Customer Service Lessons from "Seinfeld" - Part Eight

Brian Cantor

Imperfection does not preclude one from greatness.

Such is the motto of "Seinfeld" season six. When compared to the brilliance of seasons four and five, it naturally fades into the shadow. When compared to virtually anything else ever offered by the television medium, it remains an absolutely elite body of work.

Filled with some of the show’s most memorable jokes, scenarios and characters, the sixth season is certainly one worth remembering – and reliving.

For customer service professionals, it is also one worth investigating. Like the previous five seasons, it contains an endless supply of advice for those whose job is to successfully engage – and satisfy – customers.

Seinfeld episode: "The Chaperone"
Lesson: Doing right by the customer sometimes involves choosing right for the customer

An encounter with a sweaty Danny Tartabull exposes George to a startling truth: the New York Yankees wear polyester uniforms.

Convinced that a natural fibre would allow for a cooler, more comfortable experience, which would in turn allow for a more productive performance on the field, George lobbies team manager Buck Showalter for a switch to cotton uniforms. His campaign is successful, and the initial response is as intended.

The players are cooler and happier. As a result, they play better.

Ironic given his season five encounter in the Hamptons, George unfortunately neglects to consider the major downside to cotton clothing: shrinkage.

Upon being washed, the players’ cool, comfortable cotton uniforms shrink. And when they take the field for the next game, the embarrassing effects of that shrinkage render George’s uniform experiment a failure.

When it comes to customer management, businesses must recognize the difference between preference and demand.

A customer’s preference is the mechanism he perceives will best satisfy his demand. A customer’s demand is the outcome to which he ascribes the highest-possible value.

Given that a customer’s preference is the product of perception, which is the product of short-term emotion and the limited information to which the customer has access, it is not always the best route to satisfying his demand. When that happens, it is a business’ responsibility to overrule the customer’s preference. Doing so may seem counterintuitive on the surface, but insofar as it results in a better outcome for the customer, it is the more customer-centric approach.

Aware that players were getting hot in their polyester uniforms, George instinctively recommended a more breathable material. He was not aware of why the organization chose to use polyester or immediately mindful of why cotton was a bad idea. He simply established a preference based on readily available information; that preference backfired.

Had the fictional version of the Yankees honored its organizational responsibility, it would have analyzed historical research about uniforms. It would have let George—and the players—know that polyester uniforms, by virtue of not shrinking, would actually result in a more comfortable long-term experience.

This lesson is particularly relevant in the context of right-channeling. Today’s customers make channel preferences based on limited information; businesses, possessing far more information, have a greater sense of which channel is truly best for a given customer. Routing the customer based on that internal channel knowledge may initially seem like an affront to the customer, but it actually reflects a far greater commitment to—and a far greater respect for—the customer and his demand.

Seinfeld episode: "The Big Salad"
Lesson: Brand prestige dictates quality | There are no objective truths

Objectively, Jerry’s girlfriend of the week is a legitimate catch. She is naturally beautiful, has great hair and possesses an unmistakable charm.

Unfortunately, what she lacks in objective flaws she possesses in a crippling contextual one: she once dated Jerry’s arch-nemesis Newman.

Worse, Newman, citing a lack of meaningful attraction, was responsible for ending the relationship.

For someone like Jerry, who simultaneously reviles Newman and obsesses over the most minuscule of flaws, the situation brings his attraction to an immediate halt. If she is not good enough for someone as repulsive as Newman, how could she possibly be good enough for him?

"The most distressing part of it is…not so much why she did see him, as disturbing as that is. But why, did he, Newman, stop seeing her?"

Obsessed with that question – and consequently unable to reciprocate any romantic affection – Jerry prompts his girlfriend to nix the relationship.

When it comes to customer management, businesses must recognize the importance of reputation. A brand’s prestige can dramatically impact the customer’s experience and willingness to share that experience with others.

Need proof? Consider the fact that a woman was shamed for sharing a positive review of Olive Garden.

Jerry's situation also sheds light on another customer management reality: there is no such thing as an objective truth.

Margaret, much like a well-designed product or a carefully constructed customer service script, possessed no objective shortcoming. There was no obvious reason why someone with her looks and personality would repel a suitor.

Her romantic past, however, represented a massive flaw in the eyes of the specific suitor. To Jerry, the fact that she had dated -- and been rejected -- by Newman negated any of her positive qualities. That is what mattered most to him.

