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Customer Management Lessons from "Seinfeld" – Part One

Brian Cantor

More than twenty years after its premiere, and the "show about nothing" still seems to apply to just about everything.

By amplifying everyday minutiae and shining light on the relatable sociological dilemmas storytellers traditionally deemed too trivial, "Seinfeld" made itself a go-to reference point for exploring the challenges that life introduces. From issues of morality to issues of romance, if something happens in real life, odds are strong that at least one "Seinfeld" episode contains a witty quote or scenario of immense relevance.

The timeless, invaluable lessons on how to behave—and how not to behave—continue to provide meaningful insights across all realms of society, and one particular recipient is customer service.

In this new Call Center IQ exclusive, we will look at the customer service and marketing lessons to be enjoyed from nearly every episode of television’s best all-time series.

Seinfeld Episode: Pilot/"Good News, Bad News"/"The Seinfeld Chronicles"
Customer Management Lesson: "Signals"

It might irrefutably be the worst "Seinfeld" episode—one that only slightly resembles the series that would ultimately become a classic—but the pilot still has relevance for customer management.

Built around the concept of "signals," the inaugural "Seinfeld" explores the male inability to properly decipher what women are thinking.

When Laura, a female acquaintance from Seattle, announces her plans to visit New York City, Jerry Seinfeld and best friend George Costanza struggle to interpret her intentions. First, due to the distant nature of her announcement (she had to come to New York for a seminar and maybe they can get together), George cautions Jerry that he will not see this woman at all, let alone in a romantic context.

Then, after she later asks Jerry to stay at his place because she could not find a decent hotel room (an implausible reality in New York City), George reverses his conclusion, noting with a renewed certainty that she is indeed coming to hook up with the stand-up comedian.

Seinfeld’s cautious optimism about a fling transforms into certainty when she, upon arriving at his apartment, gets comfortable on the couch, dims the lights, requests some wine and asks if she can stay an extra night. Unfortunately, it is within this same scene that Laura receives a phone call from her fiancê, confirming disinterest in anything sexual and leaving Jerry to ponder his failure to understand women.

When it comes to customer management, businesses often rely on "signals" and "indicators" to the detriment of their organization. They see no clear evidence of failure in their revenue statements and simplistic customer satisfaction scores and thus mistakenly assume that everything is rosy when it comes to managing their customers.

But as horror story after horror story reveals, the relationship between a brand and a customer is full of nuance. Customers might opt out of switching to a competitor in the short-term, but that does not mean new pricing policies, shoddy products and poor customer service experiences are not gradually driving them to the point of no return. Ask Netflix, now worth less than a third of what it was at its peak, what happens when you make sweeping assumptions about the customer base.

In a world of data-driven marketing, let alone logistical reality, it is impossible to ignore the importance of "indicators" and "forecasts" when developing business strategy. But signals alone are no excuse for deep customer feedback, and it is important that decisions are rooted not only in a superficial glance at how customers are behaving but in their truest feelings towards the business.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Robbery"
Customer Management Lesson: Know Your Product,Love Your Product

"The Robbery" is far from a great episode by "Seinfeld" standards, but with some clear signs of the "voice" that would make the show so famous and drastically underappreciated, late-episode dialogue from George, it is definitely an enjoyable half-hour. It also provides a very important lesson for customer service representatives, particularly those with a sales component to their roles.

After falling victim to an apartment robbery, Jerry’s disinterest in moving finally evaporates, and he allows George, a real estate agent at this point in the show’s run, to show him a "beauty" of a new apartment.

George is aware of the basic specs—Upper West Side location, two bedrooms, proximity to the park—but when he actually takes Jerry for a showing, he, along with the duo’s friend Elaine Benes, is floored by the reality of the apartment. It is absolutely massive. It is well-lit. It has a "walk-in" closet. It even has a fireplace and a garden, two features George, the broker, did not even know were included.

