When Unhappy Customers Strike Back on the Internet

Companies need to understand and manage the rising threat of online public complaining. There is ample incentive, because the best ways to respond, and to prevent complaints from recurring, apply not just to the Internet.

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The YouTube video that Dave Carroll made about his experience with United Air Lines has already been viewed over 9 million times.

Image courtesy of YouTube.

When customers believe that a company has treated them badly, they may take public action aimed at hurting it. Consider Dave Carroll, a musician who discovered that his $3,500 Taylor guitar was damaged — its neck had been broken — during baggage handling on a United Air Lines flight. At first he alerted several of the airline’s employees at the arrival airport, but none of them had authority to handle his complaint; moreover, they gave Carroll no guidance on how to proceed. Thus began nine months of running the company’s customer service gauntlet. Repeatedly passed from one person to the next, Carroll was finally informed that he was ineligible for any compensation.

Frustrated, angered and feeling that he’d exhausted all customer service options, Carroll wrote a song about his experience and also created a music video, which he posted on YouTube in mid-2009.1 The lyrics included the verse “I should have flown with someone else, or gone by car, because United breaks guitars.” The video amassed 150,000 views within one day, five million by a month later and at this writing more than nine million. The story of the song’s success and the public relations humiliation for United Air Lines was reported in media all over the world. Finally, United offered to compensate Carroll for the damage and promised to reexamine its policies.

The Leading Question

How should companies respond to, or prevent, irate customers’ online public complaints?

  • “A double deviation” — the initial failure followed by failed resolution attempts — is usually critical.
  • Perceived betrayal (as opposed to dissatisfaction) drives potential online complainers to act.
  • The company’s attempt at recovery should be swift and its apology perceived as sincere.

Another video recently making the e-mail forwarding rounds of the Internet featured an unhappy consumer who happened to be a U.S. marine based in Iraq. Dressed in combat fatigues out in the desert and holding his machine gun, he tells the viewer how Hewlett-Packard demanded to be paid to tell him how to fix his inoperable HP printer. He then aims his weapon and shoots the printer to pieces.


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Social business research and more recent thought leadership explore the challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
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1. www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YGc4zOqozo.

2. www.youtube.com/watch?v=-PnlWHdJGLM&feature=related.

3. J.C. Ward and A.L. Ostrom, "Complaining to the Masses: The Role of Protest Framing in Customer-Created Complaint Web Sites," Journal of Consumer Research 33, no. 2 (September 2006): 220-230.

4. Y. Grégoire and R.J. Fisher, "Customer Betrayal and Retaliation: When Your Best Customers Become Your Worst Enemies," Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 36, no. 2 (June 2008): 247-261; and N. Bechwati and M. Morrin, "Outraged Consumers: Getting Even at the Expense of Getting a Good Deal," Journal of Consumer Psychology 13, no. 4 (November 2003): 440-453.

5. Y. Grégoire, T.M. Tripp and R. Legoux, "When Customer Love Turns into Lasting Hate: The Effects of Relationship Strength and Time on Customer Revenge and Avoidance," Journal of Marketing 73, no. 6 (November 2009): 18-32.

6. Grégoire, "Customer Betrayal and Retaliation."

7. Grégoire, "When Customer Love Turns into Lasting Hate."

8. K. Aquino, T.M. Tripp and R.J. Bies, "Getting Even or Moving On? Power, Procedural Justice, and Types of Offense as Predictors of Revenge, Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Avoidance in Organizations," Journal of Applied Psychology 91, no. 3 (May 2006): 653-668; Y. Grégoire, D. Laufer and T.M. Tripp, "A Comprehensive Model of Customer Direct and Indirect Revenge: Understanding the Effects of Perceived Greed and Customer Power," Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 38, no. 6 (December 2010): 738-758.

9. S. Nassauer, "‘I Hate My Room,’ The Traveler Tweeted. Ka-Boom! An Upgrade! The New Ways Hotels Track You and Your Complaints," Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2010.

