Customer Service Lessons From Seinfeld - Part 12
Far too much time has passed – almost a year to the date, in fact – since we last published an installment of our popular “Customer Service Lessons From Seinfeld.”
I cannot allow the wait to continue. I am thrilled to share a new round of Seinfeldian customer service lessons.
For this installment, we head into season eight of the greatest sitcom in television history. The show definitely started to fall from its creative grace at this point in the run, but it continued to deliver major laughs each week.
Perhaps more importantly, it continued to deliver valuable lessons for customer service professionals.
We’ll explore some of those lessons today. Welcome to “Customer Service Lessons From Seinfeld – Part 12.”
Seinfeld Episode: The Fatigues
Lesson: Reward the right behavior
At the onset of season eight, J. Peterman suffered a nervous breakdown, fled to Myanmar (or Burma, as it will also be known to him), and left Elaine in charge of his successful mail-order catalog.
While settling into her role, Elaine noticed that she had been receiving mail several weeks late. The company’s mailroom clerk was not doing his job properly, and it was time for Elaine to perform one of the most notorious executive management endeavors: terminating an employee.
She initially seemed cool and collected about the process. Then she met the man whom she was to fire. Sporting military fatigues and an intense demeanor, the employee was downright intimidating. She could not go through with the termination.
But insofar as she called him all the way up to her office, she “had to tell him something.” So she promoted him to copywriter!
The move seemed harmless enough; his writing, after all, couldn’t “be any worse than the pointless drivel we normally churn out,” she reasoned.
It turns out it could be much worse than the team’s usual copy. Not simply horrible in an objective sense, the writing drew upon violent imagery that was completely inappropriate for a catalog selling “women’s wear.”
She could not allow him to continue writing, but she still feared firing him. Without considering the ramifications, she promoted him to director of corporate development.
The move enraged the other copywriters, and they all quit.
When it comes to customer management, leaders must ensure they are rewarding the right behavior.
Employees, wanting to not only foster job security but receive recognition, bonuses, raises and promotions, will model their behavior based on what they believe matters most to leadership.
The company’s rewards structure reveals what matters most to leadership.
Rewards, consequently, drive behavior.
If an organization expects its agents to deliver a legitimately customer-centric experience, it must specifically reward customer centricity. A call to go “all out for the customer” will fall on deaf ears if agents know they are more likely to be rewarded for low average handle times, high call counts and inexpensive interactions.
Beyond optimizing productivity, rewards programs yield agent satisfaction and loyalty. They demonstrate the extent to which the organization recognizes, appreciates and values its hardest workers. They make agents feel good about their effort.
Elaine expected her team to deliver great catalog copy yet rewarded the one employee who was not delivering on that expectation. In doing so, she sent the message that performance does not matter – and thus eliminated the team’s motivation to do great work.
Worse, she sent the message that she did not care about the work the legitimate copywriters had been doing. She clearly did not value them, and if that is true, why should they remain loyal to the organization?
Seinfeld Episode: The Nap
Lesson: Customers desire effortless (if not proactive) experiences
“There is no normal; [my hours are] whatever Jerry wants. He wants me here late, I’m here late. He wants me here early, I’m here early.”
In delivering such a quote, Conrad the handyman confirms his heart is in the right place. He understands the importance of customer centricity; he recognizes the value of putting the customer’s needs first.
He, unfortunately, does not know how to deliver a great experience for his customers.
Tasked with installing new kitchen cabinets, Conrad routinely bothers Jerry with questions about every minor detail. Conrad’s heart is in the right place (he wants to make sure he is building the exact cabinets his customer wants), but his execution is flawed.
His effort to give Jerry exactly what he wants yields an experience Jerry absolutely hates.
Fed up with Conrad’s constant nagging and slow progress, Jerry frustratingly demands Conrad stop asking questions, make decisions on his own, and “finish this thing up today!”
It turns out that Conrad is terrible at making decisions – the cabinets he builds are utterly hideous. But at least he stopped bothering Jerry with every single issue.
When it comes to customer management, it is important to remember that “time is money.”
Each moment a customer spends interacting with a brand thus carries a “cost.” As that cost rises, so too does the customer’s anger.
The annoying questions and delays turned Jerry’s excitement over a kitchen remodel into frustration over the process. It got to the point where he was willing to forfeit his input – leaving all decisions in the hand of the carpenter – just to be done with the burden of the experience.
Be mindful of this reality when engaging with your customers. Customers value a personalized experience, but they hate one that requires undue time or effort. They, far more often than not, are willing to forgo some “personal autonomy” in the name of quick, easy resolutions to their issues.
As you construct a customer experience, ask yourself whether your processes make life harder or easier for customers. Ask yourself whether you are doing everything in your power (such as proactively addressing and resolving problems for your customers) to reduce the time the customer must personally devote to the issue.
It’s not enough for the customer to like your product; they must like the experience associated with that product.
Seinfeld Episode: The Millennium
Lesson: Fear drives great customer experiences
While shopping for Huaraches, Elaine encounters the employee from Hell.
Instead of assisting Elaine with her purchase, the employee engages in what is obviously a personal, non-urgent phone call. When she finally responds to Elaine’s request for assistance, the employee expresses no regret or remorse for the delay. She, if anything, seems annoyed that Elaine – a potential customer – interrupted her phone call.
Upset by the experience, Elaine abandons the purchase, announces that the employee just lost a customer, and commits to taking her business elsewhere.
Elaine later heads to a competitive store, buys tons of unneeded items to prove a point, and then encounters a very rude awakening: it is staffed by the same woman who delivered the awful experience at the other store. It turns out the woman owns both stores. Her reason for indifference is suddenly clear: she did not seriously fear the lost business.
Unwilling to let the owner get the last laugh, Elaine works with Kramer to exact revenge. Their plan, predictably, goes awry.
When it comes to customer management, this may seem like an odd “Seinfeld” episode from which to draw a lesson.
The business owner delivered terrible customer service – and demonstrated absolutely no remorse. That is not exactly a great message to send in today’s era of customer centricity!
A look beyond the surface, however, reveals some very valuable takeaways.
For starters, the customer (Elaine) did react to the poor experience. She ditched a surefire purchase – and then took her business elsewhere. It is unfortunate that Elaine ended up switching to a sister business rather than a competitor, but the fact remains that she took action. She proved that dissatisfied (let alone disgruntled) customers are willing to walk away.
The poor customer experience, moreover, is a direct consequence of the owner’s indifference. Whether due to her wealth (if she owns two stores in Manhattan, she is surely doing okay for herself) or due to her control of the market, she did not seem to fear losing Elaine’s business. During the initial encounter, she actually mocks Elaine’s declaration that a customer had been lost.
The owner was without fear – and thus without pressure to deliver a great experience.
Most businesses are not so lucky. They are constantly at risk of losing market share. They, accordingly, must constantly fear the ramifications of a poor customer experience.
If you can laugh off a lost customer, then – by all means – behave the way this store owner did. If, however, you’re trying to keep as many of your customers as possible (while retaining new ones as possible), commit yourself to delivering the best service possible!