Customer Service Lessons from "Seinfeld" - Part Seven

Brian Cantor

When Call Center IQ opted to devote two "Customer Service Lessons from ‘Seinfeld’" features to the show’s Emmy-winning fourth season, it introduced an unfortunate layer of confusion.

"Part five" also focused on season four and "Part six" focused on the equally stellar season five.

Please accept CCIQ’s apology for making things even more confusing. Today’s article, which is the seventh part in the series, also focuses on the fifth season.

But was there any other option?

Not simply a standout season of the best show in television history, season five pays a particularly sharp, astute mind to social interactions. Some directly involve customer experiences. Others do not. Nearly all, however, carry ramifications for those who make a living determining how to best connect their brands to customers.

To omit episodes like "The Barber" and "The Cigar Store Indian" from the mix simply because a feature was already devoted to season five classics like "The Mango" and "The Non-Fat Yogurt" would be to undermine the very notion of this feature.

There will be no undermining. There will only be investigating the fifth season of "Seinfeld" – for a second time.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Barber"
Lesson: Meaningful brand-customer relationships involve an emotional element.

"I wouldn’t let that other butcher cut my hair."

Enzo, the "other butcher" about whom Kramer is speaking, is Jerry’s barber. Whereas Kramer routinely receives stellar cuts from Enzo’s nephew Gino, the titular character finds his hair consistently butchered by the uncle.

Jerry is fully aware of Enzo’s incompetence. He is fully aware of a superior, accessible alternative in Gino.

Why, then, does he consistently pay for an inferior product?

"I've been going with him for 12 years. I can't switch. I'd hurt his feelings."

The brand-customer relationship is not an inherently mutual one. The brand is obligated to keep the customer satisfied, but the customer does not have to provide reciprocal satisfaction. Once the customer pays his fee, the brand owes the customer everything – and the customer owes the brand nothing.

Yet here is Jerry, the customer, putting the brand ambassador’s "feelings" above his own satisfaction. So committed is Jerry to keeping Enzo happy that he is willing to accept a corresponding sense of unhappiness.

Kramer scoffs at Jerry’s desire to accept that burden ("His feelings?! You can't continue seeing him. You're destroying yourself!"), and his perspective was surely shared by many viewers.

Jerry’s concern is not, however, without merit.

Jerry eventually agrees to let Gino fix his latest monstrosity of a haircut but from within the secret confines of Gino’s apartment. A stray hair on Gino’s apartment floor nonetheless exposes the betrayal to Uncle Enzo (who recognizes the "familiar" hair and then enlists loyal customer Newman’s help in matching it to one of Jerry’s), and the revelation works the barber into a rage. Jerry’s betrayal did not simply hurt Enzo’s feelings – it angered him!

When it comes to customer management, the importance of emotional connections cannot be understated. Quality interactions might serve as the impetus for a relationship between a brand and a customer, but meaningful emotion is what will keep the ties bound.

In this case, the relationship between Jerry and Enzo had evolved from a transactional one between a patron and a barber into one of mutual concern. Jerry cared so deeply about hurting the barber’s feelings that he was willing to knowingly accept an inferior experience. Enzo cared so deeply about losing Jerry’s business that he was willing to enlist help in exposing the betrayal and then embark on a firestorm of emotion when he found out the betrayal had occurred.

Telling about the Jerry-Enzo relationship is the fact that the emotional connection emerges from a shaky core. Jerry attributes his concern to the longevity of the relationship rather than a history of quality. Enzo goes berserk once he learns he might have lost Jerry’s business but does not deliver a caliber of haircuts that would have kept Jerry from considering a switch. Emotion is keeping their relationship together, but the brand is not working to properly nurture that emotion.

By appreciating the importance of Jerry’s emotional loyalty, businesses will understand the value of learning from Enzo's mistake. Businesses are able to develop bonds so great that customers will care more about the business’ satisfaction than their own. But if they want to establish—and retain—those bonds, they must never rest on their laurels. They must treat each interaction as another opportunity to earn the customer’s emotional loyalty.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Cigar Store Indian"
Lesson: Know your audience.

When circumstance requires Jerry to help George fix a stained coffee table, the comedian is forced to break a promise to Elaine. He cannot drive her back to Manhattan, and she is forced to take an uncomfortable subway ride – "from Queens!"

Remorseful—but still very calculating—Jerry decides to surprise Elaine with a present. The gesture would simultaneously represent an apology and an opportunity to endear himself to the attractive Winona, who was present at Elaine’s house for a poker game.

