Is a “Rude” Customer Still Right, at Starbucks or any Setting?


Starbucks Gossip: I know Starbucks would never allow a sign like this to be posted…

One blog I follow sometimes is one run primarily for the purposes of allowing Starbucks “baristas,” to bitch about customers. They are coming dangerously close to biting the hand that feeds them if these attitudes are widespread. I assume only the most disgruntled-y are taking the time to post on a site like this, but still, I'd be concerned if I were management. Is this a “lean” story? No, but I think it's a complex story that might be interesting to explore in lean terms if we can.

To be clear: I'm not really setting out to bash Starbucks employees. As in any organization, management has a responsibility for helping create a good work environment. There was a WSJ journal article about two years ago about Starbucks corporate sending “efficiency experts” out to the stores. This isn't “lean.”

A “lean” approach would involve Starbucks management harnessing the ideas and suggestions of their employees, employees who consider themselves to be intelligent, above-average workers, I would assume. It doesn't sound like Starbucks management is doing a great job at that. The ideas need to be listened to, as long as those ideas don't involve cell-phone jammers….. read on, you'll see what I mean.

Starbucks is an interesting growth story. What began as a small upstart company that was passionate about coffee and the experience has lost focus and become commoditized as it has grown (and customers have “gotten used” to them). Starbucks isn't as special as it was when I first discovered it around 1994.

The corporate “bean counters” (now there's a horrible pun) have made a number of decisions in the name of efficiency — stores no longer grind their own beans (removing the aroma portion of the experience) and manual espresso machines that required some knowledge and experience have been replaced by automated “push a single button” machines. Starbucks has been generous with their employees (good health insurance) and has created the idea that they are “coffee artists” (not their phrase, it's mine, to borrow a similar, and sort of silly sounding, phrase from Subway, the “sandwich artist).

Is the Starbucks employee a “barista” whose job is to craft a specialty drink and be chatty, creating a warm friendly customer experience, or are they part of a, sp coffee assembly line that values efficiency, speed, and revenue/customer? Should customers appreciate the art and craft of being barista, or are they rude if they refer to them as “coffee pourers?”

Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz recently wrote about the struggles with Starbucks growth and their loss of identity. That sounds like a problem with “constancy of purpose,” as Dr. Deming would have talked about. Is Starbucks a coffee company or a place that sells candy, mugs, CD's, and whatever crap they can peddle? I imagine this shift and lack of constancy might be one root cause of employee stress, particularly among the long-timers?

Back to the employees. There are some “respect with people” struggles on both sides of the counter. If you read the blog, *$ employees (as they'll abbreviate the company name) hate you, the customer for:

  • Digging for change and slowing the line
  • Ordering Frappucinos
  • Ordering drinks the wrong way AND
  • Being on your cell phone while you order

For that last point, the baristas are complaining that many customers are “disrespecting” them by being on their phones while in line and either mouthing their orders, pointing, or ordering real quickly and going back to their phone calls. I'm not sure if that's people being rude or disrespectful as much as it is people being busy and just wanting coffee without human interaction. Maybe *$ needs self-serve kiosks?

Many employees report taking steps such as:

  • Wanting signs saying you can't order if you're on the phone
  • Refusing to take orders from customers who are on the phone
  • Verbally abusing customers who are on the phone
  • Installing (allegedly, in one case) an illegal cell phone jammer to kill phone calls

Has *$ lost their way? Should employees who are this insulted just quit and find another line of work? Can *$ afford to keep such crabby employees on the payroll in a customer-service business? I'd probably come down on the side of the customer, that the employees should be grateful that the cell-phone jerk is willing to pay $5 for a drink.

The employees also complain about corporate management, that they aren't doing enough to support their quality of work life, as ruined by the cell-phone jerks. The customer defines “value” right?

No, I'm not one of the cell-phone jerks. But I really don't expect anyone at *$ to be my friend. I'd just like my coffee (coffee, not a latte) so I can go on with my day.

Maybe *$ needs a separate brand that's focused on ruthless efficiency and another that's the warm friendly place? Different customers value different things, apparently, so should it be broken out into separate “value streams?”

Some comments from their blog, in case you don't feel like wading through the disdain for customers. We can only guess that these are from employees:


Our poor precious customers can simply not go through there day and actually talk to the people serving them! Oh no they might get lower class all over their nice Gucci bags! Or their handsome suits![/sarcasm]


I used to work with someone who, if he noticed the person ordering was on their phone would call it from bar as for “the customer on their cell phone”. That way, every person in the store notices that this is the only person whose drink was not delivered by name, because they were too busy on their phone to give a name. Generally the person would look embarrassed/angry and everyone would glare at them while they walked away. It worked like a charm.