When designing and delivering customer experiences, brands cannot rely on their own, insulated perspectives. They must account for what matters to individual customers.

Concepts like advanced self-service technology, proactive invoice alerts and conversational customer service agents may seem objectively appealing, but if they are not appealing to the brand's specific customers in those customers' specific situations, they are not concepts the business should employ.

Seinfeld episode: "The Pledge Drive"
The lesson: The power of virality

Social media did not exist in the age of "Seinfeld," but the concept of virality most certainly did.

Much to Elaine’s chagrin, that virality turned an annoying, pretentious habit into a city-wide trend.

The trend begins with Mr. Pitt, who had recently hired Elaine as his personal assistant. While interacting with her boss, Elaine notices that he, perplexingly, opted to eat his Snickers candy bar with a knife and fork.

While listening to Elaine’s rant about the bizarre habit, George stumbles upon a flattering explanation: "He probably doesn’t want to get chocolate on his fingers. That’s the way these society types eat their candy bars."

George, who immediately adopts Mr. Pitt’s refined approach to dessert, uses it to project elitism during a board meeting. George’s boss – and Yankees co-workers – take notice and subsequently transform their own dessert habits.

The approach – which now includes using knives and forks to eat donuts and spoons to eat M&Ms – quickly propagates the city. "They’re all doing it," declares a bewildered Elaine Benes.

When it comes to customer management, nothing is private. Word-of-mouth, which has been greatly amplified by the rise of social media, can introduce every individual customer experience anecdote and every single piece of customer feedback to a global audience.

From a glass half-empty standpoint, virality places a daunting burden on customer experience professionals. Since news of one isolated mistake can instantly circulate the globe, the stakes of failure significant. In elevating those stakes, social media comes to represent the enemy of businesses.

From a glass half-full standpoint, social media instead represents a valuable weapon. Whereas traditional marketing involves an organization tooting its own horn with no assurance of credibility, social marketing allows third-party customers to share their objective endorsements across the globe. Instead of promising to do right by customers, social gives organizations a worldwide platform for proving they do right by customers.

If an organization is creating great products and supporting them with a great customer service effort, virality represents a ticket to amplified success.

Seinfeld episode: "The Soup"
Lesson: One mistake is all it takes.

After a week of flirtatious banter with new Monk’s waitress Kelly, George decides to take the relationship to the next level. He asks the charming waitress out on a date; she accepts.

The date gets off to an exemplary start. The chemistry that fueled their restaurant conversations exists outside the workplace, and both parties seem to be having fun.

Then, Kelly deals George a brutal blow: she nonchalantly reveals that she has a boyfriend.

The news stuns George. After all, his romantic intention was clear (he asked her to go on a walk "or something" – in the Seinfeldian universe, the "or something" establishes the request as one for a date). Why would an attached woman agree to go on a date?

For George’s friend Jerry, only one answer comes to mind: the possibility that she called an audible – and faked a claim about having a boyfriend– based on dissatisfaction with how the date was progressing. His suspicion was later confirmed.

Upon analyzing the date, George and Jerry stumble upon the moment that potentially prompted Kelly’s audible: "I mentioned how I like horse manure."

During the conversation, Costanza riffed on how the word manure, while used to describe something rotten, consists of positive linguistic elements. "It’s newer/noor*, which is good, with a ma in front of it. When you consider the other choices, manure is actually pretty refreshing."

After a series of great interactions in the restaurant and a great start to the walk, an ill-advised rant on manure flushed the entire relationship down the proverbial toilet. Kelly was turned off, and George’s hope of a romantic relationship was dashed.

When it comes to customer management, a business can never shirk its duty to perform. No matter how stellar its previous interactions, it is always one bad conversation away from damaging its relationship with a customer.

In accepting this cold reality, businesses must consequently accept a disillusioned portrait of customer loyalty. Customer loyalty, which is typically based on a history of favorable reactions, may result in increased purchases. It may result in brand advocacy.

It may not, however, soften the blow of future mistakes.

George’s history of successful banter was enough to garner Kelly’s interest – and secure a date.

But when the date went awry, Kelly no longer saw George as the charming, funny guy from the restaurant. He was the man who engaged in weird discussions about the etymology of manure.

Your business can successfully serve a customer ten times, but if it fails on the eleventh try, it will become the brand that failed rather than the brand that almost always satisfies.