Poor service? Customers will hear it through the Gripevine

When Halifax musician Dave Carroll expressed his dissatisfaction with United Airlines for breaking his guitar on a flight, he hardly suspected it would lead to a new business venture.

'United Breaks Guitars' musician now a specialist in customer service

When Halifax musician Dave Carroll wrote a song in 2009 to express his supreme dissatisfaction with guitar-throwing baggage handlers at United Airlines, he had no idea the video would go viral, reaching close to 13 million views on youtube

Nor did he expect those events would lead him to a career as a globe-trotting speaker on the subject of customer service, and then on to a brand new journey as an entrepreneur.     

Carroll and a partner have just launched a website called Gripevine. Unhappy consumers can go "plant" a gripe on the site, in the hopes it will get resolved. 

New business normal

"This video raised my story and my voice to a level where it was amplified," Carroll explains.  "I want to help other people by letting them know we all have the ability to be heard."

But the venture isn’t just about helping people.  Carroll hopes it’ll be a big moneymaker.  The revenue will come from corporate clients who pay for a suite of services from Gripevine, including complete social media monitoring, prioritizing of complaints, and communication with customers.  

The fees can range from $100 a month up to $5000 a month, depending on services required.  Coca Cola, Verizon, and Orbitz (the travel website) are among the big clients.  There are plenty of small ones too.

"We don’t hate companies," says Carroll.  "My story’s been described as a David and Goliath type of thing, as a confrontation, but I see complaints as an opportunity for brand building as opposed to brand bashing."

Complainers often more loyal

I actually believe that.  If you’ve ever had the experience of having a company try to "make it right" after you’ve complained, you’ll know that afterwards, you have a new type of attachment to that company.   They listened.  They tried.  It means something.

And I remember years ago when I worked as a reporter on the CBC business program Venture, I interviewed a consultant who claimed that complaining customers can turn out to be the most loyal of all.  As he saw it, those who take the time to launch a complaint are the ones who actually care to improve the relationship.  Other (less potentially loyal) ones just walk away and never use the product or service again. 

But how does a career musician like Carroll start dishing out terms like "business model", "return on investment", and "companies can stay relevant through social media"?   There’s a widespread assumption that those who pursue art and those who pursue commerce are different people.  But of course business savvy is just another way to be creative.    

"I’ve always worn the business hat," says Carroll.  "In the band I had to do some of the book-keeping and managing our CD inventory.  As a small businessman, the profit has been in the margins, and that’s what allowed me to make a living as a musician for 20 years."

Poised for success

But Gripevine’s genesis is also due to the involvement of Toronto investment banker Richard Hue of Harbour Capital Management Group.  Hue was already developing the Gripevine idea when he saw "United Breaks Guitars". 

"I thought this is brilliant, this is exactly the way we want complaints to happen," says Hue, who has been involved in tech companies for 15 years.   "I thought ‘how can I leverage his newly-found status’.  Because I could see this was going to be an iconic video."  

At the point Hue saw it, the video had just a couple of hundred thousand views.  His hunch about the video going viral turned out to be correct.  Hue put in $35,000 to get it started, but says now about $2 million has been invested in the technology behind the website. 

Carroll is more than a front man, according to Hue.  "He brings a lot of  experience," he says, pointing out that Carroll’s speaking engagements have taken him to conferences on social media and customer service all over the world, where he’s met and talked to leading thinkers in that sphere. 

"He brings a lot of guidance with his feet on the ground, so to speak," says Hue.  "We have strategic sessions every week via Skype."

It’s interesting to note that German airline Lufthansa is a client of Carroll’s.  Seems he and the band were en route to Siberia (yes, Siberia) for a gig, and Lufthansa lost their instruments.  Carroll used Twitter to reach the company. 

"Within 15 minutes I heard back from someone, and they did everything right," Carroll recounts.  "They kept me up to date, they found the instruments in Dusseldorf, and we got our instruments in time for sound-check. So social media does work."

I wonder if the airline recognized Carroll’s name, and figured they’d better pull out all the stops to make sure he wasn’t writing "Lufthansa Loses Guitars" within minutes!

But does Gripevine work as well?  Carroll says right now, about one in every five complaints is being solved.  That seems low to me (seeing as 80 percent are NOT having their beefs addressed), although I suppose should consider that people are complaining about all sorts of companies, not just the ones that are on Gripevine, or are wired in to social media. 

"I think that’s a great number out of the gate," says Carroll.  "We hope Gripevine will become a first call service.  These are the people who’ve tried everything in the book so a 20 per cent success rate is good."

There’s no doubt he’s in a hot niche.  Social media can affect companies’ reputations in a matter of minutes, and plenty are looking for ways to manage those situations.  If Gripevine takes off, Carroll will be singing "I’m in the money" very soon.