The continuing saga of Guitar Man and how customer centric is this

17th Oct 2011

In recent days Gary Lemke of fame sparkled renewed interest in the 'United Breaks Guitar' story (also known as the Guitar Man story in 'professional' social media and customer strategy circles. It is worth having a read at the full story, following several posts on the site: Did it change everything? , Guitar Man back story , Wait a minute, Guitar Man , and culminated in a (somewhat less than pleasant) personal response from David Carroll (a.k.a. Guitar Man). As usual, Gary Lemke invites opinions under the Your Take function of his site - here is


Apologies to Mr Carroll for the use of the (already popular) nick name - but this is social media, like it or not - this is what he became known as (and he fought for it). Nobody has control over what Her Majesty The Public chooses to call him. (And I think $3500 is a ridiculously cheap benchmark to even mention in trying to put a value on a family name and honour.)

If someone should get their facts right and do their homework, it is the person who becomes a self-proclaimed customer advocate without bothering to learn about the painstaking work that professionals (!) like Gary Lemke have been doing for decades. Even a most superficial ('for dummies') familiarisation with disciplines like CRM or CEM would have opened his eyes to the reality that customer-centricity is a little more complex than it seems from the outside. And that the mission of a Customer Advocate is may be (just maybe!), actually, NOT about advising corporations how to protect themselves from thieves...

Yes, Guitar Man (the metaphoric character from the story, not the honourable Mr Carroll) IS a hero and the story is a worthwhile example of the (potential) power of social media. There are lessons in the story - and in the meta-story of how the story was eventually interpreted and used. But the effect it has had on corporate behaviour is NOT customer-centric. Not at all:

It is naive to believe that (some) companies have started to monitor social media for the love of customers. Just as it is laughable that the other airline in Mr Carroll's example rushed his instruments to Siberia out of honest inner desire to serve better and provide great experiences.

All that is happening currently in that space is in the worst spirit of self-centered, corporate-interest behaviour. The 'nice' things Mr Carroll now experiences are not love - they are 'damage limitation'. Companies serve him not with love, but with fear (and fear breeds hatred). He is a known troublemaker (almost like the listed terrorists), who has bullied (!) corporations to be nice to him - or else!...

This is so different from true customer centricity, I am tempted to call it the exact opposite. While serious practitioners have been working (against unspeakable resistance) to change business philosophies, processes, practices and motivations, the bullying brigade revel in their power to inflict damage. And too many people have been misled to believe that this is what 'power to the masses' through social media means...

If Mr Carroll had paused for a moment to check if all the other passengers of airlines (or subscribers of phone companies, bank customers etc) get the same VIP treatment, he might be shocked to discover that they do not. The masses still suffer terrible abuse from all quarters and nobody gives a $#!+ about their experiences.

Just like the VIP clients in First Class and other privileged minorities, the customer-phobic corporations now have a new King: the Influencer. The tiny handful of customers with most followers on Twitter are the New First Class and they get red carpet treatment. Whether or not they deserve it (through their purchasing behaviour or honest advocacy of the brand). The others are, well.. LOSERS. Not my words, I recently spoke to a senior executive from one of the world's largest mobile  operators. His comment to the fact that a group of dissatisfied (and loyal!) customers, who don't want to churn to competitors but want to improve their own provider, have set up a Twitter hashtag #XXXsucks. He said: "Oh, they are a bunch of losers - just 200-300 people and nobody listens to them!" ?!? Nobody, indeed - not even those whose job it is (he had 'social media' among his responsibilities)...

Sadly, there are too many 'gurus' who take the Guitar Man story seriously and keep spreading the urban myth that 'this is how you do customer centricity'... I can only be happy that we don't speak at the same conferences with Mr Carroll

V. Dimitroff


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By vdimitroff
20th Oct 2011 13:26

On the same Guitar Man topic I got a comment on the Customer Lifecycle Management group inLInkedIn - saying that 'fear is actually good, as it makes companies behave in more customer-centric ways'...

My argument (see in detail there) is that fear only motivates for discrimination by the wrong criteria, giving preferntial treatment to 'terrorist' customers and still ignoring the good ones who suffer in silence.

What do you think? 

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By larabooth
20th Oct 2011 15:21

Hmmm.  As someone who has met and heard Dave Carroll speak, I think you really should pick up the phone to him and allow him to share his full story?  It seems wrong to be conducting such an ongoing and public diaglogue about him by people who don't know him or the full story?  All in the name of creating 'good dialogue'?  My 2 cents.

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By Dave Carroll
20th Oct 2011 15:58

To say that Vladimir is emotionally engaged in this debate is a bit of an understatement. To suggest that I am akin to terrorists is way over-the-top! To suggest that customers who stand up for themselves are "bad" and those who receive poor service and accept their fate are "good" leaves me almost speechless...almost speechless that is. I'm away on business and fully engaged in my work for the next day or so (as a the owner of a very small operation) but I will respond Vladimir and you can expect a much less aggressive stance from me.  You may want to consider if your own business could do with a little less fear, anger, and hatred though.  In my experience that kind of approach to life serves neither you nor you customers.

