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Customer Management Lessons from "Seinfeld" - Part Two

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Brian Cantor

"Seinfeld" has a joke or perspective on just about anything, and recently, we began to explore the legitimacy of that contention from within the realm of customer service.

Part one of our "Customer Management Lessons from ‘Seinfeld’" revealed how signals and assumptions about the customer base can create disastrous outcomes, why representatives and sales agents need to be enthusiastic about their products and why dodging customer complaints is never a wise decision.

Those three lessons, all invaluable for customer management professionals, span only a few episodes from the show’s abridged first season. As we move into the show’s second season, we uncover more important customer service lessons as part of our exclusive Call Center IQ series.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Phone Message"
Customer Management Lesson: Brands & Identities

Built around a harebrained George Costanza scene, in which the lovable loser attempts to replace an answering machine tape before his girlfriend can hear the vitriolic message he left for her, this episode’s "B-plot" features an important commentary on branding.

In a true testament to the show’s timelessness, that commentary has particular relevance in today’s socially-driven consumer climate.

While sitting with his girlfriend Donna, Jerry openly ponders why he chooses to buy "tan pants." When she asks if his particular pants are Cotton Dockers, Seinfeld exclaims his dislike for "that commercial"—one promoting the Dockers pants in which "the guys are all standing around, supposedly being very casual and witty."

Not aware of the person with whom she is dealing, Donna believes that her quick retort in support of the commercial would be the end of the conversation. For Jerry, however, this is a major problem. What could a rational human being "possibly like about it?"

"Yeah, they’re so funny and so comfortable with each other, and I could be comfortable too, if I had pants like that. I could sit on a porch and wrestle around, and maybe even be part of a real bull session," cracks Seinfeld.

Donna praises the commercial’s subliminal messaging—that it is not talking about the pants—but no explanation is enough to calm the rattled Seinfeld down.

The bewilderment weighs on Jerry, and in a subsequent scene with Elaine, it is clear he will forever associate the woman with her enthusiasm for the commercial.

"I’m supposed to see her again on Thursday, but can I go out with someone who actually likes this commercial?"

Later, when George and Kramer each meet Donna, they instantly refer to her as "the one who likes that commercial" and "Cotton Dockers," respectively. And when Donna explains that all of her friends like the commercial, Seinfeld sarcastically retorts, "Boy, I bet you got a regular Algonquin Round Table there."

There was simply no escaping it—no matter how likable, attractive and intelligent, to Seinfeld and the gang, Donna’s identity is one of a girl who likes an awful commercial for khakis.

When it comes to customer management, brands must remember that brand allegiance is about more than passive enthusiasm for its product lines. When developing a social media strategy, for instance, it is imperative for brands to remember that a customer’s social profiles—and all brands, celebrities and causes he "likes" on those profiles—represent his outward identity.

A customer might like a particular product, but if he does not want to associate with the brand and how it chooses to represent itself, he will never embrace the opportunity to engage socially.

But in the era of Seinfeld’s second season, only individuals as neurotic as Jerry and the gang were able to make that connection.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Pony Remark"
Customer Management Lesson: Know Your Audience

When one operates without a sensitivity filter, it is only a matter of time before the chickens come home to roost.

Such is the circumstance for Jerry, whose immunity to feelings and affinity for blurting out off-hand jokes combine in advance of a tragic outcome in this episode, perhaps Seinfeld’s first "classic."

Joined by Elaine at a dinner with relatives, Jerry finds himself smack-dab in the middle of innocuous, but uneventful family small talk. When Mrs. Seinfeld brings up the topic of racehorses, Jerry and Elaine launch a campaign of linguistically-aggressive, but emotionally-light cracks about horses and, in particular, ponies.

As Elaine opens the discussion about "those kids who had their own ponies," Seinfeld takes the discussion to the next level, noting that hates "anyone who ever had a pony."

Sure enough, dinner host Manya, who grew up as a Polish immigrant, is one of those pony owners. In her culture, ponies were not written off as a gift for the spoiled and pretentious.

"When I was a little girl in Poland, we all had ponies. My sister had pony, my cousin had pony... So, what’s wrong with that?" wonders a rattled-Manya.

In future Seinfeld episodes, Elaine and George would criticize Seinfeld’s inability to turn off the humor button. Elaine, who insists Jerry cannot not be funny, wonders why everything with him has to be "so jokey." After Jerry hits a frustrated George with a one-liner about the difficulty of getting a condom out of the wrapper, George begrudgingly notes, "You never run out."

