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.

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.

View all posts by Adam Toporek