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I wasn’t the first person abused by an airline’s customer service. But I was one of the first to show how one person, armed with creativity, some friends, $150, and the Internet, could turn an entire industry upside down (if you don’t remember my story, check out United Breaks Guitars).

The reaction to my airline experience proves that today, thanks to social media, any individual has incredible reach and unlimited potential to be heard. The implications of this are massive in the areas of customer service, social media and branding and I’m grateful for the many opportunities I continue to enjoy presenting this message around the world.

When United Breaks Guitars went viral I quickly discovered that customer service in North America is a $120 billion/year industry.  With all of those resources being invested in improving service efficiencies I continue to be blown away by the amount of poor customer service offered by both big and small companies. In many ways the idea of improving customer service has been over-thought and over analyzed when the solution to many problems facing companies today has been staring them in the face all along.

One of the key takeaways from my story has to do with the fact that many large corporations support a culture of “statistical insignificance”. That’s when the target for customer satisfaction is anything other than 100%, all of the time. Sometimes companies shoot for “mostly right, most of the time” as an acceptable standard of customer service and essentially marginalize some percentage of their customers. For instance, at an annual general meeting a CEO may congratulate a customer service department for hitting a 95% satisfaction rating and so the remaining 5% who, were served poorly or left unsatisfied, just became acceptable losses. That kind of thinking wasn’t so perilous before social media because those remaining 5% had a difficult time being heard.

Those days are long gone. I was one of those marginalized few and for $150 my music video became the #1 YouTube music video in the world for a month. Over 150 million people have heard my story through traditional media and online forums and it is believed to have affected the stock price of United Airlines by millions of dollars in market capitalization.

The very best companies with the best of intentions will have customer service failures since mistakes and unforeseen circumstances will present themselves in every business. But what kind of company do you want to do business with?  Do you want to support a company that shoots to please every customer, or one that sets satisfaction targets at “lots; more than last year; or as many as possible”?

The difference between aiming for perfection and aiming for acceptable levels of failure defines a company and, I believe, will determine which ones will be relevant five years from today. In the age of social media, where everyone has potential to be heard, companies cannot afford the fallout of people with truly horrible customer service stories sharing them with millions of others.  It not only tarnishes the company brand, but it takes resources to undo the damage and solve a problem that likely didn’t need to happen in the first place.  If your company supports this idea of statistical insignificance, it is essentially fueling the fire of its own demise.

The reason for this is, in the face of a customer service failure, the reaction of the company that tries to please everyone will be radically different than the one that doesn’t.  The former will take it seriously, will respond quickly, apologize, and ask how they can resolve issues. Businesses that shoot for 100% aren’t happy with a 99 and are therefore motivated to make things right.  As a result the customer in question will likely not feel confrontational and is more likely to accept an apology as authentic.  They are also more likely to agree to a faster, less costly resolution and be so impressed with your recovery effort that they will become better brand ambassadors than they were before. This is called the Customer Service Paradox.

The other company however, will simply accept that some customers can’t be satisfied or that it was that customer’s bad luck to be in the marginalized few that day.  These consumers find themselves in frustrating mazes, having to explain their stories endlessly while becoming angrier in the process. If an apology comes, it is not backed up with action so it appears contrived and the whole process becomes extremely confrontational with both sides digging in, looking for a one-sided win.

Not only has this company lost this customer from possibly many years of patronage but they are paying hourly wages to their customer service employees to keep them unsatisfied. In these instances the company determines what they aren’t paying to resolve a bad experience as a savings. What they aren’t factoring in is the potential costs of losing this customer and all of the customers they may turn away if this story resonates with them.

The culture of statistical insignificance has to end and the power of one voice in the age of social media will usher it out the door. As all companies begin to understand the need to embrace social media as the opportunity that it is, many will also have to question outdated policies and tactics, like shooting for “mostly right”, and understand that every one of us has a voice, that no one is insignificant and that each of us deserve the best experience a business can offer.

Dave Carroll is an award-winning singer-songwriter, professional speaker, author and social media innovator. His 2009 YouTube music video ‘United Breaks Guitars’ became a worldwide sensation. Dave is now co-founder of the consumer resolution complaint platform, Most recently, Dave published his first book: “United Breaks Guitars: The Power of One Voice in the Age of Social Media”.

Original protest image via Shutterstock

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