United Breaks Noses, Not Just Guitars

TL;DR: The recent United customer service debacle illustrates how bad customer service, and bad service recovery, spread rapidly through social media. Today, anything you do as a company will be shared with (or live-streamed) to thousands of people around the world.

By now, anyone with an internet connection has seen the epic pile of customer service doo-doo United Airlines stepped in yesterday and the social media outcry that followed.
 
No part of this incident should be a surprise—neither that it was United Airlines where this happened (anybody remember “United Breaks Guitars”?), nor that the whole thing turned into a public relations nightmare. There was no one on the internet yesterday who could avoid seeing the images of the bloodied United customer being dragged through the aisle by security agents to free his seat so that United employees could get from Chicago to Louisville. The outrage was not just limited to the United States. As the passenger was ethnically Chinese, the incident created more than 160 million views and over 100,000 comments on Sina Weibo, one of the leading social platforms in China. 

There are five good lessons we can learn about the role of social media from this: 

1. Bad customer service will be live-streamed

Remember the days when you would tweet to a company who had bad customer service to publicly shame them into stepping it up and resolving whatever issue you had? It worked because suddenly one could get issues resolved faster via social media than by calling a 1-800 number (I am looking at you, @united). Fast forward to 2017, and we are not just live-tweeting a bad experience, we’re broadcasting it in real time on Facebook or Periscope or Twitter or Snapchat – because now every platform offers live video.

2. When something goes wrong publicly, it will grow exponentially

Just as with the Pepsi-Kendall Jenner commercial last week, the speed at which this incident spread should not be a surprise, considering how many people now get their news through trending topics on social media. At the same time, traditional media are using platforms like Reddit to spot those trends in their nascent stages, then amplify them across their platforms. Once this avalanche starts rolling it gets big very, very quickly.

3. Customers will enforce your standards

Multiple videos captured the passenger being dragged out of the plane. Watch the footage and count how many people on the plane have their cell phones out to document what’s happening. Each of those people can and will share their perspective, and in return, those posts will bring out more stories, good and bad, about other customer experiences. Like the story where Delta paid one family $11,000 to not travel New York City to Florida as planned. Sharing on social means that not only will your standards become public information, but your customers will hold you to those standards or demand better.

4. Your internal conversation will be external

When Oscar Munoz became CEO of United Airlines in 2015, low employee morale was one of several big problems he needed to tackle—and by many accounts, he had made some progress. Munoz chose to address this latest incident in a letter to his staff, where he told them “I emphatically stand behind all of you." Of course, the letter was immediately shared outside of the company, adding even more fuel to the fire as the CEO appeared more concerned about his staff than the bloodied customer. In a time where social media allows us to eavesdrop on NFL coaches’ half-time speeches and the classified emails of presidential advisors, it is safe to assume any internal communication will be made public—even confidentiality agreements are not a protection.

5. Social media opposition will organize incredibly fast

The #boycottunited movement gathered steam on Twitter and Facebook within a matter of hours. 

Unhappiness with the brand quickly manifested itself in a variety of creative ways:
 

Tweeting that you will no longer buy a certain product is one thing; turning that dissatisfaction into memes takes more effort and engagement. But once those memes, response videos, and hot takes are created, they spread as quickly as the original incident. Social media amplifies and remixes everything so fast that it is impossible for any brand to keep up. No marketer should ever forget that.