Adam Toporek

When Great Customer Service to One is Bad to Many

By: Adam Toporek | April 30, 2013 | 

Customer Service OverloadA few months ago, Gini Dietrich told the story of Dan, the Starbucks barista who engaged in a long-distance conversation with her through coffee cups.

Gini’s husband picked up the coffee, and one day he ordered her a larger size than usual.

Dan the Barista noticed, and wrote a short note on Gini’s coffee cup.

So began a many month exchange of notes via coffee cups.

It was one of the coolest customer service stories I have ever read – ever.

Dan the Barista demonstrated how a single employee can take customer engagement to the next level by focusing on an individual customer – giving them not just attention, but personalized and authentic interaction.

But Dan also got me thinking about the limits of focusing heavily on a single customer, about the point at which great customer service to one can become bad customer service to many.

The Theory of Constraints

Most people who study business in an academic setting are inevitably exposed to Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt’s seminal work, The Goal.

In The Goal, Goldratt puts forth the underpinnings for his theory of constraints, which contends the output of manageable systems is limited by constraints.

To demonstrate the effect of constraints, Goldratt uses the story of Herbie, an out-of-shape child who keeps causing a line of young hikers to lengthen and slow. The “goal” is to find the Herbies in your organization and to figure out how to minimize their effect on performance.

While The Goal is focused on manufacturing, its principles can be applied to any operational endeavor.

The serving line at Starbucks is a pressure cooker during peak times. Customers want their coffees right, and they want them fast.

Starbucks has developed incredibly effective systems to make that happen, and anything that interferes with that process can affect service delivery in a big way.

I don’t know how Dan was making these cups happen for Gini. As the cups became more involved, it seems likely that they might have been prepped or at least conceived in advance.

Either way, it seems clear from the story Dan knew how to make a regular customer like Gini feel extra-special without hurting service to others.

Yes, There are Limits

Because I own a high-volume retail business, I have seen how one customer can severely denigrate the experience for many others.

A few months ago, I thought we were going to have to say goodbye to a long-term client who had been demanding an extreme amount of special attention.

Financially, the client is one of our best. We have worked with her special requests to such an extent that if we made the same accommodations for every client that we have made for her, we would be out of business inside of six months.

Unfortunately, it has never been enough for her.

Fortunately, my manager understood that this one client was affecting our ability to serve the rest of our client base, and she asked me what to do. I told her to gently discuss our limitations, make clear the boundaries going forward, and nicely say good-bye if the client would not accept it.

This client was eating away at staff time and, as a result, having a negative effect on our other clients. With her, we had reached the limit of service to one.

And it is limits like these that every organization must accept when deciding how much time to invest in a single customer.

Embrace Triage

Here’s the deal:

  • You have limited time.
  • You have limited resources.
  • You have more than one customer.

Yes, some customers will need more attention and focus than others. Part of delivering Hero-Class Customer ServiceTM is doing everything in your power – within reason – to accommodate your customers’ needs and wants.

Customer service is going the extra mile, maybe even two; but sometimes going the extra ten miles for one customer places you too far away from your other customers.

Of course, for companies that deal with fewer clients, the calculus changes. If you have a single client that is 50 percent of your revenue stream, ignore most of what I am saying here.

However, for the coffee shops, hair salons, and department stores out there, where no single customer has a disproportionate economic effect, organizations must triage the needs of customers by priority and by use of resources.

Stories are Not Strategy

I love stories about grand gestures, about companies who do something extraordinary to make a customer happy. As someone who writes about customer service and the customer experience, I share these stories regularly.

Stories can inspire us, and they can also teach us valuable lessons about delivering exceptional customer service. However, stories must be kept in context, because stories are not strategy.

Stories cannot show us the best way to allocate resources so our best customer service reps do not become Herbies. Stories cannot show us how to deliver a superior customer experience consistently across the board.

So when you approach your customer experience, look at the whole picture first.

If you establish the proper customer experience framework, you will have the systems in place that will allow your team to create their own stories of superior customer service, and you will also help ensure that excellent customer service is being delivered to all of your customers.

And in the end, I think that’s the way Dan the Barista would like it.

