Customer Service Lessons From Seinfeld - Part 11

Brian Cantor

Seven months ago, we published the tenth edition of our Customer Service Lessons From “Seinfeld” series.  Today, we finally share the eleventh chapter.

Like the previous iteration, Part 11 focuses on the iconic sitcom’s seventh season.  Derived from “The Cadillac,” “The Doll,” and “The Friars Club,” the three lessons ultimately focus on customer psychology and emotion.

They remind us that great service is predicated on attempting to understand, empathize and collaborate with customers.  Businesses and employees should never immediately “Impose” best practices and procedures on customers, no matter how objectively right those practices may seem.

Welcome to “Customer Service Lessons From Seinfeld: Part 11.”

Seinfeld Episode: The Cadillac (Parts 1 & 2)
Lesson: Treat customers how you want to be treated

“Oh, you don’t want to get on my bad side.”

He may be charming and easy going, but Kramer is definitely not above holding grudges.  In “The Cadillac,” Plaza Cable finds itself on the receiving end of one such grudge.

Ten years prior to the episode, the cable company offered Kramer a comically broad service window for an appointment. By not providing a specific appointment time, the company forced Kramer to wait in his apartment “hour after hour, without so much as a phone call.”  Upon finally showing up, the technician neither offered an apology nor went out of his way to earn Kramer’s satisfaction, instead “tracking mud all over [his] nice, clean floors.”

“The Cadillac” places the shoe on the other foot.  Plaza Cable learns that Kramer has been accidentally receiving HBO and Showtime for free, and it sends a technician to turn them off.  Unsympathetic to a company that made him wait so many years ago (and one that wants to remove his free premium channels), Kramer opts not to accommodate the cable guy.  He makes the agent wait without any sense of when he’ll be able to access the apartment.  He also plays games with the representative, including placing him on hold – with hold music and all – during a phone call.

A cat-and-mouse game ensues, with Kramer consistently outmaneuvering – and further frustrating – the representative.  Late in the two-part episode, the defeated employee apologizes to Kramer, admits the flaws (and potential malice) of the company’s approach to service appointments, recognizes why the approach is so frustrating to customers, and vows to become more customer centric moving forward.

From now on, no more 'nine to twelve,’ no more 'one to five,’” vows the cable guy. “We're going to have appointments. Eleven o'clock is going to mean eleven o'clock. And, if we can't make it, we're going to call you, tell you why.

Kramer accepts the apology, and they embrace.

When it comes to customer management, the Golden Rule is paramount.  A business – and its agents – must treat customers the way it would want to be treated.

Too often, agents forget to put themselves in the customer’s shoes.  They approach the issue from their own, insulated perspective, focusing only on the scripts, policies and protocol on which they have been trained.  They forget that human connection is the most fundamental part of the customer service experience.

By giving Kramer the power – he makes the agent wait, he forces the employee to deal with frustrating phone calls – the “Seinfeld” storyline gives the cable guy a front-row seat to poor service.  By actually enduring the awful experience, the agent can easily understand why it is so wrong.

Your employees will doubtfully encounter a Cosmo Kramer who can literally subject them to the ills of a customer experience.  They will have to visualize it.  They will have to approach each service experience from the mindset of a customer.  And if they would be unhappy receiving the service they are providing, they need to ensure they are not delivering that service to actual customers.

Seinfeld Episode: The Doll
Lesson: Do what the customer wants, not what you think they should want

Jerry is set to appear on “The Charles Grodin Show.”  There is just one problem:  the comedian is out of fresh material.

The universe, luckily, provides him with a solution.  While on a trip in Memphis, Jerry stumbles upon a barbecue sauce bottle with a picture that looks like Charles Grodin.  Confident the bottle would represent a great conversation topic on the show, Jerry brings it on his flight back to New York.

Unfortunately, the bottle is damaged on the plane.  Seinfeld is again without material for the show.

The universe again does him a favor.  Susan Ross’ (George’s fiancée) college roommate Sally Weaver, who lives in Memphis, is flying into New York for a visit.  Jerry asks her to bring a case of the sauce.

Sally instead brings a case of a gourmet barbecue sauce – “the pride of Memphis,” as it is known.  Unaware of the reason behind Jerry’s specific request, Sally simply assumed Jerry wanted her to bring great Memphis BBQ sauce.  The sauce she brought is far tastier than the brand Jerry requested.

It does not, however, feature a picture of a man who looks like Charles Grodin.  Seinfeld is again without material for the show.

