Customer Management Lessons from "Seinfeld" - Part Four



Brian Cantor
08/15/2013

Comparatively elite from beginning to end, it was not until its fourth season that "Seinfeld" truly established itself as an ubiquitous force with which to be reckoned.

Though many critics argue that the show and its characterizations became even more clever, funny and well-realized in its fifth season, season four’s biting meta-criticism—during which the show wryly and repeatedly acknowledged the perspective that it was "about nothing"—stands as one of television’s all-time most successful efforts.

Fueled by a self-referential season-long arc, in which Jerry Seinfeld and buddy George Costanza (representing actual "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David) pitched NBC a "show about nothing," the show’s fourth season houses several of its most memorable episodes. From "The Bubble Boy," to "The Contest," to "The Pick," to "The Outing," the twenty-four episode journey contains many of the series’ most memorable quotes, plotlines and characters. It is essential viewing for comedy fans.

It is also essential viewing for customer management practitioners. In providing some of "Seinfeld"’s most memorably-biting and astute social commentary and interactions, the fourth season is a goldmine for those looking to understand how better to understand, engage and retain their customers.

Part four of our "Customer Management Lessons from Seinfeld" feature highlights several of those important lessons.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Pitch"
Customer Management Lesson: Nothing has to happen

Of course Seinfeld isn’t really a "show about nothing." Though it situated itself and its characters in a far more organic, relatable reality than the typical sitcom, it was not without its share of weekly adventures and mishaps that could only happen on a television or movie screen. And even if the show was truly about nothing in its first three seasons, season four, in which the series embraced its "show about nothing" label, was definitely about something. It had a show-within-a-show plot driving its action.

Granted, the magic of "Seinfeld" rarely came exclusively from the surface plotlines. What makes it "about nothing"—and one of TV’s best shows of all-time—is the fact that much of its humor, even when associated with wacky characters and contrived plotlines, came from sincere, relatable action, interaction and reaction. But the lives and emotional makeups of the characters rarely existed absent external stimuli; even if they did not represent the core of "Seinfeld"’s humor, things, more often than not, did happen on the show.

Having fun with the misconception, George initially pitches "Jerry"—the duo’s show-within-a-show—as a television series that truly is about nothing. After first determining the show should just focus on conversation (following a chat with Jerry about the phonetic difference between "salsa" and "seltzer"), he later decides that in this exaggerated, satirical vision of "Seinfeld," the mere act of getting up and going to work could constitute a show.

In the actual "Seinfeld" series, something would certainly happen on the way to work. Maybe the alarm clock would not go off on time. Maybe the character would run into an annoying acquaintance or family member who, by virtue of insisting they engage in a long catch-up chat, causes the character to be late for an important meeting. Maybe the cashier at the coffee cart would provide the wrong change, prompting a lengthy argument. Maybe the cab driver, much to the frustration of the character, would take an ill-advised route that brings them into the throes of rush hour traffic.

On "Jerry," "Nothing happens on the show." The only reason to watch is "because it’s on TV."

A brilliant riff on the "show about nothing" label, George’s pitch does, nonetheless, connect sincerely to the heart of "Seinfeld." Though the show did not have the gall to spend thirty minutes following a character on his uneventful, unremarkable way to work, it did rest its laurels on the idea that people could watch a series about people. They could invest themselves in dialogue, interactions, behaviors and conflicts that were not always prompted by some big, sexy plot contrivance. It had confidence that characters could be fundamentally interesting by being fundamentally relatable (or at least identifiable).

When it comes to customer management, it is important to remember that customer service must represent a 24/7/365 priority. Agents will not always have a juicy product scandal into which to sink their teeth or a massive publicity stunt to unveil, but they will always have to make customer interactions valuable.

Any brand—and any rep—can get excited about a response to "United Breaks Guitars," refunding a customer for a product he bought elsewhere or bringing steak to a random person at an airport. But customers base their brand perceptions not only on those big gestures but on the little things that happen on a day-to-day basis.

How well does the organization stock its FAQ database? How easy—and friendly—is the return process? How does it communicate with customers facing minor issues, such as billing address changes or password resets?

Behavior in those kinds of scenarios contains the sex appeal and excitement of a show about someone’s daily commute to work. But it is in those scenarios in which a business shapes its reputation for customer-centricity. It must therefore treat each and every moment—and each and every interaction—as the big show.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Pitch"
Customer Management Lesson: Telemarketers and their value

Jerry Seinfeld’s "Seinfeld" character was far from a hero, but millions of Americans mistook him for such when he lived their fantasy interaction with a telemarketer.

