Sign up to get full access to all our latest content, research, and network for everything customer contact.

Customer Management Lessons from "Seinfeld" - Part Three

Brian Cantor

It is not what the teacher intends to teach but what the student is able to learn.

While Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, the brains behind "Seinfeld," certainly knew their sitcom provided a platform for commentating on the ways in which humans behave and relate in society, they doubtfully planned to write a guide for customer management professionals.

But as we have seen from an investigation of the show’s first and second seasons, "Seinfeld" wisdom might as well be called "customer management wisdom." "Seinfeld" shines vivid light on interaction in our societal construct, and in doing so, serves as a proxy for the ways organizations can do right or wrong by their customers.

Whether stemming directly from a character’s interaction with a customer service personnel or implicitly from his or her behavior in an everyday situation, "Seinfeld"’s lessons for customer management are clear, relatable and significant.

Those embedded in early episodes like "The Chinese Restaurant" and "The Stock Tip" were irrefutable, and as we move into the show’s third season, we see no decline in its knack for relevantly commenting on the world of customer service.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Note"
Customer Management Lesson: Multi-Channel Communication

Simultaneously able to build and destroy relationships, communication is one of society’ most powerful elements. Aware of communication’s potential to cause disaster, individuals must work tirelessly to assure nothing is lost in translation.

Communicational gaps, unfortunately, wreak havoc on the "Seinfeld" crew in "The Note."

Facing pressure to make small talk with his physical therapist ("I do it for them, I figure they’re bored"), Jerry senselessly ventures into a conservational tale about a kidnapper in Pennsylvania. To Jerry, it was innocent conversation to ease the awkwardness of the massage. But to the masseuse—a neurotic mother—it was a warning sign that Seinfeld might pose a danger, one he did not erase when creepily inquiring about her child’s babysitter.

Miscommunication only becomes more damning as the episode progresses.

Upon learning that insurance recognizes and covers physical therapy as a valid treatment, George and Elaine decide to join Jerry in the world of massage. In order to demonstrate the medical "necessity" of their treatments, the three acquire notes from their doctors.

The problem? The effort is not coordinated, and Jerry, insofar as he informed George and Elaine of the scheme, relies on his dentist to provide notes for both George and Elaine. While George accompanied Jerry through the process, Elaine, unaware of Jerry’s plan, requested her own note from her gynecologist. By consequently submitting four notes for three patients, the trio provided a red flag to the insurer, and the result was a six month probation for Jerry’s dentist.

To top everything off, Kramer spots legendary Yankee Joe DiMaggio at a local donut shop (and, later, at Monk’s coffee shop) but is unable, no matter how extravagant his overtures, to get the Yankee Clipper’s attention.

When it comes to customer management, communication, always essential to success, is becoming even more paramount.

As the number of customer-facing touchpoints grows, so too does the challenge of assuring successful communication in all possible channels. Brands must simultaneously convey a consistent message across all channels andmaintain a complete, seamless understanding of a given customer’s interactions in those channels.

When a telephone agent engages a customer, he must do so with full awareness of that customer’s past social, email, in-person and live chat interactions. Failure to develop that awareness, a product of poor internal communications, is a surefire way to send mixed messages, frustrate the customer and ultimately lose business.

Today’s agents must understand that a customer’s first call is not necessarily his first contact; if not, they could fall victim to the customer service equivalent of submitting two doctor’s notes for the same ailment. The various channel representatives should come together to provide a better overall experience for the customer. They must not operate in isolation, let alone in opposition.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Cafe"
Customer Management Lesson: Think Like a Customer

A combination of ego, self-righteousness and pity is certain to drive intervention. But when intervening, individuals need to be certain they are helping—and not hurting—the recipient of their goodwill.

Jerry’s failure to test his kindness against that metric provided the first miserable chapter in his relationship with Babu Bhatt.

Saddened by restaurateur Babu Bhatt’s struggle to launch his new "Dream Cafê," which offers a hodgepodge of food ranging from turkey to franks and beans to rigatoni, Seinfeld feels compelled to intervene. His first overture is simply to graciously dine at the establishment, but upon noticing Babu’ internal sadness, he goes one step further. He proposes that Babu Bhatt, a Pakistani immigrant, focus on serving dishes from his homeland ("as opposed to franks and beans, for example").

Bhatt initially questions Seinfeld’s logic, noting that "there are no Pakistani people here." Seinfeld, however, counters, "Doesn't matter. You would have the only authentic Pakistani restaurant in the whole neighborhood!"

Confident in his suggestion, Seinfeld delivers an internal, self-congratulatory monologue about his gesture. "I am such a great guy. Who else would've gone through the trouble of helping this poor immigrant? I am special. My mother was right."

His mother might have been right, but Seinfeld’s product and marketing strategy was wrong. Despite Bhatt’s vast investment into the new concept, the authentic Pakistani establishment fares no better with customers, and Babu is forced to close shop. Jerry, as Babu would famously articulate, was a "bad man" for giving him such bad advice.

"You make me change restaurant, but nobody comes! You say make Pakistani, Babu Bhatt have only Pakistani restaurant. But where are people? You see people? Show me people. There are no people!"

