Customer Management Lessons from "Seinfeld" - Part Five

Brian Cantor

After nearly a year of independently dissecting the call center and customer service realms, we are once again willing to let the iconic sitcom "Seinfeld" do the thinking for us.

A source of some of the wisest, most astute commentary on everything from race relations, to romantic interactions between genders, to the hazard of introducing politics into conversation, "Seinfeld" also established itself as a treasure trove of insight about how best to interact with customers.

Since debuting this feature, we have seen how the groundbreaking television comedy recommends reading signals when interacting with customers, understanding the makeup of the audience before implementing a marketing message or customer service strategy and meaning it when you declare the customer is always right.

Our last piece, which debuted in August 2013, revealed how season four approached concepts of mundane, day-to-day call center operations, telemarketing and customer experience design.

It was not until that fourth season that "Seinfeld" truly emerged as a dominant television force. And as a tribute to its role in cementing the show’s place in television history—and in recognition of how loaded it is with brilliant commentary—part five of "Customer Management Lessons from Seinfeld" also focuses on season four episodes.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Virgin"
Customer Management Lesson: Buying the person, not the product

Proudly—and undeniably—shallow and self-centered, Jerry Seinfeld is not a model citizen.

But he is also a decidedly human one, and his approach to closet consultant—and virgin—Marla is one ultimately consistent with the course many a man would take.

Describing Marla to George, Jerry explains, "[She’s in the closet business]. She reorganizes your closet and shows you how to maximize your closet space. She looked into my closet."

Not convinced by the legitimacy of his buddy’s closet concern, the skeptical George retorts, "So you thought she was good looking and figured this would be a good way to meet her."

Jerry exercises no hesitation in concurring with that assertion. He then reveals that once he learned she had a boyfriend, he rhetorically wondered, "what do I need more closet space for?"

Shortly thereafter, Jerry learns that Marla broke up with her boyfriend. Shockingly, his interest in a closet overhaul immediately returns.

When it comes to customer management, businesses must never underestimate the extent to which "people buy people." Often afforded many comparable product choices (and always the option to say "no" to purchasing non-essential goods), customers are not necessarily sold by product or price alone. In many cases, they will direct their spending in the direction of businesses they like.

The agents that represent a business play an instrumental role in currying the customer’s favor.

While Jerry’s buying behavior was dictated by a more crass, primal desire to sleep with the brand representative, it still reflects the extent to which product demand can be created or destroyed based on a customer’s personal opinion of the brand and its representatives. To capitalize on that element of humanity, businesses must thus assure they are not simply a place where a customer can buy a product but the center from which a customer wants to buy a product.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Pick"
Customer Management Lesson: Perception is everything

"Was it a scratch…or a pick?"

The iconic follow-up to the equally iconic "The Airport," "The Pick" commences with Jerry in the early stages of a relationship with fashion model Tia. Among the more improbable of the title character’s famously enviable flings, the coupling nonetheless begins to progress without a hiccup.

Until she catches him "in a pick at a light" and begins refusing his calls.

While stopped at a traffic light, Jerry uses his finger to explore the lower region of his nose. Thanks to a close-up, straight-on perspective, the viewer witnesses a hybrid between a pick and a scratch – Seinfeld appears guilty of some slight "nostril penetration," but he is not necessarily venturing deep into enemy territory.

When Tia pulls up in a cab alongside Jerry, however, all she sees is the profile of a man with what certainly appears to be a finger in his nose. She is horrified by what appears to be an obvious nose pick, and he is left with no opportunity to wage a counterargument.

"I know what I saw," declares a disinterested Tia when Jerry finally tracks her down at the Calvin Klein office.

Not limited in focus to Jerry’s unfortunate nose picking incident, the episode also presents Elaine as the victim of an unwanted circumstance. Asked by Kramer to wear a "stupid shirt" when taking a Christmas card photo, Elaine accidentally misses a button and puts her nipple on display. Unnoticed by Elaine and Kramer, the R-rated photo finds its way onto the card, which then finds its way into the hands of Elaine’s friends and loved ones.

No one, from Elaine’s relatives to her new, religious boyfriend, ponders the likelihood that it was a case of mistaken nudity. They, instead, opt to judge Elaine for her scandalous ways, thus casting her in a light inconsistent with her intention.

When it comes to customer management, businesses retain little control over when customers will witness questionable behavior, the extent to which they will assume the worst of that behavior and how they will go about responding.

For today’s businesses, the key, therefore, is to perform as if the spotlight is always shining. Everything a business does – from a marketing message that reaches the masses, to a 3AM response to a Twitter complaint, to its handling of a phone call from an embittered customer – will not only be judged by the other party(ies) involved in the engagement but by anyone who follows social media sentiment related to the brand.

Always judging—often with an inherent sense of skepticism—customers will often interpret oversights or mistakes as deliberate, calculated and destructive. They will appropriate feelings of damnation and condemnation to activities that do not truly, deserve them, and their buying behavior—and that of any customers to whom they can spread the word—will be adversely affected as a result.

Businesses must not simply recognize the existence of judging eyes but perform as if everything remotely imperfect will be deemed absolutely bad. The counter is to operate, in all cases, with a strict sense of customer-centricity. Knowing customers will perceive the worst of its actions, businesses must assure those actions leave no opportunity for doubt or frustration.

Seinfeld Episode: "The Outing"
Customer Management Lesson: There is no containing customer sentiment

Somehow both unbelievably dated and perpetually relevant, Seinfeld’s most notable take on homophobia continues to reign as one of the show’s most revered, recognized and quoted episodes.

"The Outing," which offers that take, finds Jerry and George mistakenly "outed" as homosexuals. Aware that the women at an adjacent coffee shop table are eavesdropping on their conversation, Elaine decides to create a fake, more interesting conversation for their benefit: one in which she identifies Jerry and George as closeted homosexuals and urges them to go public with their relationship.

One of the nosy women, it turns out, was a New York University interviewer preparing to develop a feature on Seinfeld for her school newspaper. Now convinced that his status as a comedian is no longer Seinfeld’s most interesting, defining quality, the reporter decides to use the piece as a platform for "outing" Seinfeld’s lifestyle.

Upon learning about the confusion—and learning about the writer’s intent—Jerry and George vociferously dispute the notion that they are gay. Mindful that their vehement rejection of the homosexual characterization might be construed as homophobia, the two nonetheless repeatedly disclaim "not that there is anything wrong with that."

Their pleading eventually convinces the reporter, but when she hears a phone call out of context and has a run-in with Elaine over a big winter coat, she becomes both certain of their homosexuality and disinterested in caving to their wishes. She publishes the story in the NYU paper.

Prior to the story’s publication, Elaine attempted to put her friends’ mind at ease by noting, "It will just be in an NYU paper."

If only.

Intrigued by the story, the Associated Press picked up the article, which meant that every newspaper that subscribes to the AP wire also ran with the story.

The "outing" of Jerry and George, which started as a harmless joke during a lunchtime conversation at a coffee shop, became a national news story.

When it comes to customer management, it is imperative to recognize that no interaction is limited to those involved. Every phone call, every live chat interaction, every email exchange and every in-person interaction could potentially go viral across the myriad of social media channels.

As a result, a business and its customer service agents must ignore all conceivable temptation—and even sense of justification—to dismiss or dispute a customer’s request. No conversation comes with a guarantee of privacy, which means that all conversations come with a risk of reaching the masses and influencing overall customer sentiment.

Just as every customer service action must be designed to reduce the risk of negative perception, every interaction must be managed with the expectation that the entire population of past, present and future customers will learn what happened.