10. B. Devezer, Y. Grégoire, J. Joireman and T.M. Tripp, "Can a Firm Get Away with Double Deviation? The Role of Inferred Motive in Revenge and Reconciliation," working paper, Washington State University, September 2010.

11. P.H. Kim, K.T. Dirks, C.D. Cooper and D.L. Ferrin, "When More Blame Is Better than Less: The Implications of Internal vs. External Attributions for the Repair of Trust After a Competence- vs. Integrity-Based Trust Violation," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 99, no. 1 (January 2006): 49-65; P.H. Kim, D.L. Ferrin, C.D. Cooper and K.T. Dirks, "Removing the Shadow of Suspicion: The Effects of Apology Versus Denial for Repairing Competence- vs. Integrity-Based Trust Violations," Journal of Applied Psychology 89, no. 1 (February 2004): 104-118.

12. A.W. Wu, "Handling Hospital Errors: Is Disclosure the Best Defense?" Annals of Internal Medicine 131, no. 12 (December 1999): 970-972.

13. Grégoire, "A Comprehensive Model of Customer Direct and Indirect Revenge."

14. T. Tripp and R.J. Bies, "Getting Even: The Truth About Workplace Revenge — and How to Stop It" (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).

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Comments (4)
Kapil Sopory
Every company needs to be extremely alive to proper handling of customer complaints even those which may on the face appear to be trivial. Yes, no complaint is too minor to be ignored. This subject must be handled at a fairly senior level and each and every complaint must be handled in depth to ensure redressal without delay. If possible, the complainant could be contacted over phone/personally, this,however,keeping in view the perceived hurt the action/incident would have caused to the customer.Empathy is most important. It is not enough ( as in the broken guitar case ) to tell the customer rules do not permit compensation. That being so, the matter should get referred to the top management may be even to the Board and and satisfactory via media arrived at.Hurt emotions cannot get healed by providing untested medication.
A point to be kept in mind while talking to a harrassed customer. No anger, extreme humility for as one customer expressed " The tongue has no bones but it can break bones ! "
As a proactive measure for guarding against occurance of similar type of complaints, the company must maintain a dossier of the complaints received and their disposal which could be shared to prevent repetitions as far as possible.
Kapil Sopory
Siswanto Gatot
right now, the customer is our boss. not company pays our salary, but our customer
Andrew McFarland
Unlike John Belushi’s fraternity which gets placed on double secret probation in National Lampoon’s Animal House, companies today know full well when they have breached the perceived rules of client-company relationships.  Without the veil of secrecy, companies today must elevate their products, processes, and support mechanisms to prevent problems in the first place.  Failing those essentials, they must formulate and implement effective strategies to recover after the fact.  http://bit.ly/hg1knu
Great article! Fully in sync of what I am action researching and working on for now 14 years now. In 2008 while visiting the entrepreneurial management school Team Academy up in Jyväskylä, Finland, I started the blog TheServiceRevolution. 

The intention originally was developed with the students up there to install a platform where customers could share their personal customer service related stories namely about companies. As the notion of Team Academy is to provide value for customers (companies in this case) it was intented to provide companies with real stories about their (often unknown) bad customer service and so get in touch with them working on transforming the bad experience into truly exceptionally excellent service.

Running almost two and a half years now, only lately further interest arose. The initial story about a train trip to Brussels, four hours delayed, missing a business appointment, getting no refund nor improvement of service (as I got mentioned by frequent travellers).

So customer service is still something that is not at all valued in the right sense by management. Often the "customer service" is outsourced to a service provider and the KPIs to measure him is only the number of tickets (so it seems). Otherwise it does not make sense to see the problems of the same kind over and over again.

Glad you put the topic into a broader audience so conversation about it can fuel up :-)

Cheers, and let's get in touch in doing some follow up action research