Small customer can become a huge disservice

For years, we believed that if customers received bad service, they would pass the word along to 20 or so people. Conversely, if they were on the receiving end of great service, they might tell a few folks, but not in numbers anywhere near the bad-news story.

Enter the Internet. Bad reports can span the globe instantly. Good reports can too, but they are not shared as frequently.

One company that learned this lesson the hard way is United Airlines. In March 2008, Dave Carroll and his band, Sons of Maxwell, were flying on United Airlines from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Omaha with a stopover in Chicago. At that first stop, a woman seated near the band looked out the window and exclaimed, "They're throwing guitars out there!"

Band members witnessed their expensive instruments being handled roughly. Carroll's guitar alone was a $3,500 Taylor model. Concerned, he approached the flight attendant and was sent to another agent outside the plane. But that person claimed to have no authority and walked away. A third employee at the gate dismissed his complaint, explaining "that's why we make you sign the waiver." Problem: Carroll and the band members had neither been offered nor signed such a waiver.

When he finally got to check out his guitar in Omaha, he discovered the base of the guitar had been smashed. Even a $1,200 repair didn't restore it to its original condition. And Carroll's experience with United as he sought restitution is a horror story that spanned nine months of phone calls, e-mails, faxes, buck-passing, and a final "Sorry, but we're not paying."

Most of us would have given up at that point, but then most of us aren't as creative as Dave Carroll. He turned it into a career opportunity.

"At that moment it occurred to me that I had been fighting a losing battle ...," Carroll wrote. "The system is designed to frustrate affected customers into giving up their claims, and United is very good at it. But I realized then that as a songwriter and traveling musician I wasn't without options.

"In my final reply to [the United rep] I told her that I would be writing three songs about United and my experience in the whole matter. I would then make videos for these songs and offer them for free download on YouTube .... My goal: to get one million hits in one year."

Dave Carroll got his 1 million hits -- and 9 million more. Two years later, he passed the 10 million mark, and the videos are still enormously popular.

United did take notice, and it was reported on CNN that after 50,000 views, the airline admitted that it was a "unique learning opportunity" and made the experience part of its training program. At that point, it finally offered Carroll restitution, which he refused. He encouraged United to give it to another deserving passenger.

Can any company afford this kind of publicity? United has survived, albeit with a tarnished reputation.

Customer service has taken on a whole new meaning with the rise of websites like Angie's List and Yelp, which provide unfiltered reviews of services and products. Some require subscriptions; others are free. Google your company and see if you appear in the blogosphere. And never underestimate the power of YouTube and Facebook groups.

Undertake a top-to-bottom evaluation of your company. Examine the return policies, the authority given to representatives who deal with the public, the follow-up after a sale, and even more importantly, after an issue has been resolved to make sure the customer is satisfied with the outcome.

Then take a brutally honest look at your top management and reinforce the attitude that the customers may not always be right, but they are always the customers. Message: Excellent customer service is paramount to your success.

Survey your customers and give them the opportunity to rate your service. It's a chance to improve your company without having to hire a consultant. Then incorporate the changes that you can.

How you serve your customers should never be debatable. When there are unrealistic expectations from a customer, honesty is the only acceptable answer. If you can't make customers happy, at least help them understand your limitations. Help them find the company that can satisfy them, if necessary. Even if you must absorb the cost, it's probably going to be cheaper than fighting 10 million hits on YouTube.

Mackay's Moral: If you don't serve your customers, they'll serve notice.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman and author. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or send e-mail to harvey@mackay.com. His column is distributed by United Feature Syndicate.

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