A Starbucks Observation: When Everything Goes Wrong

Last week I did something that happens across coffee shops all across America. I had a meeting at a Starbucks. This isn’t groundbreaking news or really worth discussing except for what happened for the 2+ hours I sat inside this particular Starbucks.

Let me set the stage: It was 4pm on a cold winter afternoon. Seating inside was at a premium while outdoor seating was abandoned for the warmer interior. There was really nothing that would set this Starbucks apart from any of the others around town. Several tables had folks holding meetings while others were occupied by solo laptop folks. Once our group found a corner to occupy for our meeting, it was time to get a cup of coffee….or so I thought. Turns out this particular Starbucks water heating system was not working. This means that there were no hot drinks to be had on this day. No regular coffee, no lattes, no espresso drinks not even a hot tea could be had by patrons. The only drinks being offered were Frappuccinos and iced drinks. This is what was available on a cold day.

When it comes to coffee or lack thereof you would expect folks to be frustrated, upset or even angry. You can probably envision folks grumbling and complaining about a coffee shop that is unable to provide it’s core product. So, what do you think the reactions are by the people coming in to order a hot drink on a cold day? Let me share with you the encounters I overheard:

#1.

Barista: “Ma’am, all we have are Frappuccinos.”

Elderly Woman:  “Oh, I’ve never tried a Frappuccino before. Let me give it a try.”

#2.

Barista: “Ma’am, we are out of non-fat milk. Are you ok with whole milk?”

Young Lady: “That’ll be fine.”

#3.

Barista: “Oh, I’m sorry sir. Turns out we are out of that flavor. Would you like to try something else?”

Older Man: “No, not really.”

Barista: “Ok, would you like your money back?”

Man: “No, why don’t you keep it as a tip. You guys always work so hard.”

Barista: “Really? Thank you very much, sir.”

Are you as stunned as I am? I can tell you that in my time there, I did not hear a single complaint. I heard surprise, “You’re out of coffee?” and “Oh wow, must be tough for you guys right now” type comments. Not a single person raised their voice or stormed out in disgust.

In case you missed it in #2 & #3, this Starbucks was out of certain milk and flavors as well as no wifi and bathrooms that needed toilet paper refilling. Yet, everyone who came in took it all in stride. I was perplexed by this until it occurred to me that the people who frequent this Starbucks are regulars. They have probably been coming here for some time, know the folks behind the counter and have had excellent customer service and been on the receiving end of their expected quality coffee drinks. Because of this patrons were understanding about something going wrong. They were willing to overlook a coffee shop with no coffee. But only because this Starbucks had built up a bank of trust with these customers. So that when everything went wrong, they could draw upon that trust to see them through their temporary crisis.  It was quite the epiphany and had me thinking about how every business could learn from this story.

I did eventually get a hot coffee before leaving but only because another Starbucks sent over two of their large carafes full of Pikes Peek drip coffee. Which was another learning moment. Be there for your partners when they need it. You never know when the tables will turn and it will you in crisis mode.

So, on this day a Starbucks with no coffee, no wifi that was running out of ingredients taught me about building a bank of trust with customers and the importance of having partners to support you in times of crisis.