What Starbucks Taught Me About Difficult People

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Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.

Philo of Alexandria


I’m a Starbucks kind of guy. Although I don’t drink coffee, I do enjoy a latte and my favorite is made by Starbucks. Now, I know that many of you might disagree and argue for Peets or Coffee Bean or some local haunt. My taste loyalties, though, are with Starbucks.

Not that my preferences mean much for the purposes of this post; however, I was intrigued when I recently learned that Starbucks instructs its associates to treat customer complaints with the “latte” rule:


Listen to the customer
Acknowledge the problem
Take action to resolve the problem
Thank the customer for bringing it to your attention
Encourage them to return


This guiding rule is so basic. So simple. So humane. So smart.


Yet, far too many places of business don’t have a policy for dealing with customer complaints and don’t have the right instincts for handling those complaints.


Years ago, the Sociology and Anthropology Departments of Harvard University did a joint study researching graffiti. The project’s goal was to determine if there is a common theme among worldwide graffiti artists. They found is that there is!


The common theme of all graffiti can be summed up in the phrase, “I am here.” 


Graffiti artists are seeking not simply attention; they’re seeking acknowledgment of their existence. And this is what we all hunger for – recognition.


A disgruntled customer can be angry for many reasons, but all those reasons can be reduced to the fact that the person feels no one is paying attention to their needs. They think (rightly or wrongly) that they’re being disrespected and ignored.


Offering a “latte” is the most reassuring thing we can give to an upset customer because it reassures them that someone does “see” them.


In fact, a “latte” can be offered to anyone who feels ignored by you – a co-worker, friend, relative or partner.


To listen,

To acknowledge

To act

To show appreciation

To make normal the relationship

are the five keys to dealing with someone during a difficult conversation. 


More times than not, a “latte” goes a long way to healing a potentially ugly situation because the other person feels valued and they feel valued because the person offering the latte is taking responsibility and being dynamically pro-active.


I’m tempted to end with some cute latte joke, but I won’t embarrass myself!


Suffice to say, next time you’re dealing with a complaining customer or colleague, no matter what your business, just remember to offer them a “latte!”

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