Social Media: A Trailing Indicator of Customer Experience

Social Media: A Trailing Indicator of Customer Experience

Contrary to popular belief, customers complain on social media as a last resort. Customers will give your brand the benefit of the doubt before they jump on Twitter, or write one of those scathing Yelp reviews. We want to have a great experience, and don’t see picking a fight on Facebook as the best first option when something goes wrong. We’ll try and contact the brand first. Only when that fails do we get out the megaphone and shout in the commons.

Take Canadian musician Dave Carroll, for example. In 2008, Dave was on a layover a Chicago O’Hare International Airport, flying United Airlines (yep, I’m going there), a company that frankly has spent the last decade or so developing a reputation for less than stellar customer service. Dave was about to become one the most legendary examples of how one moment of poor customer service can impact everything about an organization, including its stock price.

As Dave waited for his connecting flight, he heard a fellow passenger exclaiming that the United baggage handlers were throwing guitars out on the runway. Rightly assuming that they might be trashing his very expensive Taylor guitar, he notified three separate stony-faced United representatives at the gate who did absolutely nothing.

You know where this is going.

Dave arrived at his destination to find his $3,500 Taylor guitar smashed inside the case.

When Dave made his claim on the guitar, United rejected it on a technicality, saying they were not responsible for the damage done to his guitar because he didn’t file his report within 24 hours of the event.

Dave then embarked upon a year-long process to find someone inside United Airlines who would accept some responsibility and buy Dave a new guitar. After a year of working his way through all layers of United Airlines, all he found were people willing to pass the buck.

After a year, Dave was ready to hold United accountable.

He wrote a song called “United Breaks Guitars,” posted the music video to YouTube, and stepped back to watch the fireworks.

Buying Dave a new Taylor for $3,500 was about to look like a bargain for United.

The song took off. Within 4 days, the music video had racked up so many YouTube views that United’s stock price fell 10%, costing shareholders right around $180 million.

Suddenly, Dave Carroll’s phone is blowing up with folks from United who want to get a hold of him to remove the video. Too little, too late. Dave didn’t take it down, and the song lives on on YouTube. Today, it has more than 13,000,000 views, a reminder to the company that social media now allows customers to hold them accountable for their customer experience against their future revenue.

The song is so well-known, that it’s become a part of Dave’s online marketing strategy. Google him, and see how much SEO juice is also directed at his hit single.

google dave carroll

Dave’s milked the popularity of a song, and even wrote a book, titled, United Breaks Guitars, which I think I may have to read because it’s about the power of social media and customer experience.

It’s hard to grok the power of a YouTube video to bring a company’s stock down hundreds of millions of dollars in a few days. But it makes sense when you understand that social media allows consumers like Dave the power to tell future customers exactly what the experience of buying from a company is like so that they know whether or not to do business with that company.

For example, here is how Taylor Guitars handled the situation.

Search for any brand on social media, and you’ll get an up to the minute sense of how well they treat their customers. Since organizations cannot massage the messages their customers send, the only way they can ensure that people say nice things about them is to deliver excellent customer experiences every single time.

All this is on my mind, in no small part because I had another set of delayed United Airlines experiences over the weekend.

This was the 4th and 5th time (in a row) that I’ve had minor to massive delays on a United flight. With the amount of flying I do, things are statistically bound to happen, but there was too much of a pattern going on for me to keep quiet.

Because I know what the receiving end of this feels like, I had resisted doing what so many customers do when they have a bad customer experience: I went on social media to rip United.

Their responses (which I assume were robo-tweets) ranged from lame:

To insulting:

To “are you even paying attention?”

It’s clear nobody was paying attention on their social channels, which means they’re missing a huge opportunity to engage and listen to their customers. Social media is an important trailing indicator of your customer experience, and smart brands are aware of this and picking up on it.

[ASIDE: As the social media person for WP Engine, I hope I don’t bring bad karma on myself for yelling at them on Twitter, but frankly, I was at a breaking point, and that’s one of the things social media is good for: allowing customers to hold brands and companies accountable for their service, good and bad. Social media means it’s the first time in history an individual customer had enough leverage to complain and have a company listen.]

Now, no company, no matter how beloved can maintain 100% customer satisfaction with 100% of their customers. There will always be things that can go wrong, and some customers are simply harder to please than others. However, the more a company does to deliver on their brand promises behind the scenes, the more positive things their customers will say about them in public.

It’s easy to identify the organizations that get this. Do a Twitter search for @VirginAmerica for one of my favorite examples. They have testimonials and stories about positive experiences from customers raving about how much they love flying with them. People even tweet about how they’ve actually made an entertaining pre-flight safety video. Customers are delighted with the entire Virgin experience, and they aren’t shy about saying it.

What’s more, the whole organization “gets it.” Earlier this year, I met a Virgin America pilot wearing Google Glass who now follows me on Twitter.

As more and more consumers continue to adopt social, more and more brands will realize that they can use social as a way to measure sentiment, and evaluate how empowered their staff are to thrill customers. An accurate picture of an organization’s customer experience, either positive like Virgin, or negative like United, will take shape over time on social media.

More succinctly: social media is a trailing indicator of your organization’s customer experience.

Organizations that get this, empower their employees with the latitude to deliver excellent customer interactions, and to engage with their customers on social media.

