL
HAY HOUSE, INC.Copyright © 2012 Dave Carroll
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAND SO IT BEGAN
"Congratulations, Dave. Your 'United Breaks Guitars' video is widely lauded as one of the most important in Google's history!"
That was the beginning of an e-mail I received from a Google employee nearly one year after posting my first YouTube music video, about a less-than-stellar experience with United Airlines. Given the billions of videos hosted on YouTube since its inception, that e-mail suggested to me that my $150 music-video project had literally become a one-in-a-billion experience!
The foundation of my story is in no way unique. I went through what anyone who has ever flown commercially has gone through: a bad customer-service experience with an airline. Today, though, anyone can share their story directly with a mass audience, and using social media, I shared mine in the best way I knew how: with a song and a music video called "United Breaks Guitars."
On July 6, 2009, I was maintaining a successful career as a completely independent musician and singer-songwriter from Halifax, Canada. I had no manager, agent, publicist, record label, or distributor for my recordings. In addition to managing my own first solo CD recording in 2008, I had been totally self-contained for 20 years in a duo called Sons of Maxwell with my brother, Don.
On July 7, 2009, I was still all of those things, but change was on the way. The night before, I had uploaded my first music video to YouTube. People began tuning in and sharing my four-minute creation. Today, if you consider the total audience of the traditional and online media that covered my story, that video has reached more than 150 million people across the world, and it launched me into the midst of a full-scale media frenzy.
The ripples made by this simple and campy video have traveled from boardrooms to classrooms, and to anywhere an Internet connection can be found. It has established a benchmark within customer service for years to come and became a shining example of the power of social media.
In the year that followed the video's launch, my story was told in the world's leading newspapers and daily news programs. It was featured on BBC, CNN, and all major U.S. broadcast networks. I've appeared on ABC's The View and on Oprah Radio, and I've been featured in The New York Times, Rolling Stone magazine, and Reader's Digest. The Harvard Business School has done a case study on "United Breaks Guitars," and dozens of books on customer service and social media include references to my experience to give context to their theses.
In September 2009, if you did a Google search of "United Breaks Guitars," you'd have pulled up over 20 million references online. This story has gone wide and deep. In July of that year, I had the number one most-watched YouTube music video in the world and the number six most-watched YouTube video of any kind. Yet like so many powerful things, it began with a simple idea.
Although the video was launched on July 6, 2009, the story behind "United Breaks Guitars" was born much earlier, during an airline trip from Halifax to Omaha on March 31, 2008. Sons of Maxwell had been hired to do a five-stop tour of Nebraska by the arts presenter for the state, the University of Nebraska.
To get there, we booked four flights with United Airlines, starting from Halifax and with a scheduled connection at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. If this is starting to sound a little like the theme song to Gilligan's Island, it may be because the result is so similar. What should have been a routine business trip became a comedy of errors the likes of which far too many people continue to experience each day.
The band and I started our trip at Halifax Stanfield International Airport and checked in at the United Airlines counter. I was traveling with Don, bass player Mike Hiltz, and electric-guitar player Jon Park-Wheeler. I recall asking the agent at check-in if I could carry my guitars with me into the cabin and being told no.
I had never flown United before, but Canada's largest airline, Air Canada, has enforced a policy of checking musical instruments for as long as I can remember, so I didn't argue with the United agent who denied my request. I remember that I wasn't asked to sign a damage waiver for my guitars upon check-in. Many airlines compel musicians to sign a waiver that releases the airline from any liability should their instruments be destroyed in transit. United has that policy, but as I've experienced with different carriers, it is not always enforced by their agents.
When musicians fly, they bring their luggage and their instruments—except drummers, who fly "luggage only," since they are averse to resembling pack mules when they travel. While drum kits, guitar amps, microphones, and other essential musical devices can be rented at almost any destination, for the most part, a musician's instrument is a one-of-a-kind tool that often becomes an expression of him or her. Think of Willie Nelson and it's difficult to imagine him playing anything other than that old beat-up nylon-string guitar.
For this tour, I had wisely decided to bring two guitars with me to hedge against unforeseen circumstances. We didn't have the budget on this trip to travel with a road manager, sound engineer, or instrument technician, so I wore those hats as well. If something such as a string breaking were to occur onstage, we had to be prepared to manage that in real time by easily making the switch on the fly.
The two guitars I brought were both valued high-end instruments that I had owned for quite some time. One was an Ovation Elite, and the other a Taylor 710ce. It was the latter that would end up being the focus of all the attention in this story.
The flight to Chicago was uneventful. But then upon landing, a woman sitting one row behind me and across the aisle looked to the tarmac and said words that would make any musician cringe: "Oh my God, they're throwing guitars out there." I snapped to attention and asked her to repeat herself. When she did, it sounded just as horrible the second time.