-- Dave Carroll

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By vdimitroff
20th Oct 2011 18:10

Thanks for joining in, Dave - this saves me the response to Lara Booth. I don't think I needed a private phone call to you, because I don't believe you have anything to hide from open public discussion (neither do I). Let me declare loudly that I applaud customers who stand for themselves (I do it, too) and I recognise the power of social media for doing so. But -

How about speaking only facts, for a change, would you mind? Some facts:

In your (somewhat emotional) response to Gary Lemke you did allege that in advising corporate clients he is 'selling distrust and resentment towards customers' (your words). This is light years from the truth - and I don't think you deliberately distorted the truth, you simply didn't bother to read his background.

This led to my (emotional?) response, part of which explained that Gary and a bunch of others have been persistently (and rather professionally!) working for and not against customers for many years.

The rest of my post had much less to do with you than the media and public (mis)interpretations of your story, and the wrong 'lessons' that corporations are learning from that. More facts:

- I never, ever called you terrorist or 'akin to terrorist'. Anyone who bothered to read all of my post (and the other one at LinkedIn) has noticed that this is the opinion of corporate managers, not mine - hence my explicit use of quotation marks with this (and other) word/s.

- I never said that 'customers who stand up for themselves are bad': I cannot say such a ridiculous thing, having devoted the last 15 years of my professional life exclusively (and passionately) to the customer cause. (Again, a single click to my profile could have shown you this, but I acknowledge you are too busy). I repeat that many in the corporate world do see such customers as 'terrorists' (an official term, in certain 'methodologies', if you didn' know it) and more recently - as I quoted from a widely retweeted blog - they use the term 'assassins'. Much of my rant is against such pervert view of the world.

- Good customers, on the other hand, can be silent. Some suffer in silence, others 'vote with their feet' and switch suppliers - but silence in itself (whether from inertia or as a personal choice) doesn't make them bad customers. Just like loud reactions don't automatically make others 'good'.

- I do think that companies provide preferential treatment to (what they call) 'terrorists' out of fear, and not because of love for customers. I stand by this opinion, as I have personally witnessed the attitude and have heard it from dozens of corporate executives. My humble viewpoint is that a war-like 'us v/s them' approach is not a sustainable solution and fear cannot and should not rule relationships. (Btw, elsewhere in life, people who pursue their goals through instilling fear are called terrorists).

- - - - - -

I hope this makes things a little more clear. Apart from such misunderstandings, I like to believe we are on the same side (in what should not be a fight but a reunification effort) - the Customer side. We may have different tactical views on how to make progress, but we both want better experiences and better value for all customers. I would add to this that I also want a better deal for all employees, suppliers, shareholders - and other stakeholders who also get their share of abuse.

Our (joint) noble cause is not helped by the widespread misinterpretations of the Guitar Man story. By the urban myth that it caused the drop in United share price (or did it?). By the illusion that hitting them where it hurts makes companies more customer-centric. By the hundreds of self-proclaimed 'gurus' who jump on the bandwagon of 'social everything' and, armed with your story and a handful of others, keep writing blogs and articles, speaking at conferences and some even charging good money to.. teach corporations how 'to do it'. To do what?..

Rather than engaging in petty arguments and clarifying who-said-what, I would prefer to see a constructive dialogue about the way forward, about the real implications of the empowered Customer (and Employee, and small Shareholder, and more) in the search of a cure for the economic and social challenges of our time. There must be a better way than camping outside banks, a better way than 'terrorism' - and (I would like to hope) a win-win way. (Sorry about the last cliche, but seeing it as a war isn't any better, is it?)

Looking forward to your next contribution - here or on your preferred platform and medium. If you write another song, I promise to join in the jam (I've been known to make loud noises with strings on pieces of wood; even had my guitars broken - more than once, if that gives you an idea who I can sympathise with :)

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By BlakeB
26th Oct 2011 23:15

 I'd love to read this (seemingly unnecessary) defense of Mr. Lemke's (poor) attitude, but (with all the) misuse of parenthesis, the writing is just too hard on the eyes (and the brain; holy, stop and decipher each sentence, Batman).

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By vdimitroff
27th Oct 2011 00:01

 Thanks for the writing lesson - note taken.

That's a little IQ test, you know :) Most brains do not find it too hard, but humans are not all created equal, we have to differentiate, segment and target. I have to say I never use a single parenthesis, that's against the rules - I always use parentheses in symmetrical pairs. I make sure I always close them, so that slower brains can easily skip them and still find sense in the rest of the sentence.

I prefer the less grandiloquent word brackets, but am aware that some people use the singular parenthesis as a generalisation for the enclosed text, rather than the enclosure. I was misled to believe this was not a literary site...

Anyway, we practice what we preach and listen to our readers. I already plan to reduce the use of the device in question by at least 11.3% by the end of this quarter, and set even steeper targets for next year.

Now, what were we talking about?

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