Customer Service Lessons from "Seinfeld" - Part Ten

Brian Cantor

We’re here. We’re at season seven. We’re at the season of "The Soup Nazi."

Over the past few years, Call Center IQ has extracted contact center, branding, and customer service lessons from the first six seasons of NBC’s classic sitcom "Seinfeld." Some were taken from storylines that directly addressed customer service issues. Others came from situational plotlines that spoke to the nature of humanity – and the way it interacts.

Season seven provides numerous opportunities to continue that trend, the most iconic of which is the aforementioned "The Soup Nazi" episode. Arguably the most famous, culturally resonant "Seinfeld" episode ever, "The Soup Nazi" reminds audiences of an oft-ignored element of the customer experience. We’re prepared to address and analyze it.

As nearly every season seven episode offers commentary on the customer experience – if not a direct confrontation of it – we’ll need multiple articles to adequately cover the episodes. We begin with a look at three episodes: "The Maestro," "The Hot Tub," and, of course, "The Soup Nazi."

Seinfeld Episode: "The Maestro"
Lesson: Successful ‘culture’ drives performance

"That’s why I’m different," explains George Costanza. "I can sense the slightest human suffering."

Recently engaged to Susan Ross, George accompanies his new fiancêe to her uncle’s clothing store. Upon arriving, the minutiae-obsessed George’s focus is consumed not by the fashion items but by the treatment of the store’s security guard.

The man is forced to stand at the door for eight hours a day when he could "just as easily be sitting."

George is furious at the treatment. He is disturbed by Susan’s indifference to the situation. He opts to take action.

After a quick dialogue with the security guard, George decides to provide the employee with a chair of his own. Indeed preferential to sitting over standing, the security guard quickly embraces the chair. George seems to have done right by the world and by the employee. He corrected an injustice and satisfied the employee in a way his boss did not.

Like many of Costanza’s schemes, the plan backfires. Far too comfortable in new chair, the security guard falls asleep on the job. While getting in his REM cycles, an individual is able to rob the store with ease.

In his effort to improve the security guard’s work life, George ultimately neutered his ability to provide security.

When it comes to customer management, it is important to consider performance when developing agent culture.

When hearing about the iconic cultures at companies like Google and Zappos, organizations often focus on the employee perks. They rave over the nap pods and creative office dêcor and assume that incorporating similar elements of "fun" will allow them to mirror the success of these organizations.

What they overlook, however, is the fact that these iconic organizations are constantly mindful of performance. Their cultural "perks," in fact, are specifically aligned with performance expectations – and with the culture of their customers. They are designed to make employees better at their jobs and better suited for the brand they are representing.

Since other organizations do not perform the same tasks, do not have the same performance focuses, do not have the same business objectives, and do not have the same types of customers, they should not mirror the specific cultural elements of the iconic customer service brands. They should instead mirror the philosophy – creating a culture that "fits" the brand, aligns with customers, and allows for the best possible performance.

George did not adopt that approach. Instead of thinking about what was best for the specific business and the security guard’s performance within that business, he focused on creating a generic sense of happiness. The smile on the security guard’s face confirms George did deliver happiness, but the fact that he rendered the security guard ineffectual reveals it was the wrong kind of happiness.

Of course agent satisfaction matters, but it matters because it can lead to better performance and better alignment with the brand and customers.

Seinfeld Episode: The Hot Tub
Lesson: Speak the customer's language

An individual who would rather devote considerable effort to escaping his responsibilities than simply dedicate the effort to those responsibilities, George had perfected a means of gaming his work environment. If he looks busy and frustrated, his superiors will assume he is working hard.

The tactic initially pays off; perceiving George to be stressed and overworked, his boss Mr. Wilhelm issues him a "fun little assignment." Executives from the Houston Astros are in town to discuss interleague play, and George is asked to "show them a good time."

The Astros employees possess interesting personalities – they are loud, obnoxious, sarcastic, and conditioned to casually use "bastard" and "son of a bitch" as terms of endearment. While bonding with them, George begins to mirror their personality traits. He too begins to casually drop terms like "son of a bitch." He adopts the loud, obnoxious, sarcastic demeanor.