That inability to control his funny bone rears its ugly head here; even as Jerry attempts to reverse his harsh stance on ponies and calm Manya down, he cannot help but find humor in the situation.

"No, see, we didn’t have ponies. I’m sure at that time in Poland, they were very common. They were probably like compact cars," explains Jerry.

That line sends an infuriated Manya off in a huff. She dies soon after, and while her husband later insists she was not longer stewing over the pony remark, neither the gang—nor the viewer—can overlook the possibility that the stress played a role in her demise.

When it comes to customer management, it is essential that organizations create content, messaging and service experiences based on what matters to their audience rather than what matters to the staff. In Jerry’s circle of friends, a conversation about the pretentiousness of owning a pony is fair game. But in a crowd of relatives, including one who emigrated from Poland and cared for a pony as a child, the remark was not only out of place but disruptive (and perhaps destructive).

Customers, not brand executives or bloggers, are the truest judges and juries when it comes to outward brand messaging and service, and it is for them that experiences must be framed. If they are not satisfied, the effort was not successful.

In today’s "social era," brands must demonstrate particular sensitivity when it comes to comedic marketing—a joke is only acceptable if the broader audience laughs.

Just ask Kenneth Cole, which once prompted uproar when it attempted to craft a joke (and product marketing opportunity) from civil unrest in Egypt.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Chinese Restaurant"
Customer Management Lesson: Everything

Known and revered as the episode in which Seinfeld truly became Seinfeld, "The Chinese Restaurant" is overflowing with lessons for customer management professionals.

Prototypical of the "show about nothing," the episode centers entirely on Jerry, George and Elaine as they wait—with increasing frustration—to be seated at a Chinese restaurant. There are no massive jumps in time, no elaborate plot devices and no set changes. Comedy in the "bottle episode" comes entirely from the cast’s banter, awkward interactions with others, the humorous bit characters in the restaurant and the relatable absurdity of the situation.

So demonstrative of Seinfeldian humor is this episode that when Jerry and George later pitch their show-within-a-show-about-nothing concept to NBC, they suggest the idea of devoting an entire episode to the core characters waiting to be seated at a restaurant.

As the gang checks in, they are famously greeted by restaurant host Bruce, who explains—in a famous line—that the wait time will be "Five, ten minutes." That deadline comes and goes, but no matter how the trio reframes its requests and pleas for a table, the table remains on a horizon separated by "five, ten minutes" of distance.

Then, when the gang finally gives up and leaves, Bruce, with the same forced smile on his face, announces that the Seinfeld table is finally ready.

Heavy on laughs, the episode is also loaded with concepts of relevance to customer management professionals.

There is the conversation Elaine has about society’s passion for "first-come, first-serve." If she were in charge, wait times would be governed based on "who’s hungriest."

There is the discrimination in terms of service offered to certain customers. Mr. Cohen, a loud-mouthed regular who lives on Park Avenue and is "always here," can easily—and instantly—be accommodated. Jerry, George and Elaine, on the other hand, must wait until it is absolutely convenient for the restaurant.

There is the utter disregard for customer sentiment. Even as the gang makes its desperation for a table obvious, Bruce remains completely out-of-touch with their concerns, going about his business as if nothing unusual is going on.

There is the lack of transparency. Though Bruce reiterates the "five, ten minute" wait period, he does not reveal whether or not the gang is on deck, why others seem to be getting seated first or why his restaurant continues to miss the promised deadline. At one point, Bruce whispers with a coworker—perhaps about the Seinfeld party—only to repeat the "five, ten minute" promise. What was he saying?

And there is the outright refusal to take accountability for the broken promise. In addition to withholding an explanation for the situation, the restaurateur fails to apologize. He misled his customers, they are clearly angry, and yet he maintains his remorseless pokerface without offering any sort of solution or compromise.

When it comes to customer management, organizations need to assure each interaction provides customers with a tangible, honest sense of importance and value. "The Chinese Restaurant" makes it obvious that it does not care about the gang’s business—and it loses it. Do not make that mistake in your organization.

When you make a promise to customers, keep it. And when you cannot, be both proactive and transparent in resolving the situation.

Providing special privileges for "regular" customers—though superficially insulting to Jerry and crew—is currently considered "best-practice" for service organizations. But when doing so, brands need to assure they are focusing on bringing positive value to loyalists rather than compromising the core experience endured by new customers.

As for "first-come, first-serve," alternative systems based on demand might be difficult to implement in many industries. Less difficult? Minimizing wait times for all customers.