Mike, who was in the window seat just in front of this woman, looked out to see the handlers chucking his bass guitar some amount of distance from the belt to the luggage cart. I actually never saw the guitars being thrown myself, but there must have been sufficient loft and distance for an objective observer to feel compelled to say so out loud.
As band leader, I decided to wait for everyone to deplane before alerting the flight attendant. When I met her in the aisle and began to share the story, she literally raised her hand in front of my face and said, "Don't talk to me; talk to the lead agent." I asked her where I might find such a person. She said she was just outside the plane on the ramp to the terminal.
When I exited the aircraft, the only person on the ramp was a United employee who was quickly walking away. I called out, "Excuse me, I was told that I should speak to the lead agent about the way our instruments were being handled on the tarmac." She didn't miss a step and replied curtly over her shoulder, "I'm not the lead agent," and escaped into the bustling crowd at O'Hare.
Beginning to see a pattern, I immediately sought out a United employee in the terminal at our arrival gate. She was preparing to board her next flight, so for the third time, I tried to explain what had been seen from the cabin. Before picking up the phone to make a call, she tilted her head to the side and said in a soft, patronizing voice, "Yeah, but hon, that's why you signed the waiver." I had been rejected by three women in less than five minutes. Not since that time in college had I experienced that kind of rejection!
None of the three women disputed what had happened, and that trio of short responses spoke volumes. I got the message: "This stuff happens all the time, no one cares, we won't be doing anything about it, and you should just accept it."
I interjected and began trying to explain that I hadn't signed the waiver and that no waiver I'll ever recognize makes throwing instruments acceptable, but she had already started speaking to another person on the phone.
Having been dismissed and needing to find my connection, I walked away flustered, bewildered, and hoping that the cases carrying our guitars were tough enough to withstand the handling they'd received.
Our plane to Omaha was late departing Chicago (something I was told to expect at this busy airport), so we arrived in Nebraska after midnight. I remember we were all pretty tired and eager to check in to the airport hotel quickly, because our driver from Lincoln was coming to collect us at around 6 A.M.
When we retrieved our luggage, there were no United employees within sight at the baggage belt. I've since been told that they must have been nearby, but my experience supports the theory that maybe they had just gotten tired and went home early. Either way, they weren't present to talk to at the belt.
My Ovation case looked fine, and the Taylor one felt intact to the touch. The cases from the Taylor factory are above-average hard-shell cases. They feel more solid and weigh more because they protect the instrument better than a standard hard-shell case. To lengthen the life of the Taylor case and protect it against nicks and tears, I had bought a soft, padded nylon case with one-inch foam that fits over the factory case. Essentially this was a case for my case. I had it designed to fit like a glove, so it takes some work to get it off.
Having flown with this guitar dozens of times without incident, I felt the body of the case for any dents or damage, and at 12:30 A.M., we determined that we should just go to the hotel and sleep. At this point, I believed and hoped that our guitars had been simply mishandled and not broken.
The next morning our van arrived, and we drove a few hours to our first tour stop and got ready for sound check. It was then that I pulled out my Taylor, only to discover that it was badly damaged. There was a four-inch opening in the base at the tail block (the place where you would plug in your guitar cable). Not only that, but the cedar-top body was cracked in long, almost parallel lines and had separated from the sidewalls of the guitar. My guess is that it had been thrown and landed on its tailpin with the neck pointing straight up. In any case, I was about to start a road trip with my favorite guitar smashed. I decided my only option was to put the Taylor back in its case and not look at it again until I returned to Omaha, and I was grateful I had my Ovation to complete the tour. Aside from this, the tour went off without a hitch, and we enjoyed enthusiastic audiences at all venues.
But I knew I would need to present the Taylor guitar to a United employee to open a claim. Since I had no plans to be near an airport for the next week, I decided to wait until I began my return trip to do so. Upon check-in in Omaha, I started telling United's staff what had happened and moved to show the damage to the agent when I was stopped and told that she didn't need to see it. She said I would have to show the damage and open a claim at the airport where my trip began, back in Halifax.
When I got back to Canada, I was told that United had no official presence in Halifax. And so it continued! Yes, I had flown in a plane that had united painted on the side and been checked in by people wearing United uniforms, but it was Air Canada, United's Star Alliance partner, who is the company's point of contact in Halifax. Now I got the story from Air Canada's baggage representative that the best they could do was offer me a blue United pamphlet with a toll-free number on it. I was told I would need to call that number to open the claim.
Call it intuition, but I absolutely knew that I was at the start of what would be a very long process, so I made two vows to myself that day: first, I would not give up until this matter was resolved to my satisfaction; and second, I would never lose my temper in any of my interactions. I would do my best to be respectful to everyone I encountered, knowing that they were simply trying to do their jobs within the rules they were given.