About Adam Toporek

Adam Toporek is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick(TM) blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast. He is the owner of CTS Service Solutions, a consultancy specializing in high-energy customer service workshops that teach organizations and frontline teams how to deliver Hero-Class(TM) customer service. Connect with him on Twitter.

  • Wonderful article, Adam. In the big-ticket service professions, such as consulting, it’s a good principle to be willing to shed customers for better ones. It’s much harder in a coffee shop, where the difference between a good customer and a bad one is hard to discern. But, as you say, no business can afford to be eaten alive by one customer at the expense of the others. By choosing the Starbucks example, you point up how important it is for front-line employees of such business to exercise good judgment, and to be trusted to do so.

    • maxchristianhansen Thanks Max! As you point out, there is a significant differentiation between different businesses, and while this concept is relevant to all, it plays out differently in a consulting firm vs. a coffee shop.

  • Jay Baer


  • Suze Carragher

    AGREE! Does anyone else remember the glorious days of the late 1990s where agencies were firing clients for being obnoxious?
    Case in point: Former colleague was rousted from sleep in the middle of the night to find her client transportation because his assistant failed to arrange for it. Later that day, the president of the office learned what happened and promptly reprimanded the client and fired them.

  • What a great post and series of stories, Adam! You have an absolute gift for storytelling. 
    Ok, gushing aside, I really like how you focused on issues of scale and the fact that there is no “one size fits all.” Even in my business, where I have low-volume, high-value clients, I need to prioritize my time and make sure that (what I hope is my) excellent service and work product doesn’t turn into scope creep… because then I spend all my time managing, or worrying about, that one particular client.
    What tips do you have for business owners like me, who don’t deal with high volume per se? If you do have any, I’d really appreciate them!

    • Shonali Thank you Shonali! Much appreciated. 
      The key word is “creep.” It is rare that clients become time vampires in one single instance; it is almost always an accumulation over time. 
      In consulting/professional service businesses, I think it is nearly impossible for people just starting out to avoid it. However, once you have experience, you will know where the time leaks tend to be. So, two ideas: 1) Use that knowledge to get it into the agreement upfront, so you can be crystal clear going in and even better 2) include “3 hours of monthly support time” or whatever. That way you’re not nickel and diming them every time they email or call, but also you have set a limit and an expectation. 
      In the end, great customer service is all about perception and expectations.

      • Adam | Customer Experience Shonali I love the idea of “monthly support time” added into your agreement! Some customers think it’s ok to call and email any day of the week, at any time of the day! Really smart move to get a little extra from those “support time” reach outs!

    • Shonali PS. I’m working on your GP this weekend. 🙂

      • Adam | Customer Experience We’re waiting!

        • Shonali Adam | Customer Experience Hah! You should have given me a hard deadline like belllindsay  I’m an expert at stretching out time. 🙂 Seriously though, I’ll email you this week.

  • Ah ha! So you did write a blog post, even after you gave me a topic. What a man! I both agree and disagree with you. What is missing in my story about Dan is the cups didn’t arrive every day. If they were really busy, he didn’t write on my cup. It also was during a time I was traveling multiple times a week for work so I wasn’t in town all that often. At most, I got two or three cups a month. And yes, I do think some of the cups were conceived ahead of time. So, while it may have seemed like he was spending an extraordinary amount of time with me, it really amounted to a couple of extra minutes each month.

    That said, I do agree – even when a customer is half your business – that you can spend too much time with clients. We’ve found the clients who pay us the least amount of money are always the highest maintenance. It’s painful and not an easy conversation to have. Earlier this year, we had an experience with a four-year client that forced us to be prepared to walk away from them if they weren’t willing to give us a budget increase. They’re of the belief that when you work together long enough, you become more efficient in your work and can add more things on with the same amount of money. We ended up parting ways and, to this day, they’ve not been able to find someone to do the work we did for the same amount of money. It pays to be upfront and honest about these kinds of things, even if it’s painful at first.

    • ginidietrich Anything for you my dear! 🙂 
      I think we actually agree about Dan. You might have missed when I said “Either way, it seems clear from the story Dan knew how to make a regular customer like Gini feel extra-special without hurting service to others.” But I am glad you cleared it up; the post did make it seem like it was more frequent. 
      Those situations are always tough — but the thing is, if your ethic is to give great service, you are usually way past the point when you should have said something by the time you actually do. It’s a shame when it happens (usually), but I’m sure you and your business are stronger for it.
      Thanks to you and belllindsay for having me here! I still want to see you write that post.

