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Consumer Understanding, Service Design

5 Traits of Seinfeld’s “Hipster Service” and What it Says about Service Design

Boston 04.07.15, 01:33PM by Ken Gordon

What’s the deal with Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee? Is it a show about Jerry Seinfeld and his pals? The nuances of comedy? The curves and lines of classic cars? The taste of caffeinated beverages? Nothing whatsoever?

These are all good guesses, and each is true in its own way—but for those of us driving in the innovation lane, CCC is really about service design. And one of the funniest and most significant lessons here is found in the show’s obsession with what Seinfeld calls Hipster Service.Hipster Service

Seinfeld first brings HS to our attention in Season Two, during a very slow moment in an L.A. boîte with Sarah Silverman. “You know what I think we’re going to be suffering from here?” he asks. “Hipster Service.”

The comedian’s aggravated discovery of this category is significant, but he doesn’t really analyze the concept. This is our task. (For an excellent tutorial in hipster culture general, see the Patton Oswald episode of CCC.) Truth is, it’s easy to misunderstand HS and think of it merely as bad service. To understand the phenomenon, you need some context.

  1. Hipster Service is cool. That is, it deliberately endeavors not to pander to the consumer. It knows that hipsters are aware of such pandering, and find it inauthentic—if not annoying as hell. HS demands respect. The coolness establishes a bond between the front-line staff and the informed customer: “We honor you enough not to pander; we don’t like that kind of service either.” Of course, if you have no desire to be cool, to gain the knowledge, then you might find Hipster Service purely annoying. Interestingly, Seinfeld believes in this very ethos, seemingly despite himself. In the Sarah Silverman episode she talks about how the uninflected compliment “You’re so funny” is much more honest and valuable than that phony gush, “You’re so funny!”

 

  1. Hipster Service can require suffering. Note how Seinfeld speaks of “suffering” from HS. There exists, in hipster culture, an unusual attitude toward the nature of consumer pain points. Seinfeld is indifferent to the statement his presence at a particular coffee house makes—but that’s hardly the case for the other customers. For them, this “suffering” is a real part of being in the scene. Seinfeld would find the French idea of “Il faut souffrir pour être belle” (rough translation: you gotta suffer to be hip) a bit much, but suffering happens to be an acceptable-if-not-necessary fact of life in this world.

 

  1. It is often related to expertise. The customer isn’t always right in HS. In the hipster’s cultural economy, knowledge of a particular field—coffee, music, food—can put a customer service rep on a higher social plane than a customer. This may result in the front-line employee sounding snooty to a patron, which is galling to people who are indifferent to hipsterism (Seinfeld) but is understood and accepted by those who play in this space. (Marc Maron is good with this one when he goes to the used-record stores in Maron.) Know-it-all servers force hip, and would-be hip, patrons to keep it real. Note: HS isn’t only for hipsters. Just imagine Seinfeld walking into a Porsche dealership. It’s easy to envision him vastly enjoying the company of snobby Porsche salesmen who are not that different, in attitude, from the purveyors of hipster coffee.

 

  1. It is selective. Does this mean that hipsters expect Hipster Service everywhere? Not exactly. There is a time and a place for HS. In Season Five, Fred Armisen takes Seinfeld into what is surely the heart of American hipsterism: Portland. And in the course of their adventures (at a coffee shop, at a food truck, and in weird store called Paxton Gate Portland which is famed for its “magical mix of neo-Victorian delights, eclectic animal and plant ephemera, taxidermy, exotic plants—including the carnivorous variety—framed and mounted insects, jewelry, unique gardening tools, affordable art, vintage scientific instruments and more”), Hipster Service is in full effect. The three hip Portland businesses make perfect sense for HS. But HS couldn’t possibly be an issue at, say, Portland’s Providence Cancer Center Oncology and Hematology Care Clinic—and if it were, it wouldn’t be funny.

 

  1. Hipster Service follows its own clock. The Portland roasters and barristas have their eyes on the prize. Well done takes time, no matter what the real-time needs of the busy consumer are. This an idea that Jerry Seinfeld, like millions of others, must adjust to. One of the best moments of HS comedy is that Seinfeld so resents HS that CCC created a Hipster Service Clock to count down exactly how long the hipsters make him wait.

 

From a humor standpoint, Seinfeld loves Hipster Service because it allows him to show his audience the hilarious sight of Boomer exasperation. The multi-millionaire in blazer and sneakers getting annoyed by some smug, poorly paid, cool Millennials: that’s good comedy.

But the deeper truth is, these kids are representative of a rising generation of people who are through with the older, more friendly-yet-more-insincere forms of service. If your business—hip or no—seeks to move into the future, you’d do well to understand the way HS works.

Image by Sean Narvasa // CC

7 Comments

  1. mike strassman says:

    Smart, entertaining piece, but I think you may be missing one element of HS which is the most exasperating. Hipster service usually entails some aspect of the product or service which is delivered in pretentious and unbearably slow manner which is SUPPOSED to signal higher quality and greater care, but actually has no discernible difference. This is the way I feel about single-serve drip coffee from a coffee truck…you want to get to work before lunch, you can get a very good cup of joe from Boston Common Bean Company, but you make the mistake of stopping at the charming bicycle barrista (sp?) outside So. Station and pay for it with a 7 minute wait for a coffee that is no better.

  2. Ken Gordon says:

    Mike:

    The waiting is the hardest, most heartbreaking part, as the extremely unhip Tom Petty never fails to remind us:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMyCa35_mOg

    Next time, remember to choose the wicked awesome cup of joe at Boston Common Bean Company.

    Good luck, and see you around town.

    –Ken

  3. Susan says:

    When you have to explain hipster service so vigorously, it seems the definition of contrived. At the end of the day, I decide if the food I eat, the coffee I drink, or the store I shop in is worth my time. I’m fine with waiting for something that is authentically good. Being told it is does not make it so.
    Having spent time in “hipster” establishments both enjoying and detesting the experiences, I always wonder if they care that I liked it. Shouldn’t they? If yoy don’t care, how will you ever know if what you are doing is good. Probably don’t care.

  4. Ken Gordon says:

    Hey, Susan:

    There’s nothing natural about the idea of “hipster service.” It’s contrived from first to last.

    I once stumbled into a hipster craft beer store. The two people working there didn’t bother to interrupt their conversation to say, you know, Hi. The store went out of business not long after that. Wasn’t sad to see it go. I was clearly not in their target audience.

    Cheers,

    K.

  5. There’s a delicate mix of hipsterism and customer service, that if done properly creates hyper loyal fans. I remember in the early 90s, before Starbucks had overtaken nearly all coffee shops, I was in Boston and we checked out the Coffee Connection (http://www.georgehowellcoffee.com/about/). The employees were gracious and friendly, the coffee out of this world, and they were patient and ready to educate potential customers.

    Once you spent some time with them and learned what green coffee was, that once roasted coffee grows stale, you became a hipster, too. You became a snob.

    You convert people to hipsters who are loyal to your brand, you have to be gracious with your knowledge.

  6. Ken Gordon says:

    I’ve been to that joint many times, Josh. Not sure if it makes me a hipster… but I certainly enjoyed the fancy way those people brewed up a coffee drink.

    Your point about gracious hipsterism is good. The ungracious hipster is the one to watch out for! As far as I recall, the folks at what’s now called George Howell Coffee were quite amiable.

    Thanks for the comment!

    –K.

  7. […] a few people adopt the term. For a brief while, using it becomes an exercise in linguistic hipness. Eventually, the masses notice that something funky is happening and crash the language party. And […]

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