The days when every business broke guitars…

When Jeremy showed us the “United Breaks Guitars” movie during class the week before last, I had to laugh. Not just because it was a funny bit – although it was – but because there was a time when many businesses treated their customers in that way. Especially in media.

I know – I used to do it myself.

To recap: Band members traveling together to a gig on United looked out the windows of their plane before takeoff only to see United’s baggage handlers tossing their instruments around like the gorilla in the old American Tourister commercials.

Sure enough, the players found on arrival that their instruments had been damaged, thus beginning a customer-service nightmare that culminated in the short film we saw. Even after the film went viral, United’s response was tepid at best.

Like Jeff’s well-documented experience in Dell Hell, this was the nature of much customer service in the era before the full bloom of social media. And this despite the lip service paid to such notions as “customer-facing companies” and hoary shibboleths such as ”the customer is always right.”

This was particularly true in media companies, where the lines of communication tended to run in direction only and executives were unaccustomed to dealing with unhappy customers, who were treated as annoyances at best and marks at worst.

Home delivery customer service – the lifeblood of most newspapers — was comically bad, with papers delivered everywhere but where they were supposed to go, circulation directors who found a rich vein of humor in the resulting complaints, and little done to solve small problems that sometimes dragged on for years.

Things were hardly better upstairs in editorial, where citizen complaints about stories were routinely laughed off, ignored or treated with disdain. And if you wanted to get a top editor on the phone to talk you had better be the governor, the mayor or the police chief – or you’d find yourself talking to an overworked editorial assistant or secretary-gatekeeper at best.

Small wonder, then, that this period coincided with a noticeable rise in libel suits against newspapers, a decline in trustworthiness ascribed to the media in attitudinal surveys and a growing feeling that the media was just another arrogant, unresponsive institution instead of the public-spirited citizen watchdog it was supposed to be. This attitude has hardened into the current serves-them-right perspective on the disruption of big media.

That disruption has brought a lot of pain to legacy media, but it has also forced it to walk the walk on customer service — now that social media has institutionalized two-way communication and evened the balance of power. After experiencing their own versions of “United Breaks Guitars” and “Dell Hell” campaigns, you can bet that old media doesn’t respond to complaints in the way it used to — even if it is a result of fear rather than respect.

Either way, it’s a good thing.