      • Adam | Customer Experience It’s on my list! I have to be in the right frame of mind (read: I haven’t figured out, fully, how it’ll flow yet).

        • ginidietrich Adam | Customer Experience admit it Dan had the hots for Gini and days she didn’t come in he stared at the cup waiting for her blue and despondent!

    • ginidietrich I forget the rule 80% of your customer service time will be spent with 20% of your customer. The 80/20 thing is magical. 80% of online ad clicks are done by 20% of internet users. 80% of facebook content/activity is created by 20% of the users. Kind of like Pi huh?

      • Howie Goldfarb ginidietrich I’m a huge fan of the pareto principle for customer service. It’s the only way to successfully provide superior service with limited resources.

  • For some reason you had me blocked out this am as this post wouldn’t pull up in my Reader. If I’d known it was you I might have just driven over to Orlando and throttled you…
    I think it’s genius, her Barista has taken a shine to Gini and he has her husband passing her the notes. I think they made a movie about that. 
    Sometimes you do have to re-establish the expectations with your customers and if they are sucking up the time that you should be devoting to other key accounts, it might be time to say goodbye. I have found most of the time when you have that conversation it actually works out ok. 
    In Gini’s case you have someone who is just going a little bit extra to create a great experience; sometimes, that is all it takes if you are doing everything else right.

    • bdorman264 I tried blocking you… apparently, you broke through anyway. 
      I saw that movie. At the end, ginidietrich feeds Dan the Barista to Jack Bauer. The coffee cups are used as evidence. Oops… I should have said #spolierAlert
      I only have one customer who takes all of my time, that is howiegoldfarb who I just keep on hold hoping he will hang up.

      • Adam | Customer Experience bdorman264 ginidietrich howiegoldfarb I figure it is your 800 number Adam and I am using Vonage I have all year!

        • Howie Goldfarb Adam | Customer Experience bdorman264 ginidietrich howiegoldfarb Doesn’t matter if it’s free. You’ll hang up eventually — the house always wins.

  • Did this go over 500 words?! I was always limited to 487 because belllindsay always said she needed the extra 13 for someone else 😉
    When I lived in Redondo Beach a Starbucks opened a block away. It was faster to get my coffee than to make it. They all knew my coffee order so when I walked in the door it was made I just had to pay. This was all the morning crew. I wonder if they get taught this?
    Funny though one morning I wanted something different! I was feeling I wanted a triple espresso because I had to work….and I hadn’t been to sleep yet from my really fun night (seriously only happened once..back in 1998 I swear). And they made my Iced Venti Coffee…it was quite the debacle. 
    They had me as a steady customer for 8 years. I know someone at Starbucks unlike the Value of a Facebook Like…calculates how many like me they need locally to be profitable. There is a lady at my supermarket who I refuse to get in line behind her at checkout she takes forever and buys very little. Going to have the place call you Adam | Customer Experience  8) More to save me from being behind her LOL

    • Howie Goldfarb belllindsay Adam | Customer Experience Yeah, belllindsay was collecting those 13 words for me. Appreciate it — I needed them. 🙂
      You should have snuck in the back that morning so they couldn’t see you coming and fix your usual. I really do appreciate the training and consistency of Starbucks. Considering their size and volume, it is pretty impressive.
      Have your supermarket call me; I’ll tell them that when good customer service to one is bad customer service to Howie, it’s a mistake. 🙂

  • This post is definitely going to keep me thinking for a while! I have to say that even though I know Starbucks is a customer experience brand, I wish they would add a self-serve station where I could swipe a card, pour for myself, and bolt. Or even an express register for drip coffee only during peak times. Aaaaand now everyone knows I am Type A.
    Can’t wait to read Goldratt!

    • dwaynealicie You know Dwayne, reading your comment reminded me about one of the cool things about The Goal. It uses the socratic method as a teaching mechanism, so when you read it, it really gets you thinking about your own organization. I’m due for a re-read soon I think!

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