Customer Sabotage: Lessons and Consequences of ‘Soup Nazi’ Service Experience


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We’re now at the 25 year anniversary of the first episodes of Seinfeld, the TV sitcom which became so legendary in so many ways. One of the most vivid, and famous, memories, especially for those of us focused on optimizing customer experience and perceived value, was the show which featured the ‘Soup Nazi’, and his ‘it’s-not-about-you, it’s-about-me, and-get-out –of-my-store-if-you don’t-like-it’ version of service:

A key lesson of the above clip occurred in the last minute, where an exultant Elaine, having been exiled from the shop (‘No soup for you!!!’), came back to show the Soup Nazi that she had been able to identically copy many of his most famous recipes, thus quashing the value he so prized. As a customer, Elaine went beyond just leaving and never returning, or even telling her relatives and acquaintances how shabbily she had been treated. In the pre-Internet world of Seinfeld, Elaine became a customer saboteur, refusing to accept the Soup Nazi’s churlish service behavior and going so far as to get sweet revenge by finding the ideal way to undermine his business. Ultimately, as some may recall, Elaine succeeded in forcing the Soup Nazi to close his shop; and, rather fittingly, he moved to Argentina.

The polar opposite of advocates and bonded customers are saboteurs (or ‘badvocates’, as coined by leading PR firm, Weber Shandwick). Saboteurs are the extreme of what we label as ‘alienated’ customers, whose assessment of a supplier can range from mildly annoyed and disaffected to outright, revenge-seeking anger, i.e. Elaine and the Soup Nazi.

In b2c situations, more than half of customers report problems with one or more elements of their transactions with suppliers. These are customers who, having had a bad experience will a) typically not tell the company about it (and there are multiple, well-documented reasons why so few of the customers with problems actually complain), but b) also typically tell many of their friends, colleagues, and relatives through offline and online means. This is ‘badvocacy’, the alienated, flip side of customer advocacy which may be 20%, or more, of the consuming b2c and b2b public (as estimated by Weber Shandwick), varying by the product, service, or supplier.

Alienated customers share many of the same characteristics as advocates, just in opposite ways as regards their attitudes and behaviors. They are individuals who have poor opinions of certain organizations, brands, and products; and, they speak or act, as critics and detractors, on behalf of these organizations, brands, and products. They communicate negatively to friends and families. They communicate negatively in their neighborhoods. They communicate negatively at work. They communicate negatively online, through chat rooms, rating sites, and blogs. Some customers may communicate negatively to small circles of friends, relatives, and acquaintances. Some, the most motivated badvocates and saboteurs, will go so far as to set up elaborate contra web sites and encourage open griping from any and all about bad experiences.

Much of customer alienation and sabotage behavior, both b2b and b2c, has been spawned by frustration and disappointment over service and product experiences, and the feeling that brands and companies don’t share their customers’ concerns, leaving them unheard. Poor customer service experience is often the breeding ground for negative communication.

As noted, Elaine’s sabotage behavior was entirely offline. With the Internet, all of that has changed. Post-Seinfeld, the Internet became the universal communications enabler and knowledge fountain, the visible source for creating both trust and distrust. It was the perfect place to harangue, extol, lecture, complain and otherwise send personal missiles of opinion on virtually any subject, especially experiences with product and services. In the late ‘90’s, Bally Fitness, a national chain of fitness centers, enraged members by having what amounted to an open-ended financial services contract when customers first joined. In other words, customers could sign up for membership on what appeared to be a month-to-month basis, only to find that the contracts could never be cancelled. Many customers ended up paying for years. Andrew Faber, one customer who’d reached the breaking point with this arrangement, set up a contra, or ‘gripe’, site so that members with similar experiences could be attracted to express their negatives on a community basis.

The contra site attracted visitors by the thousands, and cost Bally millions of dollars in lost sales. Called “Bally Sucks”, the web site opened with the image of Bally’s federally registered trademark “Bally”, across which appeared the word “Sucks.” Immediately following were the words “Bally Total Fitness Complaints! Unauthorized”. Faber, a professional website designer, neither sold nor offered any products for sale on this website. Bally sued Faber to force him to discontinue this use of its mark and also, hopefully, to dismantle the negative site. Bally lost in court, and the now completely legal sabotage continued.

There’s a feudal Japanese proverb which goes: Daiji wa shoji kara (‘Serious disasters come from small causes’). All businesses, from the large, like Carnival Cruise Line, Target, Home Depot, and General Motors, to the small, like the Soup Nazi, should pay close attention to the real-world (not sitcom) potential for, and consequences of, the kind of negativism saboteurs can generate.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


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