When it comes to customer management, organizations must be certain that their product launches and modifications are driven by the demands of customers. Business leaders will have countless ideas, but the only ones worth pursuing are those that align with the needs and wants of the marketplace.

While Babu’s initial strategy for the Dream Cafê was unsuccessful and misguided, he at least attempted to consider his market. His audience was certain to include a diverse mix of Americans who regularly consume Mexican, Italian, Chinese and American food, so why not offer everything in one place? There was plenty wrong with Babu’s approach, presentation and, yes, understanding of what his customers truly wanted, but as evidenced by lines like, "but there are no Pakistani people," his heart was clearly in a customer-centric place.

Seinfeld, on the other hand, relied purely on his own logic to drive his recommendation. Whether there was actually a demand for a Pakistani restaurant was irrelevant; all that mattered was that the Dream Cafê’s eclectic menu was not working, so change was necessary. And insofar as Babu could offer an authentic Pakistani experience and would be the only one doing so, customers would obviously respond. The idea was too clever to fail.

Too often, organizations create products, advertising campaigns and service experiences that satisfy their own egos and conceptions of value. Instead of truly thinking like customers and deciding how to drive a desired response in the marketplace, they turn to their own senses of cool, worthwhile and innovative to drive decisions.

Witnessing the evolution of their ideas undoubtedly provides satisfaction, but if the result is not greater satisfaction for the customers, the effort is in vain. The value of an idea is determined not by its inherent brilliance (if that could even be measured) but by its ability to accomplish the innovator’s objectives. And unless the objective is to alienate customers, strategies need to be designed entirely with the customer in mind.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Alternate Side"
Customer Management Lesson: If the customer is always right, mean it!

Not quite revered as a true "Seinfeld" classic, "The Alternate Side" is an irrefutably-brilliant episode responsible for two of the series’ most illustrious highlights.

One is the line "these pretzels are making me thirsty," which remains one of the show’s most-recognizable and passionately-quoted bits of dialogue.

The other is a beloved and hysterically-funny interaction between Jerry and a representative from a car rental service.

Like scenes in "The Stock Tip" and "The Chinese Restaurant," the classic encounter reveals that bad customer service experiences, so prevalent and so relatable, can make for infinitely effective humor.

After learning that his car has been stolen (an arc that features an incredible phone interaction between Seinfeld and the thief, voiced by Larry David), Jerry books a rental car for his interim transportation needs. Though he had confirmed a reservation for a mid-size vehicle, when he and Elaine arrive at the rental counter, the representative informs him that no such car is available.

Frustrating in its own right, the situation is made more perplexing by the fact that the representative does not deny the existence of the reservation. "Yes, we do [have it]. Unfortunately, we ran out of cars."

The lunacy of situation—articulated by an epic Seinfeld rant about the concept of reservations—serves to articulate one of the greatest grievances against customer service professionals. Simultaneously aware that the "customer is always right" but unwilling to admit personal fault, representatives will work overtime to find some mythical middle ground, even at the expense of common sense. Here, the representative defies all logic to claim that a rental car company is able to properly honor a customer’s reservation without actually providing the car he booked.

Instead of devoting effort to proving 1+1=3, why not devote the effort to rectifying the situation?

With her back against the wall, the representative seizes her only remaining opportunity: speak to her "supervisor." Even though she has no intention of actually pushing the issue up the food chain, if she makes the customer believe she fought vociferously with a supervisor, it deflects the blame to management.

Seinfeld, however, sees through the supervisor faèade, and he and Elaine mock the "conversation" the representative was having with her "supervisor" in the back room.

"Hey Marge, you see those two people over there? They think I'm talking to you, so you pretend like you're talking to me, okay now you start talking… and they won't yell at me 'cause they thought I was checking with you!"

Predictably, the representative returns without further clarity on the manner, noting that Jerry’s only option is to instead rent a compact car.

When it comes to customer management, agents and organizations need to abandon their fear of accountability. Their only job is to serve and satisfy the customer, and an unavoidable aspect of doing so is to recognize their mistakes and shoulder the burden of providing resolution.

Like my experience with Ally Bank, the "Seinfeld" rental car scene illustrates agents’ willingness to grasp at the shortest of straws to avoid accepting blame. Ally was more concerned with proving me wrong than making things right, and so engrained was that mindset in the rental car agent that she actually attempted to claim a reservation exists for something other than to guarantee a customer a car.

What these agents need to realize is that customers are neither stupid nor self-defeating. They know when they are being mistreated by organizations, and they know when a customer service outcome is beneficial. That agents would even consider settling on a resolution outside of the customer’s expectations reveals that for all the talk of customer-centricity, most customer service teams are unwilling to live by that creed.

The agent’s faux-conversation with a "supervisor" further depicts the misguided philosophy in the world’s contact centers. Agents should want to do right by the customer, and they should enthusiastically request supervisor assistance when needed. But in reality, the "Seinfeld" character—and agents for most brands—see the supervisor as an exit strategy from a difficult conversation.

If the call is the least bit confrontational or complicated, extricate yourself from the situation by claiming you do not have the authority to deliver what the customer wants.