Customers like Dave Carroll don’t show up at the airport itching unleash social media wrath on their airlines. But they will if monolithic company processes restrict employees from taking initiative to solve the customer’s pain. United Airlines isn’t made up of a bunch of heartless robots who wanted customers like Dave to have broken guitars.

But the company is made up of antiquated processes that leave very little room for employees to take initiative and over-deliver for an unhappy customer. Those antiquated processes don’t take into account how social media gives individual customers leverage against a billion-dollar company. They also don’t take into account how powerfully social word of mouth affects purchase decisions.

Some Metrics to Drive This Home

According to Nielsen, 70% of consumers will trust the independent opinion of online strangers that they haven’t met, and 92% trust the opinion of people they know. What’s more, we’ve seen consumer trust in earned media, like social, increase 18% since 2007. Those numbers mean that customers are beginning to believe that social media will show them exactly what it’s like to buy from you, and they are using social to guide their purchase decisions.

If you’re not actively monitoring and tracking your customer experience on social media, you should start yesterday. In this era, social media should help organizations differentiate themselves, not by broadcasting their message, but by showing customers that they care. Social media gives you a channel to listen and begin tracking your social customer experience metrics. Once you’ve got those metrics in a spreadsheet, suddenly you have the power to make improvements across the entire organization to affect everything from customer cost to acquire, retention, support, in addition to marketing and branding.

What Can You Do?

Here’s a list of metrics and questions and that will give you a place to start thinking about your company’s social media presence, and help you identify ways to improve your customer experience.

Compare the number of positive interactions to the number of negative interactions on social. Are testimonials more common than complaints?

  • How many social conversations per week are you having?
  • Which social networks are your customers most active on?
  • How often do your customers use social media to get support? To complain?
  • How many social referrals do you get each week?
  • Do customers interact with your brand about more than just your product? Do they tweet photos wearing your swag, make inside jokes, or create memes about your product? If not, there’s a good chance they don’t love you as much as they could.
  • Will current customers stand up for you on social, or do they pile on when someone has a problem?
  • How frequently do customers engage on social?
  • When customers need support on social, how quickly do you respond?

I’d love to read more about these in the comments. The first step is simply to begin measuring what you see your customers doing on social media each week. Only after you have a picture of their normal behavior should you worry about coming up with a plan of action that will help you increase positive interactions, and decrease negative ones.

I’ll be digging into those topics in future blog posts. For example, there are ways to increase positive social interactions, and encourage testimonials by socially rewarding your customers for interacting with you positively to on social media by featuring their positive posts, and making sure they know you *hear* their negative tweets, which are meant to be constructive.

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

Austin Gunter

I’m Austin. I live in San Francisco, practice Tai Chi, have rheumatoid arthritis, listen to a lot of loud music, and host a lot of dinner parties. Want more? Start here.


  • First of all, I googled the word “Grok” and it exists. Nicely done, that’s a 10 point word.

    Next, well written as always Austin.

    I can attest to these videos having a powerful impact on my perception of United. A perception that wasn’t helped when they lost my luggage (left on the tarmac in Costa Rica) which is going to happen from time to time but when I asked the person at the airport to just let me know where it was and when I can expect it she folded her arms, scowled and said “How should I know”. My answer? “Well, you see these cool things called barcodes that are stuck to every piece of luggage? They are part of the world’s most sophisticated tracking system. YOUR tracking system. Please check and see if my luggage was scanned through.” Her answer (after a few keyboard taps) was “it will take 24 hours to find your luggage.” No apology, no helpful tips or hints. It was as if mine was the first piece of luggage United had ever lost and it wasn’t their problem AND I was an asshat for asking about it.

    When I’m faced with a choice between any legacy carrier, they are my last. In fact, the only reason I’ve flown with them is because they code share with Air Canada so much. When given the choice, I will pretty much take anyone over United.

    My point is this, thanks to these videos, I was all primed up for United to screw up and when they did I got to unload a little. Now, when Air Canada messes up or Porter Air or Apple for that matter, I am a little (read: A LOT) more forgiving because frankly, I like them and I trust they’ll probably make it right if I just give a little.

    TL;DR United Broke guitars, didn’t care then. Got smacked for it and still hasn’t learned their lesson.

    Attached is an example of awesome brandness, just because. It reminds me everyday the lengths that a great company will go to make sure their customers feel the love. Pun intended.

    • Hey Ben, thanks for the comment. My experience with United has been similar. I had to drive from Austin to Houston to make a wedding over the summer because of delays. The ladies at the gate were looking for an excuse in their policy to wash their hands of responsibility. Ultimately, I think that the company can fix that by changing policies to empower their employees with the power to “rescue” their customers. The employees aren’t cold because that’s how they are naturally, they are driven to that by corporate policy that restricts their natural human impulse to help their customers out.

      Your counter-example above makes me smile. I get to be myself when I travel to meet our customers, and by “be myself” I mean “give a shit” and develop real connections. Honestly, without that customer connection, my passion for my work would diminish drastically. Fortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

      <3 U.

  • Social is always a last resort for me as well, and I see it as an opportunity. I don’t go to social just to rant, I go there because I just want someone to listen. When it works, I gain a lot of respect for a company — and when it doesn’t, it’s just a nail in the coffin.

    • Perfect way to phrase it. Every interaction on social (or support) is an opportunity to connect with the customer. It’s not that hard to do, but they’ll love you for it.

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