Customer Service Lessons from "Seinfeld" - Part Nine

Brian Cantor

For the ninth part of our Customer Service Lessons from "Seinfeld" series, we remain situated in the sixth season of the greatest sitcom ever made.

While some of this chapter’s lessons resemble previous themes – the role of word-of-mouth, the importance of perfection across all touch points – they possess nuances and subtleties of immense relevance in today’s age of the empowered customer.

Instead of simply focusing on the value of brand prestige, let’s see what "Seinfeld" tells us about creating brand prestige. Instead of simply focusing on the value of avoiding mistakes within a given interaction, let’s see what "Seinfeld" tells us about using each interaction to retain a customer’s trust.

While we’re at it, let’s also look at the absurdity of corporate policies and the importance of saying "thank-you."

Seinfeld Episode: "The Mom & Pop Store"
Lesson: Endorsements are powerful

Notoriously "careful with money," George Costanza had done his "homework." He had assessed his options. He had decided to buy a 1989 Volvo.

Then the dealer threw him for a loop. He drew George’s attention to a LeBaron convertible.

George initially held his ground and rejected the sales pitch. His resistance proved too weak, however, for the ace up the driver’s sleeve.

The car used to belong to Jon Voight.

Suddenly, George’s homework went out the window. Yes, the Volvo was a better value. Yes, it had fewer miles and, in not being a convertible, was more practical for George Costanza (who had "never been the type to buy a convertible, what with the baldness and all"). Yes, it was the more sensible purchase.

But the LeBaron once belonged to a celebrity. That provided it with a cool factor unrivaled by any of the Volvo’s advantages. George, consequently, purchased the LeBaron – and proudly so.

He later learned that the previous owner was not "Jon Voight, the actor" but "John Voight, the periodontist." In that moment, the LeBaron revealed itself as the misguided purchase it was at the beginning of George’s hunt.

Still, for a brief moment, he was "drivin’ ‘round in Jon Voight’s car." And he was happy.

When it comes to customer management, an endorsement carries tremendous value. Not simply a tiebreaker between identical products, a powerful endorsement can actually compensate for shortcomings – as it did in the case of George’s LeBaron.

Relevant in the Seinfeld era, this lesson has even greater resonance in the modern age. Thanks to social media, endorsements are dramatically easier to communicate.

Thanks to networks like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, today’s consumers have direct access to their favorite celebrities – and thus direct access to their product preferences. Seeing a celebrity drinking a particular brand of tea, wearing a particular brand of jeans or using a particular line of makeup will prompt many consumers to consider purchasing from those brands – even if the research and price points do not warrant high consideration.

Social media also forges continuous connections between friends – and other customers – and thus provides access to a vast, non-celebrity pool of brand endorsements.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Secretary"
Lesson: A customer’s trust is a lucrative – but delicate -- thing

Upon feasting his eyes on Jerry’s new Houndstooth jacket, "Willie The Dry Cleaner" could not help but shower the garment with praise.

"This is a beauty," exclaimed Willie. "Great cut. It’s probably very flattering."

Upon being left with the jacket for a cleaning, "Willie The Dry Cleaner" could not help but to wear Jerry’s jacket in public.

The lead "Seinfeld" character caught the dry cleaner – in clear breach of the "dry cleaner’s code" – seemingly wearing the jacket at a movie theater. A ticket stub left in the pocket confirmed Jerry’s suspicion.

The breach completely destroyed Jerry’s trust in the brand – and thus prompted Jerry to cease his seemingly long-standing relationship with the dry cleaner.

"Now that we understand each other, I’ll be taking my business elsewhere," declared Jerry.

Jerry was not the only character to lose faith in a brand.

In a different plotline, Elaine grew to suspect Barney’s of using "skinny mirrors" to trick customers into buying unflattering clothing.

"In the mirror at Barney’s I looked fabulous," noted an Elaine who looked anything but fabulous while wearing the dress in Jerry’s apartment.

While Elaine’s reaction was less harsh than Jerry’s – she did not sever ties with Barney’s and actually expressed glee at the chance to return the dress for a different garment -- it still included a loss of trust.

As she tried the dress on, Elaine found herself unable to accept the view presented in the Barney’s mirrors. She needed to locate a "non-partisan" mirror outside the store.

Upon doing so, she again deemed the dress unflattering. She also picked up a salt stain on the dress – and thus locked herself into the purchase.

When it comes to customer management, it is important to recognize the frailty of customer trust.

Neither a history of successful transactions nor an esteemed reputation could compensate for the singular wrongdoings that affected the faith Jerry and Elaine had in the associated brands.

Jerry’s reaction to the wrongdoing carried more significance and permanence than Elaine’s reaction, but both emerged from their incidents unable to wholly trust the organizations.

The dry cleaner had forever lost Jerry as a customer; Barney’s had lost Elaine’s confidence. She might still shop there, but she will not trust the store’s advice and recommendations – and will thus be somewhat immunized to lucrative upsells.

When navigating your relationship with customers, recognize that customer trust and confidence are as easy to lose as they are hard to gain. Loyal, trusting customers will place you atop their purchasing hierarchies, but they will not grade your performance on a curve. If you do not – in each and every interaction at each and every touch point – remind them of why they came to initially trust you, you will potentially be articulating why they should not continue trusting you.