Negative ramifications emerge. By declaring that those in the "major league" nonchalantly use terms like "son of a bitch" and "bastard," George misleads Jean-Paul, a foreign runner who was staying with Elaine ahead of the New York City Marathon, into believing the terms are culturally acceptable in America. Jean-Paul subsequently makes the mistake of using "bastard" in front of a child and single mother and "son of a bitch" in front of a building superintendent.

George, meanwhile, hoists himself by his own petard. While on a phone call with the Astros employees (who were on an airplane and struggling to hear), George screams in their signature speaking style: "You tell that son of a bitch that no Yankee is ever coming to Houston. Not as long as you bastards are running things."

While George’s sarcasm and phrasing were not problematic in the context, they were alarming to outside observer Mr. Wilhelm. Aware George was stressed and unaware that he was speaking the language of his Astros counterparts, Wilhelm assumed an angered George was actually insulting the prospective business partners. George was reported to Mr. Steinbrenner, who prescribed hot tub therapy.

When it comes to customer management, it is important to adapt communication to the context of the situation and the preferences of the audience.

Customers react to different personality types and speaking styles, and the best brands and agents tailor their communication to those styles.

While casual use of "bastard" and "son of a bitch" would not garner a favorable reaction from typical executives, proper, professional dialogue would not optimally resonate with the specific executives from the Astros. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work.

And it has no place in an era fixated on building meaningful, lasting, personalized relationships with customers.

Through a combination of strong profiling and agent versatility, the best organizations serve the customer the way the customer wants to be served. Going beyond the script, agents rely on the speaking patterns, demeanor, word choices, and value propositions that matter most to each individual customer.

Seinfeld Episode: The Soup Nazi
Lesson: Product quality counts

Inspired by real life "soupman" Al Yeganeh, the titular "Soup Nazi" is a master of his craft. Powerful enough to make one’s legs go weak, one cannot eat the soup standing up. A seat is as necessary to the process as a spoon.

He is not, however, a master of affability. Cold, dismissive, rigid, and horrifically judgmental, The Soup Nazi requires the sameperfection of his customers that he does of his soup. If they stray from the formal ordering process, ask unnecessary questions, offer "extraneous comments," speak in a non-English language, offer compliments, embellish on their orders or demonstrate recklessness while standing in line, The Soup Nazi does not want their business. He responds to their behavior with the iconic "No soup for you," and they are forced to return at a later date (if he even allows that).

Despite the frustrating, stressful, often offensive ordering process, the restaurant’s line regularly extends around the block. While the word-of-mouth naturally includes guidance about the ordering process, it ultimately offers glowing commentary on the soup rather than negative commentary on the service experience.

Save for Elaine Benes, no one seems particularly bothered by the soupmaker’s antics.

When it comes to customer management, it is imperative to remember that product quality represents a fundamental tenet of the customer experience.

Too often, we treat the "customer experience" as synonymous with the service experience. We focus on concepts like agent demeanor and first call resolution but not on the product the brand is actually servicing.

To truly optimize the customer experience, a business cannot make that mistake: he must account for factors like product quality, ingenuity and pricing in addition to customer service.

When evaluating The Soup Nazi, customer service professionals will intuitively focus on his poor service. They’ll criticize his lack of customer centricity and advise business leaders to perform otherwise, in the process ignoring that his service experience did not at all dissuade business (if anything, the gimmick likely added to the brand’s appeal).

Customer service is a valuable differentiator. It helps break ties. It does not, however, allow a brand to ignore the intrinsic alue of the product it is creating. A business that creates the best, most optimally priced products is going to develop a loyal customer base regardless of the customer support experience. An incredible product retains considerable value even if the service around it is mediocre.

Product, after all, is why customers engage – and get exposure to the service experience – in the first place.

In a competitive, customer-centric marketplace, one should not deliberately mirror the service provide by The Soup Nazi. He should, however, invest money and resources into matching the product quality provided by The Soup Nazi.