Somehow, he receives yet another gift from the universe.  When introduced to Susan’s doll collection, George notices one that eerily resembles his mother.  Jerry gets the idea to bring the doll – and a picture of George’s mother – onto the show.

When he calls George for assistance, he is greeted by the visiting Sally. Instead of complying with Jerry’s request to bring the doll and picture to the show, Sally instead selects a random doll she feels is “much funnier.”  Her decision leaves Jerry without a conversation topic for his appearance on the show.

When it comes to customer management, it is essential to take cues from the customer.  Do not make guesses or judgments about the customer’s request; simply do everything in your power to comply.

Instead of listening to Jerry, Sally acted based on her own assumptions and perspectives.  She assumed someone requesting Memphis barbecue sauce would want the best possible sauce.  She allowed her opinion regarding the doll to trump Jerry’s.  In both cases, she made matters worse for the person she was trying to help.

While the customer is not always right in a purely objective sense, the customer is always right about how he feels and what he wants.  Debating the customer on those issues is futile at best and problematic at worst.  The preferable option is to accept the customer’s own sense of judgment and provide the information or resolution the customer feels is most valuable.

If you believe the customer is way off base, feel free to engage him in a conversation about the issue.  Feel free to discuss an alternative solution you feel is more valuable.

Do not, however, act purely based on assumption.  Do not impose your opinion on the customer.

Seinfeld Episode: The Friars Club
Lesson: Don’t say you care; show you care

For Jerry, Hallie may have represented the perfect girlfriend.  She was pretty.  She was successful.  Best of all, she was best friends with George’s fiancée Susan.

The dynamic would allow Jerry and George to regularly do couple activities – movies, dinner dates, and vacations – in tandem.  “It’s almost as good as if I didn't get married,” says George of the appealing circumstance, which he curiously likens to that of The Gatsbys.

The aura of perfection unfortunately crumbles when the foursome goes to The Flying Sandos Brothers comedic magic show.

At one point in the act, one of the brothers makes Jerry’s jacket – a loaner he accidentally forgot to return to The Friars Club – “disappear” by throwing it into the audience. Jerry, Hallie, Susan and George head backstage to retrieve the jacket after the show, but the performers oddly pretend they have no knowledge of any jacket.

Hallie, who worked for the show, promises to get the jacket back.  Jerry is not optimistic.  Worse, he is put off by her calm, collected demeanor.  Jerry did not simply want her to say she would retrieve the jacket; he wanted her to be as furious as he was about what happened.  He wanted her to demonstrate an understanding of the need to right the Sandos Brothers’ wrong.

George tells Jerry to trust Hallie, but Jerry is suspicious of his motive.  Did he really believe she would find the jacket or did he simply want Jerry to continue dating his fiancee’s best friend?

George and Jerry later see one of the brothers at The Friars Club, wearing what appears to be the jacket.  They are kicked out of the club before they can explain the situation, but they later run into the brother backstage at the show.  They confront him and forcefully seize the jacket, only to discover it is not the same one.  It has a different crest.

Amid their struggle, Hallie shows up with the correct jacket (covered in dry cleaning plastic).  “It got a little dirty, so they wanted to clean it before they gave it back to you.

Hallie made good on her promise to return the jacket, so Jerry’s interest in the relationship is rekindled.  Hallie, however, is turned off by Jerry’s behavior.

When it comes to customer management, it is important to walk the talk.

Because customers have been burned far too often to give any business the benefit of the doubt, you cannot simply tell them you understand their frustrations.  You cannot simply claim you will make it right.  You have to demonstrate frustration of your own; you and your agents should be obviously bothered by whatever it is that makes your customers upset.  You must also demonstrate a visible commitment – through actions, not just words – to achieving a resolution.

Hallie worked for the show, so there was no objective reason to doubt her ability to locate the jacket.  Jerry’s doubt stemmed from her cool emotional state; if she was not upset by the situation, was she truly motivated to make it right?

This clash between “saying” and “showing” is commonplace across the customer service world, particularly in the airline and utilities sectors.  When flights are delayed, airline employees say they are doing everything they can but rarely seem frustrated or upset by the situation.  When the cable goes out, customer service representatives say technicians are doing everything they can but rarely express an understanding of the harm associated with lost television and Internet.

Absent the desired emotion and empathy, these agents are difficult to trust.  It, moreover, becomes easy to mistake their indifference for a lack of urgency.  The end result may be the same – the flight will take off, the cable service will be restored – but the emotional experience will be suboptimal.  The customer will question whether the organization worked as hard as possible.  He will wonder whether the employees cared about his sadness as much as possible.