The plan backfires.

The Cigar Store Indian, Jerry’s gift of choice, does not come across as desirably "kitschy" in context. It instead serves to offend.

Unbeknownst to Jerry, Winona is a Native American. The statue is thus inherently problematic, and Jerry’s accompanying, tone-deaf antics and poem only make the matter worse. He intended to win Elaine’s forgiveness and Winona’s admiration. He, instead, establishes himself as clueless and racist.

When it comes to customer management, knowing one’s audience is everything. That knowledge is the heart of customer centricity and the key to success.

Jerry’s intention was a good one. He even had reason to believe his gift was a good one – upon learning he was buying the Indian, a woman at the antique store revealed he had "excellent taste."

But neither his intention nor his gift (his strategy) was to be judged in a vacuum. There was no objective barometer against which his effort would be assessed.

He was operating within a specific context in which his specific audience had a specific identity and specific tastes. His strategy was wrong for that context, and it thus proved to be the wrong one…period.

The true irony of today’s emphasis on customer centricity is that many businesses devise their "customer centric" strategies from within the isolated confines of a boardroom. They do not truly consider what their unique customers want. They do not truly evaluate their ideas within a real world context. They implement strategies they believe (or that "best practices" tell them to believe) are fundamentally customer-oriented.

Such a strategy does not assure failure – generic gestures will appease many customers.

Such a strategy does, however, render a business vulnerable to failure. It does risk exposing a disconnect between what the business does and what its customers truly want.

Jerry learned that lesson the hard way. Your business does not have to suffer the same fate.

Do not deem something customer-centric, let alone appropriate for your customer experience strategy, without assessing whether it is right for your specific audience.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Hamptons"
Lesson: Make your customers feel genuinely special.

Prior to the gang’s weekend excursion in East Hampton, Elaine had never been called "breathtaking."

Pediatrician Ben Pfeffer, who was visiting the house to check-in on the homeowners’ baby, brought an end to that cold streak. He used the coveted adjective to describe Elaine’s beauty.

Satisfying in any context, the compliment carried special value due to the fact that the doctor was handsome ("gorgeous," in Elaine’s words).

The wonder it worked on Elaine’s self-esteem soon evaporated, however, when Pfeffer used the exact same adjective to describe the homeowners’ baby (whom she and Jerry had agreed was the "ugliest baby" ever). By throwing the adjective around loosely – and in the direction of a baby that was so clearly not breathtaking – Pfeffer effectively invalidated the compliment.

"If he thinks that baby is breathtaking, then who’s not breathtaking," wondered a rattled Elaine.

When Elaine confronted Pfeffer about his application of the "breathtaking" adjective to the baby, the smug doctor only made things worse.

"You know, Elaine, sometimes you say things just to be nice," remarked an aloof Ben Pfeffer. He would later use "breathtaking" to describe the quality of a breakfast.

When it comes to customer management, declaring an abstract sense of customer-centricity is not enough.

Businesses must demonstrate a unique and genuine affinity for each customer. Customers do not simply want to be appreciated because they are customers -- they want to be understood, appreciated and valued as unique customers and because they are unique customers.

Ben Pfeffer's compliment initially meant so much because it seemed credible, sincere and meaningful. As a handsome doctor who is "very particular" about whom he dates, his opinion mattered. And insofar as he used a term so significant in meaning and rare in application, it felt like a real--and serious--compliment. This eligible bachelor truly felt Elaine was breathtaking.

When she found out he was willing to haphazardly use the term "just to be nice," she could no longer ascribe any meaning to the remark. He was paying lip service rather than articulating true value. He was saying what he thought she wanted to hear rather than what he felt.

Businesses routinely fall into the same trap. They will tell every customer that he is important but do nothing to demonstrate specificity of value. They will say they care about relationships with their patrons but demonstrate no actual familiarity or concern for each patron's unique thoughts and behaviors. They will profess to valuing customer feedback but do nothing to specifically respond or act on that feedback.

That is not the correct approach. A business establishes its customer centricity by uniquely addressing and responding to its customers. It issues discounts and rewards that mean something to each specific customer. It answers calls and provides resolutions of relevance to each specific customer.

When it says it cares about how a customer feels, it proves that it has used that customer's sentiment to drive action.

Customer centricity is not defined by what a business says. It is defined by what the business means - and by what the business does.