If they are on the phone, I usually just continue what I'm doing behind the register until they are ready to have a real conversation with me, or I help the person behind them who has an annoyed look on their face because they also agree that this inconsiderate person can't take a minute to order, make a payment and leave the counter.


We do not have this problem at my Starbucks. I bought a cell phone jammer and it works like a wonder. If a person walks within 30 feet of my store there cell phone connection is lost. Enough said.

That's just a small sampling. What do you think? If we say “the customer is always right,” is a “rude” customer wrong?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. My friend Rick Hagfors, Chair of SME’s Chapter One, is on the road a lot. He turned me on the the fact that Panera has free wireless internet, while Starbucks has T-Mobile, that you can only use of you’re a T-Mobile customer. I’ve found that Panera is better lit, plenty friendly, and you can get a sandwich instead of a piece of cake. Ours gives you a gadget that is supposed to vibrate when your order is ready – it didn’t work when I was there on Saturday, but at least they’re trying. So your cell-phone customers could still get their tall skinny soy lattes even if they didn’t stop to give you their names.

    I don’t like rude customers any more than Starbucks baristas (shouldn’t the male variety be called a baristo?) do, but who is standing there with a $20 bill in hand? I suspect the employee’s attitude is generated more by how he or she is treated by Starbuck’s than how the customer treats them.

    But my solution is to go to Panera – less mystique, but a sandwich and wireless internet.

    Oh – the other option is to try the independently owned coffee house with no famous name. You’re likely to find the person who understands the intimate connection between the customer — on the phone or not — and the survival of the company.

  2. No one is above (or below) common courtesy. It is blatantly discourteous to talk on your cel phone while ordering a beverage, and these employees have every reason to complain about this poor behavior.

    It’s also discourteous to refer to a barista as a ‘coffee pourer.’

  3. If the *$ “baristas” spent as much time trying to find ways to work with their customers as they do complaining about them, they probably would have come up with easy countermeasures years ago.

    The first countermeasure that comes to my mind is an order slip on which the phone-talking customer can check a series of boxes, hand it to the cashier, and pay without saying a word.

    When I went to the University of Michigan, there was a sandwich shop on the ground floor of Pierpont Commons that did this. It was great for the flow of the work because the cashier just took the order slip and your money. The ticket was tacked to short-order ticket holder and your sandwich was made. I always got turkey on sourdough with mustard, lettuce, tomato, and double hummus. They had great hummus.

  4. Chadwick,

    I think they have every right to complain, but I’ve come across few situations where complaining has ever done me any good. About the only time a complaint does me any good is when I try to right a wrong done against me by a company. Complaining against individuals just creates ill will further problems down the road. As a standard practice, I think it is better to act to solve the problem. They might think that their actions, like ignoring customers or using illegal jammers, are solving the problem.

    I don’t think so. Those solutions just tick off the customer and that is an even bigger problem. To me, the problem is their attitude.
    Before they can get at the correct solution, they have to embrace Principle 1: Value from the customer’s perspective.

  5. I’m not sure what is disrespectful about “coffee pourer.” When I order black drip coffee, that’s what the person does. They pour coffee. There’s no magic or mystique there. It’s a pretty functional description of what I’m getting as a customer.

    I don’t mean any disrespect. As we are with employees in stressful manufacturing environments, I have empathy for the *$ employees. I have empathy for them if management and/or corporate isn’t listening to and responding to their concerns.

    It seems the root cause of the stress may be *$ not figuring out if they are becoming McDonald’s or not. The baristas seem to complain that they are becoming like McDonalds workers. But with the automation and the drive throughs, I’m sorry, but you are pretty much like a McDonalds worker. What ever value judgment you put on that is your own. If you don’t want to work at McDonalds/Starbucks, then it’s time to find another job/profession where you can be more creative.

  6. On this particular occasion I think they “the starbucks employees” have a point. I think its the height of inconsideration to continue a cell phone conversation in a public space. I could not care less what your problem with the sitter is, or at work or elsewhere because prior to cell phones it would not have been a problem.


    Last summer I was standing at Waterloo station in London and a American Gentleman was in front of me in the queue and said to the guy behind the counter:

    “what times the next train to richmond?”
    “I’m sorry, I did not catch that”
    “what times the next train to richmond”
    “train to richmond, whens the next one?”
    “I think you’d have better luck asking a member of staff on the platform I dont understand”

    I go to the counter and know exactly what the guy was waiting for:

    “Exscuse me could you tell me the time of the next train to streatham please?”

    Please, thank you and not talking on the cell phone cost nothing.

  7. I am usually a model of courtesy at Starbucks and sometimes try new drinks. More often than not it seems that the “clerk” (how’s that for a label?) takes pleasure in correcting my order as she calls it out.

    me: I’d like a….grande, chai tea latte with soy.

    clerk: (rolls eyes) grande soy chai?

