Recently, a trove of North American baristas from coffee phenom Starbucks issued an unsurprising complaint: Customer orders are getting out of control. Two, three, four modifications to standard menu drinks are now relatively common, slowing down service and opening the door to order mistakes.
The modification madness should never have happened -- but is a predictable side effect of businesses that continue to believe "the customer is always right."
I'm sorry, but the customer is not always right. Sometimes the customer is abrasive, rude, downright aggressive. Sometimes their demands are beyond the scope of possibility for a business -- even a big business like Starbucks -- trying to make a profit while maintaining high-quality customer service.
The seeds of this abuse start at the very beginning of the company, when hard-working entrepreneurs will do anything to grow clientele and establish solid financial footing. I understand the impulse; I've been there myself.
But opening the door to ludicrous accommodations ultimately cripples you. You flail trying to provide goods and services beyond your capacity. Inevitably, the core of your business is weakened, either in quality or production volume. It's only a matter of time until customers go elsewhere.
Unfortunately, Starbucks leaned into its baristas following the surge of complaints. Said a Starbucks representative: "We ask our baristas to make the moment right no matter the order and would expect a highly customized beverage to take longer to make."
The problem is, Starbucks achieved scalable success in part because of its formulaic approach to the "Starbucks experience": Its coffee shops are similarly designed, menus are almost identical, and processes are streamlined, audited, and streamlined again. Part of the appeal of the global chain is that people expect the same coffee wherever they go -- fast. Throw a wrench into that and processes have to be adapted on the fly. That's not only unscalable, it's wildly inefficient and manifestly unfair to baristas who have been trained to make specific drinks a specific way.
In my mind, the best solution is twofold. First, examine the flood of complicated drink requests and find common threads, then update the menu to include new, popular beverages. Second, build a culture of accommodation -- not just for customers, but also for employees. Reaffirm baristas' ability to say no if a request is too complicated. Create signage that celebrates a positive culture for customers and employees alike.
While not perfect, Southwest Airlines is a good model of this kind of customer-and-employee-centric focus. While retreats, generous benefits, and a relaxed work environment make the job fun for many flight attendants at the company, what stands out is the family-like culture. I know several individuals who work at the airline, and they all laud the company's "got your back" mentality. The importance of mutual support is not always explicitly stated, but teams are tight and defend their own when customers get out of hand.
Smaller companies, still setting the tone for customer expectations and employee needs, can emulate this. Build the right culture now. Craft vision and mission language that celebrates employees and customers. Also -- and equally as important -- focus on the products and services that are at your core. Otherwise, you risk earning a reputation as a company that cares little for their own and prizes ridiculous customer accommodations over quality.