I went home, and the next day I called the toll-free number, which connected me with a call center in India. They suggested I bring the guitar in to O'Hare for inspection. I explained that I lived in another city, a different time zone, and another country. After much confusion, I was told to go back to the Halifax airport to open the claim and have the damage inspected there. I returned to Stanfield International Airport the next day, and despite Air Canada's protest that this was not their responsibility, they opened a claim number, inspected the damage, and rejected the claim from an Air Canada perspective. Why should Air Canada pay for damage caused on a United flight by United baggage handlers? That would make for a dandy partnership if United could manage it, but it's not realistic. I was told that the "rejection" would remove Air Canada's liability, but the claim number would get me started with United and establish that the damage I was claiming actually existed.
Meanwhile, I had the guitar inspected by a respected technician and was informed that it was irreparable. The tail block is an essential part of a guitar, and I was told that mine was cracked. The repair tech didn't feel he could fix it, but I thought it might be worth getting a second opinion. About a month later, I contacted Harland Suttis. He had decades of experience repairing guitars, was Taylor certified, and lived near Halifax.
I shipped the guitar to Harland, and he had it for months before sending it back to me with a beautiful repair. It looked and sounded great when played acoustically—but I found that onstage and plugged into a sound system, it had lost some of its magic, so I decided to retire the instrument from active service. Still, I was thrilled to have it back, and although I don't tour with it anymore, I play it almost daily for my own enjoyment. The price of that repair was $1,200. So now I had an exact cost of the damage caused ... for all the good it would end up doing me.
Chapter TwoTHE BOND BETWEEN A MAN AND HIS GUITAR
At this point, before we go any further, you need to understand something. You need to know that a guitar player's instrument is never just luggage. It's important to understand that when we buy our instruments, the process is not unlike a courtship, and when musicians commit to a guitar, many times we marry these instruments for life! We may be accused of polygamy, but that's the way it is. I personally own eight guitars from various eras in my life; like so many musicians, I simply have trouble saying good-bye to any of my instruments.
With so many makes and models these days, a guitar is a hugely personal choice, and most musicians invest significant time researching and testing countless models before buying theirs. As in life, different personalities initiate romance with their own unique style, and I'd like to share with you my process that eventually led to meeting my Taylor 710ce so many years ago.
When buying a guitar, I enter the store like Clint Eastwood walking into a strange saloon, pausing just inside the entryway with doors still swinging, scanning the room with eyes only, face forward. For added drama, I enter with the theme to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly playing on my iPod.
When I zero in on the acoustic-guitar section, I move toward it, but I take the long way getting there, not wanting to appear desperate and alert the guitars to the fact that "I'm interested." I walk slowly but with confidence, and at first, I walk right past them, pretending not to notice the parade of finely polished wood and steel.
You see, I'm doing the walk-by test. It's a very important first test, and it's during the walk-by that you wait for one of the guitars to catch your eye and speak to you. While some players make a beeline for the entry-level guitar racks, listening for a quick and dirty message that equates to "Hey, sailor, buy me a drink," I move directly to the high-end section.
I'm looking for a long-term relationship here, and as I walk past these finely crafted instruments, I'm listening for one to say, "Oh, excuse me. You look like an old friend. Do we know each other, and might we enjoy a rumba?"
If that happens, I stop. I turn slowly and deliberately with a confident grin and give the guitar a thorough visual exam beginning at the headstock to learn its name. My eyes drop down to its neck, then to the body and back to the top. It's a look that says, "I don't believe we've met, but hello, my name's Dave. May I play you?" By this time, Barry White appears on my iPod.
From there we move to the feel-test that requires a stool, and one can always be found near the high-end guitar area. Out of respect, the first order of business is to take off your jacket and lay it on the dirty floor. Zippers and metal buttons pose a danger to the finish of a fine instrument, so respectful guitar shoppers don't worry that there isn't a hook for their coat. The most seasoned shoppers simply wear fleece (and possibly even angora if you have the self-confidence to pull it off).
It's how A guitar feels in your grasp that you notice first. Does your body fit the guitar's body? Guitars come in different shapes and sizes, and sometimes they just don't feel right. Big people may not feel comfortable playing a small parlor-size instrument, just as diminutive folks are unlikely to buy a model that contains the word Jumbo in its name. It does happen, but we're not here to judge. It's simply a matter of taste.
Excerpted from UNITED BREAKS GUITARS by DAVE CARROLL Copyright © 2012 by Dave Carroll. Excerpted by permission of HAY HOUSE, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Dave Carroll is a singer-songwriter and social media innovator from Halifax, Canada. Following his 2009 YouTube music video release called “United Breaks Guitars,” about his poor customer service experience with United Airlines, Dave’s career blossomed and he is now a highly-sought-after performer, content creator, author, keynote speaker, and consumer advocate.
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