As Jerry agrees to sign the lease, George finds himself personally coveting the apartment. His jealousy towards Jerry’s potential new home, though concealed at first, eventually boils over. The two debate over the apartment, before ultimately agreeing to let an impartial third-party (a waitress at Monk’s Coffee Shop) take on the rental.

The two stew in misery while attending the housewarming party thrown by her and her husband.

When it comes to customer management, an agent’s personal faith in a product goes a long way in attracting customers. Well-trained representatives can articulate basic product details, and skilled salespeople can make deals seem more urgent and attractive to customers, but at the end of the day, neither group is maximizing its interaction with customers. Legitimate enthusiasm for a product is irreplaceable, and it is the truest way to build a customer’s confidence about his purchases and decisions to remain loyal to certain brands.

Customers generally believe there to be an asymmetry of information between themselves and brand representatives. Brand reps, they assume, have more insight into the undisclosed realities (both good and bad) of the products in question. As such, a representative’s personal endorsement of a product resonates, because it means that even after learning what kinds of customer complaints are rolling in and what shortcomings might have been overlooked in the development process, the agent still has faith in the offering. And that faith is contagious!

When George was pitching Jerry on the apartment, he was merely a guy—albeit a trustworthy friend—trying to build up a product. But when he showed a first-hand lust for the rental, he was someone who personally craved the product. And if this real estate insider is so sincerely blown away, how could a layman like Jerry downplay its value? He, too, falls heels over head.

Beyond creating trust and emotional contagion in communications with customers, representatives who love their products are also far more likely to build loyalty to the organization. If one greatly enjoys working with a brand’s product lines and customers, he will naturally be far more inclined to invest himself—over the long-term—into the business.

More sales and more loyal agents? Talk about win-win.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Stock Tip"
Customer Management Lesson: Accountability

"The Stock Tip," the final episode of the first season, features one of the show’s most overt references to the customer service problems that plague everyday life.

In one of the most memorable early "Seinfeld" scenes, Jerry confronts a dry cleaner about a dress shirt that had come back excessively shrunken. The cleaner initially deflects responsibility, raising questions like whether Jerry had asked for the shirt to be washed instead of dry cleaned or whether it was even his store that cleaned the shirt, but the comedian refuses to relent.

Eventually, after continuing to wear down the cleaner and noting his disinterest in a refund, Jerry finally secures the "admission of guilt" he had ultimately been seeking from the ashamed, defeated dry cleaner. Score a victory for the "Seinfeldian rant."

When it comes to customer management, far too many brands allow their wallets to function as blindfolds to the long-term importance of customer relationships. Aware that accepting fault might mean having to offer a refund, too many organizations coach their reps to deflect blame at all costs.

Instead of acknowledging the real possibility that the brand is to blame, these agents trap customers in mazes of phony excuses, explanations and even accusations, doing nothing to resolve the problem while simultaneously frustrating customers.

And it is for that reason that brands need to reverse their strategies. They need to accept responsibility even in some cases when they legitimately are innocent and exempt.

When Jerry brought the shrunken shirt into the dry cleaner, he was stubbornly certain that the cleaner was responsible. He was not going to lend much of an ear to excuses and alternative explanations, and the time the cleaner dedicated to offering them only compounded the frustration with the brand. His reaction was not going to be, "Aha! Maybe I did take the shirt to another dry cleaner." It was, "This guy ruined my shirt and is now lying to me. He doesn’t appreciate my business."

When debating with brands, customers rarely approach the situation with a legitimate open-mind (which, frankly, is similar to how most people debate – period). They are not seeking an objective, back-and-forth conversation about who is truly guilty; they are looking for acknowledgement of the wrongdoing and a commitment to resolution.

As such, there is little value in the brand proving it did things right. Customers are not going to happily cede that point, regardless of what the evidence technically says. The value of such interactions lies in doing right by the customer.

Some issues are beyond repair. But if the brand wants a chance at rebuilding a damaged relationship with a customer, it cannot dwell on the retroactive question of responsibility. It must dwell on how it is going to do better for that customer in the present…and in the future.

Continue to part two of Customer Management Lessons from Seinfeld