The goal is not simply to successfully execute an interaction – it is to give the customer reason, beyond every shadow of every doubt, to know that you are on his or her side.

Seinfeld Episode: The Kiss Hello
Lesson: Policies should help – not hurt – the customer

Upon meeting Elaine’s physical therapist friend Wendy on the street, George attempted to get a professional opinion about his injured arm.

In doing so, George committed a social taboo: one must not disturb the "delicate genius" outside of the office setting. George, thus, had to make a formal appointment – and agree to pay for the treatment.

Already rattled by the situation, George’s frustration reached a boiling point when he learned of an office policy.

Per the "policy," one must provide 24 hours’ notice when cancelling an appointment. Unaware of the policy, George skipped an appointment to drive his mother to the chiropodist and failed to provide the requisite notice. When he returned to the office, he was billed for the missed session.

"I’m sorry, that’s our policy" was all he received in response to his protest.

Things worsened, still, when George learned that the doctor was hypocritical. In order to go skiing with Elaine, Wendy blew off a day’s worth of appointments without providing ample notice to her clients. She did not, however, provide each customer with $75 of compensatory value.

As George was ranting about the hypocritical cancellation policy, Elaine experienced her own issue with Wendy.

When driving back from the ski trip, Wendy asked Elaine to exit the car – with her keys – a block prior to her apartment. While struggling to carry the skis, Elaine hurt her shoulder.

In requesting treatment from Wendy, the doctor asked Elaine for insurance information, thus signaling her intent to charge Elaine for the treatment. Wendy was so caught up in her usual protocol – patient comes in, you bill the patient – that she neglected to extend a courtesy treatment to a friend whose injury was caused by the doctor’s own action.

When it comes to customer management, policies are inevitable and necessary. No business – especially one that hires agents to interface with customers – can operate completely off the cuff. Some decisions will need to be standardized.

Those policies must, however, be designed with customer satisfaction in mind.

Wendy’s hypocritical cancellation policy did not pass that muster. It was blatantly designed to service the business (to assure the business does not lose money in the event of a last-minute cancellation). Instead of protecting the customer’s experience, the policy protected the business at the expense of the customer.

Policies must also be executed with flexibility and humanity. Perhaps there is merit in enforcing some sort of cancellation policy. But what if the cancellation is the result of an emergency? Wendy’s policy seemed pretty cut-and-dry – context was unimportant.

The approach to Elaine’s treatment reflected the same absence of humanity. The robotic doctor processed Elaine as a random customer rather than a specific human with whom she had a specific, contextual relationship.

Do not make the same mistake in your business. Policies should not be designed to hurt or say "no" to customers; they should give agents means to help customers and affirm their demands.

Policies should never supersede the human context of an interaction. If a particular circumstance warrants a different course of action, the business and its agents should have no qualms about overruling the policy to take the necessary course.

Seinfeld Episode: The Face Painter
Lesson: You can never over-thank

Unappealingly pretentious, Alec Berg was nonetheless capable of kind gestures. One included offering Jerry, Elaine and their friends tickets to the Rangers-Devils playoff hockey game.

While accepting his gift, Jerry and Elaine made it a point to shower Berg with gratitude. They wanted to leave no mistake about their level of appreciation.

Once the game ended, a mistake did emerge regarding their level of appreciation.

Despite a recommendation from Kramer, who briefed Jerry on the rules of society, Seinfeld opted not to call Berg to leave a "day-after thank-you."

"What do I [have] to call him for," wondered Jerry. "I thanked him five times when he gave
them to me, how many times I [do I have to] thank him?"

"You know what this is going to do," explained Kramer. "He's going to be upset because you didn't call him, and we're not going to get those tickets for Friday night [the next game]!"

The viewer never definitively learns whether was right about Alec’s emotional reaction. One does, however, learn that Kramer’s advice has merit.

With hours remaining until the game, Jerry finally calls Alec to express his gratitude. Berg casually notes that he wishes Jerry had called him earlier; "I could have given you my tickets for tonight."

Jerry’s stubbornness – over the principle of not showing gratitude, no less – cost him the seats he wanted (he ended up getting nosebleed seats).

When it comes to customer management, one can never overstate the importance of frequently expressing gratitude.

Jerry clearly understood the importance of gratitude – hence his numerous thank-yous upon acceptance of Berg’s offer -- but he forgot to say thank you at the more notable moment of truth. He thus missed a chance to make Berg, the man who controlled his fate, feel appreciated.

He also missed his chance to most fruitfully reconnect with Berg.

Whether engaging with agents or customers, contact center professionals must seize both such chances.

In the age of the empowered customer, a business can never do too much to demonstrate its appreciation for a supportive customer. In the interest of acquiring future business, it should vividly emphasize why it appreciates the business the customer has already offered.

The same goes for agents. Agent turnover is a notorious plague in the contact center structure; constant demonstration of the customer’s value is a way to eradicate that plague.

In issuing its thank-yous to customers and agents, a business also gets the chance to engage. Just as a call would have earned Jerry access to Berg’s hockey tickets, a thank-you call to a customer may introduce a business to that customer’s other needs – and thus other potential transactions. It may, similarly, introduce a business to valuable feedback from the agents it entrusts to carry out the customer experience.

If you’re asking whether you need to say another thank-you, you have revealed your lack of agent and customer centricity.