This weekend I was cycling with one of my mates when he shared with me a story about United Airlines and a customer’s broken guitar in 2009. It was so impressive I had to check it out. “Broken Guitar Has United Playing the Blues to the Tune of $180 Million.” This was the headline from a Sunday Times article in 2009, after the airline smashed songwriter Dave Carroll’s guitar during transport and refused to reimburse him. After several months of being given the run-around, Mr Carroll got even by writing a song about it and the song went viral on YouTube!

The YouTube video was posted on July 6, 2009. Within one day it amassed 150,000 views, with reports stating this prompted United to contact Mr Carroll saying it hoped to right the wrong. United finally tried to make things right with a $3,000 donation to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz–a goodwill gesture, yet it was too late to stop the viral spread of the story and the damage to the United brand through social media channels. In 3-days the video had over half a million views, 5 million by mid-August 2009, 10 million by February 2011, and 15 million by August 2015. It has roughly 19.3 million views and 161,000 likes as of July 2019.

Although the Times article makes a tenuous link between the video going viral on YouTube and the sudden United stock price drop, there is no doubt that United copped a lot of negative press in America and around the world. They failed to gain fast insight into Mr Carrolls’ dilemma and have an organization that was supple and empowered to respond appropriately to Mr Carroll. 

The conversation with my mate and the research into this PR disaster got me thinking. We are even more connected than ever before (certainly more than in 2009) and our customers are happy to share their experiences both positive and negative on YouTube, Instagram, TripAdvisor, FaceBook etc… with their friends and family in an instant. According to Nielsen, “92% of consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all forms of advertising.” Good and bad news can travel in an instant to millions of people around the world. I don’t believe the classical organisation structure, the beliefs of managers of what it means to be a manager along with hierarchical structures will cope with the increase of personal connectivity and the demands of Millennials and Generation Z both on the customer and employee front. We need to have a supple and empowered organisation to be able to respond to what is happening in the moment and not one that is compelled to go up and down the chain of command or constrained to read from playbooks and scripts will not work in an era of hyper connectivity. 

Ritz Carlton comes to mind as a supple and empowered organisation. Originally established in the early 1900s and now with more than 40,000 employees, at The Ritz-Carlton, everyone has $2,000/day per guest to make it right or delight…employees are encouraged and empowered to fix or improve a guest’s experience in the moment. According to the Ritz Carlton Leadership Centre, “We select the best talent. You’re adults. We trust you. You don’t have to run to the manager to help the client.” Employees are able to resolve issues immediately yet also able to build relationships with clients. 

Ten years ago United were not able to respond fast enough to delight Mr Carroll. The organisation design was not able to respond to a relatively simple problem. How different would it be today if United were able to respond in the moment to resolve Mr Carroll’s broken guitar? Imagine 19 million views of a positive customer story?

So what to do? I have posted before on how organisations have realised that they need to change the ways of working from the past to be fast enough for today. They understand that they need to tap into the collective consciousness of the organisation and the power of trust in people to solve complex challenges faced today. They understand that simple rules often are the antidote for complexity. Over the course of the coming weeks I’ll be sharing some stories about how different organisations have solved common challenges through unleashing the power of the organisation.

Source information. Why Word Of Mouth Marketing Is The Most Important Social Media. Forbes 2014. THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL OF EMPLOYEE EMPOWERMENT. Ritz Carlton Leadership Centre 2013. United Breaks Guitars, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.