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:


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

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


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

Young Lady: “That’ll be fine.”


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.






6 responses to “A Starbucks Observation: When Everything Goes Wrong”

  1. PromoGeorge Avatar

    And it’s no secret that Starbucks spends millions on advertising and on their stores, but obviously it’s worth every penny to build supportive, committed customers.

    Every Starbucks employee I’ve talked to has shown interest in me and my order, and are obviously a big part of the relationship building between the customer and the brand. It’s good that you observed all of this, I hope the big wigs at Starbucks take notice. 🙂

  2. sam_zone Avatar

    You touched on a small part of what a brand is and what gives customers that trust. The gut feeling, or, brand is what makes them overlook company downfalls and brings them back.

  3. Tom Resing Avatar

    A coffee shop with no coffee! I love it.
    Great example of how businesses that focus on the long term succeed.

  4. uncle bob Avatar

    I think you have nailed the whole point of company branding and creating an image that even keeps customers happy when the core business is not functioning.

  5. John J. Wall Avatar

    Contrary to what you see in the comments sections on popular blogs or on Facebook, most people are not jerks.

    1. jennifer Avatar

      In general most folks are of the kind lot. However if you go to a wings place and they are out of wings doesn’t that make you scratch your head? What if you had been craving those wings? What if you needed them because you hadn’t eaten all day and this was a reward to yourself? The frustration level can grow.

      In the couple of hours of so that I was at Starbucks I didn’t hear one negative reaction. I know it had to do with Starbucks having a regular and loyal customer base. I also know if had to do with the way the staff handled telling customers that there was no hot drinks to be had on a cold winter day.

      In my eyes this was a case of good service and product delivery in the past along with excellent employee training. I was happy to see a positive outcome in what could have been a negative crisis moment. Once again, kudos to the Starbucks on Bitters off 281 for doing such a great job.

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