The United Breaks Guitars case study is one of the regular features in most of my corporate trainings – fun video, great message and makes a point to the dot. If you haven’t seen the video, you should.

It is the story of a young musician who brought a powerful brand to its knees, by the sheer power of Social Media.

A quick Wiki summary to bring you up to speed: “United Breaks Guitars” is a protest song by Canadian musician Dave Carroll and his band, Sons of Maxwell. It chronicles a real-life experience of how his guitar was broken during a trip on United Airlines in 2008, and the subsequent reaction from the airline. The song became an immediate YouTube and iTunes hit upon its release in July 2009 and a public relations embarrassment for the airline.”

As the story goes, Dave earned an apology, two additional guitars (!) and some cash too – thus providing a great end to a delightful gospel-like story. A story, meant for every social media missionary to spread.  And that they all did.

Until last week! This was when Augie Ray wrote a scathing blog on how Dave’s phenomenon was just a one-off success – more from his own PR point of view and not as much from the brand’s customer service. As a case in point, he highlights a recent and similar incident of another guitar breaking at the same airlines! His argument was simple – brands don’t always learn, and web reviews /complains etc can only do as much as the brands’ internal business compulsions allow them to. He also goes on to point out and very accurately so, that customers would never shun a product or brand because of just one bad review.

“In the end, we all buy airfare the same way, choosing whichever carrier offers a route from Point A to Point B that is cheapest, easiest and provides the right loyalty miles. If we hate and avoid United, it is because of our own experiences and not because of a YouTube video.”

I cannot but not agree.

Closer home, I have seen mixed responses every time I complain for my Airtel connection.  Can they solve the problem every time I post it? Well no, not necessarily. And do I change my network every time they screw up? No!

Then why bother at all?

This is why.

Irrespective of whether my problems get solved or not, I have not seen a time when it appears that the CS guys did not care. It never seemed they could get away without responding to me. And I believe that is the critical part of the business problem- social attempts to solve.

Most customers are not always looking for a solution. Customers understand that there will be problems; all businesses work under constraints and can falter at times. They are willing to forgive and forget, provided they hear a sorry! (Given that they do not always have too many options to move to anyhow!)

And this is where I end up disagreeing with Augie Ray’s analysis. While social media cannot (and should not be expected to) solve all problems, in the last few years, it has accomplished in forcing big powerful brands to treat their customers with much more courtesy. PR or otherwise, brands now are forced to acknowledge when they go wrong. Customers like that.  It makes them feel empowered and un-cheated. It makes them happy! And as conventional wisdom tells us, happy customers equal good business- be it for a United Airlines there, or an Airtel here.

If this, in turn, helps businesses transform their processes for the better, no matter how slow that transformation is, it certainly is a bonus.