    He or she uses the same tone as the IT guy on SNL. I get no such reaction at Seattle’s Best, and even better they do not relabel the “small” as a “tall”! Starbucks has my business based on product leadership, not customer intimacy.

  8. I find it generally discourteous to refer to any person by anything other than their preferred title or name. In this case, the barista is also the person who brews that coffee (the value added activity), maintains the machines, takes payment and cleans the store. It wouldn’t be appropriate to refer to a nurse as “a bandaid carrier,” or a welder as a “metal piece deliverer.” Rather than to impose one’s own limited perspective on another’s occupation.

    I also have a different perspective on complaints in general. There’s a saying (I heard it first in “The Thin Red Line”) that “you only worry about soldiers when they stop complaining.” While ideally every employee is productive, gives clear, positive feedback and does it with a smile, the reality is that complaints usually come from employees who are at the very least engaged with their work, and have some vision for the way things ought to be. I’m not saying that an external website is the best way to voice complaints, but complaints can and should serve a purpose.

    A challenge with this discussion is that it mixes at least three significantly different themes: 1) our culture is still normalizing behavior surrounding cel phone etiquette, and there seems to be significant gaps between categories of people in the U.S. 2) the title of the blog post, “Is a ‘Rude’ Customer Still Right?” This in itself is an open question. 3) The Lean principles of the Starbucks complaining baristas, which Mark, you addressed very well early in the post. If the baristas had a good relationship with management, maybe there would be less energy in their complaint blog.

  9. I have been a barista for 2 years and am a shift manager at my starbucks. yes, i like talking to customers, and i dont have to all the time.. In reality I am just trying to do my job. so yeah, get off your cellphone for 5 seconds. order your drink in a manner i can understand you enough to get it correct so i dont get yelled at later on. i do my job you do yours. it gets very draining day in, day out when people dont order right, then get mad at you because you are dumb and can’t make a drink right. starbucks requires us to say the drink back to the customer. when they say, “yep thats right” to me, im going to assume i have the order correct, if they are even listening to me (while on their phone)

  10. also yeah, some of my fellow partners are rude. its embarrassing to me. I definitly have a talk with them that they didnt need to be that rude so i apoligise for when us barista are just down right rude. we dont mean to correct you, just because we have to say it right back.

  11. I would like to point out that it’s not just *$ employees that get upset when a customer is trying to interact with them whilst on the cell phone. Anyone who has to deal with customers, IE face to face interactions that require conversing both ways, will tell you that it’s incredibly rude when one person is on the cell phone. It makes the employee’s job more stressful and difficult because the customer will get upset if the employee interrupts their conversation, but they will also be upset if the employee does not try to talk to them or gets something wrong. If you know what you wish to order, and you absolutely can not get off the phone, then tell the person to hold on for a few minutes while you order and pay, then continue the conversation. The employee will not feel as though they are being ignored, and life can continue in a much happier fashion. People need to establish etiquette rules for talking on cell phones in public.

  12. I am a barista at a small independently owned coffee house. I must say that I bristle when customers come to me to order and can’t tear their phone away. I think any mannerly person would understand how that is not polite. I’m not saying you have to terminate the call but can’t you ask the person you’re talking to to hold for a moment and order? It’s as simple as that…common courtesy that is no longer “common”.
    This is the “common” courtesy I use when I’m ordering coffee, going thru a drive-thru and buying groceries. But, I’m a small-town girl….and that’s how I was raised.

  13. I work in retail, and my boss has brought up that sign to me, honestly we all found it HILARIOUS. Personally I find it incredibly rude regardless of the job for a customer to be on the phone and expect you to give them great service at the same time, if I was allowed to have that sign on my register I definatly would! Customers need to understand that employees are people too and we face pressure from both our bosses and customers which inturn makes any additional rudeness extremely disheartening and stressful.

  14. Having worked in customer service for my entire working life, I have no tolerance for rudeness on either side of a transaction. I’ve had baristas roll their eyes at me for ordering incorrectly and I’ve seen customers berate baristas for things beyond the barista’s control.

    You, the customer, would never tolerate a barista speaking on a cell phone while they are waiting on you. Why would you expect them not to be irritated when you can’t be bothered to put your call on hold while you complete your order?

  15. While I do not work at Starbucks, I do work at a similar coffee shop-type establishment. Every day, there is a customer who comes in at the same time, talking on her cell phone. She will gripe about her ex-husband, her son, her sex life, her sexual orientation, me, etc. She never bothers to even put the phone down to place her order; she just points to what she wants, slams her credit card down on the counter, and either goes back to her car to check her makeup (literally!)or sits on the couch and critiques me while I make her drink. Her negativity is so horribly contagious. At first, I tried to cajole her into a better mood, but after several weeks of being treated as less-than-human, I gave up. This woman thinks I am dirt beneath her feet, and I am willing to be considered such if she’ll just leave me alone. I’ve gotten to the point that I don’t even care if I get her order right, because she’ll yell at me for it regardless.