While in the middle of a conversation, Seinfeld receives a call from a "TMI" representative, who attempts to pitch his company’s long-distance service. Not content to be bothered by a telemarketer, Seinfeld asks the agent for his personal phone number so they could continue the conversation later.

Though he initially says he’s "not allowed to do that," the agent quickly concedes that he doesn’t want people calling him at home.

At that point, Jerry has the representative exactly where he wants him. After barking "now you know how I feel" at the hypocritical agent, Jerry confidently hangs up the phone.

When it comes to customer management, businesses—and their customer service, marketing and sales teams—must remember that their communication efforts, particularly proactive ones, are inherently infringing on customers’ personal space and personal time.

Even if customers specifically requested these interactions, their time, attention and effort still comes with a hefty opportunity cost. No matter the nature of the call, it is doubtful the customer does not have anything he would rather be doing.

It is therefore imperative for agents to assure each interaction provides the customer with obvious, demonstrable value. A customer should not feel as if he is being asked to sit through a sales pitch; he should feel as if he is being given the keys to a tremendous opportunity. A customer should not feel as if he is wasting time dealing with a needless product issue; he should feel as if he optimizing his experience with that product.

By not following the Golden Rule and allowing Jerry to call him at home, the representative revealed that he does not ascribe significant value to the call. He is calling because it is his job to sell something rather than because he and his business truly believe the interaction brings an intrinsic value into Jerry’s life.

This lesson is not a condemnation of telemarketers or sales efforts. It is not placing a prohibition on outbound interactions. It, instead, is advising businesses to think carefully about how they plan to connect, why they need to connect in a certain way and whether that planned connection is consistent with what the customer values.

If an agent or supervisor would not want to be on the other side of the interaction, that interaction should not be imposed on the customer.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Airport"
Customer Management Lesson: The experience always matters

"Our goal should be a society without classes," declares a frustrated Elaine Benes, whose miserable experience in the coach section of a flight is exacerbated by knowledge of the paradise being enjoyed by first class passengers.

Even worse, because their original flight was cancelled, her friend and travel companion Jerry Seinfeld got promoted to first class at no extra charge. She was thus paying the same for bad service as another passenger was paying for elite treatment.

Exaggerated for effect, the central storyline in "The Airport" portrays those varying experiences. On the coach side, Elaine is crammed between a pair of rude customers. She is forced to endure a very smelly (and presumably unclean) bathroom. Upon exiting the bathroom, she is blocked by the food cart and must wait until every customer is fed before regaining access to her uncomfortable seat (and the real kicker is that the rude, smarmy flight attendant, informed by her seatmate that she might have moved elsewhere on the plane, did not even leave the meal she ordered at her seat). She misses an announcement from the pilot and cannot seem to get a recap from any of her fellow passengers. Her trip is a nightmare.

To top it all off, because an offended baggage clerk deliberately put her luggage on the wrong carousel, her bags were not waiting for her when she landed.

Jerry, on the other hand, receives treatment befitting royalty on the first class side. He is comfortably seated next to a beautiful supermodel. His delicious meal includes Italian wine and dessert. His bathroom smells like an English garden. He and his fellow passengers receive pillows and blankets for naptime. And, best of all, the flight attendant is friendly and personal (to everyone except Elaine, who is caught trying to sneak into first class).

When it comes to customer management, it is important to remember that businesses must never demean or devalue the experiences they create for customers. The engagement between a business and a given customer should never be blatantly—and certainly not deliberately—weaker than the engagement expected by the customer or provided to other customers.

Businesses are, of course, about good business, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with adapting specific products, services and experiences to customer’s lifetime value. Some believe that adaptation represents the truest form of customer-centricity.

But there is a significant difference between creating special, supplemental experiences for high-paying customers and dismissing the experiences offered to lower-value customers. They might not plan to fly first class every week, but coach passengers are still paying with the expectation that they will be valued, and they will still base their loyalty—and word-of-mouth—on the caliber experiences they receive.

As the first class is meant to be more expensive, there is no reason it should not come with nicer amenities. Expecting the same type of food and comfort from a coach seat is ill-advised and illogical.

How the business and its ambassadors operate within those differing structures, however, should not be subject to dollars spent. Flight attendants and other airline employees should always be thinking about how they can optimize a customer’s experience to boost satisfaction and loyalty. They should never skimp on smiles or engage in rude or impersonal interactions.

She might not be entitled to a First Class meal, but Elaine should never be deprived of her coach meal—and a warm attitude from the person serving it.

At any given moment, it is the business’ duty to show that a given customer is its most important customer. Even if that customer, in reality, is comparatively unimportant.

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