Shocking Viral Videos: Could This Be Your Company on YouTube?

Last Updated Apr 6, 2011 9:33 AM EDT

Don't look now, but your company's customer service problems may be about to go viral.
There are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of videos about customer service missteps that can be found online. But a few are so infectiously bad that they go "viral" on sites like YouTube and are seen by a mass audience.
Customers connect with these clips, take comfort in them and are often inspired by them. The videos can also inflict untold damage on your company's reputation and bottom line.
Although we don't know how many videos become blockbusters, there are a few clues. No one has researched viral customer videos, but a recent study by Millward Brown found fewer than 1 in 6 advertising campaigns achieve what it calls "high viral viewing" online, which it defines as more than 1,000 views per week.
I've been studying viral videos since YouTube popularized online videos. Here are the biggest hits, so far, as determined by the the buzz they've created â€" and how you can prevent this from happening to your company.
The backstory: In 2008, the Canadian country music group Sons of Maxwell flew to Nebraska on United Airlines. They watched in horror as the airline's baggage handlers threw their expensive guitars into the cargo hold. Needless to say, the instruments were severely damaged. United dragged its feet in fixing them, so the group turned the experience into a song and humorous video.
Why it went viral: This viral video has it all, which may be why it received more than 10 million views: Airlines, drama, damaged luggage, and country music. Catchy tune, too.
How to prevent it: I spoke with United shortly after the video debuted, and it admitted that if it had responded faster and admitted its own shortcomings, the damage could have been minimized.
Cancel the account-fast.
The backstory: When AOL customer Vincent Ferrari tried to cancel his account in 2006, an agent named John tried to talk him out of it. Ferrari resisted. The back-and-forth, which Ferrari recorded and then posted online, is painful to listen to â€" whether you're a customer service agent or a customer. The audio recording morphed into a viral video. The employee was fired. And the rest is history.
Why it went viral: Because we've all encountered a customer service representative who couldn't stop reading a script, and wished we had recorded it. Ferrari did.
How to prevent it: Better training could have ensured this call never happened. But the video raises a bigger question: Why was the employee incentivized toward preventing the cancellation in the first place? Is that good service â€" or self-serving "service"?
Your call is very important to us.
The backstory: A YouTube user named DoorFrame, who also runs a fan blog dedicated to the movie Snakes on a Plane, posted this gem. It shows a Comcast technician on hold with his own company. Oh yeah, and he's sleeping. The problem that prompted the service call isn't fixed. Two days after the video was posted and went viral, he reports, "I had a team of Comcast guys -- including the head of the technical division in DC -- working both outside and inside my home from 7 p.m. until midnight. After five hours of work, everything appears to be fully up and working."
Why it went viral: An employee placed on hold with his own company? The irony!

How to prevent it: This video suggests Comcast had numerous systemic problems, not the least of which is customer service. Had it addressed this customer's concern in the first place, there wouldn't have been any sleeping technician on "hold" â€" and certainly, no video. From a management perspective, this clip is indicative of a company that's broken on many levels.

I'm still waiting.
The backstory: This is one of the shortest of the viral customer service videos, but it's something we can all relate to. In just 11 seconds, it shows a customer at the counter and then pans to two employees who are obviously ignoring him. We don't have a lot of details on when or where this footage was shot, only that close to a quarter of a million people have watched it.

Why it went viral: It gets right to the point, and it's happened to all of us.

How to prevent it: This isn't just bad service, it's employees ignoring a prospective customer. An insightful manager might use it as a training opportunity, or to make some changes at the store counter. Maybe both.

These videos were hits because the people who created them were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and on the receiving end of substandard customer service.

With a little training and effective management, you can't eliminate every instance of bad service. But you can minimize them.

What do you think? Which of these four videos would you least want to be about your company? And what would you do if it happened?

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers consumers' customer service issues for the blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, or email him directly.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the He is at work on a book about customer service issues.