    On the other hand, one of my customers was on her phone this morning as I motioned to her that her drink was ready. She actually stopped her conversation to thank me and to tell me to have a nice day. I was so surprised and blessed by her kindness. She is always so polite when she comes in, and I go out of my way to find ways to let her know that we appreciate her business–coupons, free espresso shots, etc.

    I understand that people are busy and need their coffee asap, but we are all part of society, and society is based on politeness and human relationships. I am more than prepared to be friendly to you if you’ll let me.

  16. I work in a cd/dvd/games store in a European country and honestly the rudeness of people is getting worse each day.
    We always say hello to costumers when they want to pay for their items, and 30% says absolutely nothing in return. When you say thank you goodbye…no response whatsoever. These days they look at you like you’re dirt. Luckily it is my extra job. I’m also a teacher and I get a little more respect there. Although some parents are getting worse too.
    I think some people see salespeople like people who have no degree and they don’t have to treat them well. But to be honest it is a very stressfull and unthankfull job. Therefore I absolutely understand the Starbucks people. If you have to work day in day out in stores that have many costumers you have to eat a lot of shit and you get very upset and tired with it.
    There is a difference with other shops, if you have less costumers things are less stressfull, less people, and you can deal with it better. But in my shop, 400 people a day, if 25% is nice, it was a good day…that’s our world today.
    Anyone who doesn’t understand this, should work in such a store for 2 months and their jaws will drop by how some people will treat you.

  17. I have worked in coffee/take away shops all my life and I completely understand the situation that the baristas and other employees are facing. People ordering while talking on the mobiles is extremely agravating. It seems that many people, especially those in working in offices, believe that those working behind the counter are SHIT!

    Abusing the person preparing your coffee or sandwich is very unwise – you may end up with unwanted substances in your coffee or roll!

  18. it is funny as hell to see all of the comments from starbucks employees bitching about their incredibly rude customers. give me a freaking break you knuckleheads. anyone who is too put off to help a paying customer who is on their cell phone needs to find another freaking job. It is insane to imagine a boss letting a menial job working peon decide not to serve a paying customer because they are on their cell phone. Grow up and grow a brain.

    • I can’t believe you said peon. Maybe all their grievances are justified after all. How could any human feel basic respect for their existence with people like you around. Do their job and then get back to me.

  19. I hate it when the Starbuck’s barista takes the order of the customer ahead of me and then walks off while I’m standing there. I hate it when the barista asks the customer behind me what they can get for them as they are handing me my change. I had a gift card and she said I owed $1.10and another customer said what as he thought she meant him. The barista said in a rude tone I’m talking to HER. HER?

    • We walk off because we have to mark the drinks or prepare the food for the cutomer we just took that order from.. Or maybe we have to brew more coffee.. And we take the order of the customer behind you to speed customer service. People like you make customer service difficult. Do you expect us to snap our fingers after you order and have everything prepared in a timely manner?

  20. I work for a hotel chain at the front desk and I HATE it when guests try to go through the check in process on the phone. There are several questions I need to ask and I need to verify that I have the information and requests entered correctly. I have an all-purpose, courteous answer for people who are to involved in their conversation to check in.
    "No, it's fine. I am happy to wait until you are ready."
    They can push their card at me all the want. I just keep repeating it until they ask the person to hold. If there is a line I say my little phrase and then smile at them, get eye contact and ask if I can help the next person. If they look upset I let them know they can "cut" back in whenever they are ready so the rest of the line can hear me. This way the line doesn't get angry when the customer hangs up and is ready to be checked in. I am not an idiot (I have a 3.7 and am getting a major in microbiology and a minor in maths, I am probably smarter than they are,) I am not an automaton. I have feelings and a job to do. Help me to help you; get off the $%&*#@ing phone. Thank you.

  21. Dear Ms. Full of Yourself Hotel Desk Clerk.

    If you're so smart (as you feel required to point out, probably proving that you're just pretending to be smart), then why don't you realize you are there to SERVE the hotel customers, people like me?

    Without me, you have no job.

    I'm not arriving to be your friend or to smile or make you feel good.

    I'm there to get into my room as quickly as I can.

    I might also, imagine that, have more important business to attend to (such as MY customers) that I can't give a self-righteous bitch like you the time of day.


    Be lucky to have a job. If you want to be treated differently, find a different job, which should be no problem if you're so $%&*#@ing smart.

    You're welcome.

    Business traveler.

  22. Wow, it's rather easy to discern who are rude customers from these posts. I am not offended by the baristas' comments, because I do not talk on my cell phone while ordering & I try to get my order right, so it won't confuse them.

    But y'know, I was raised to be considerate of other people & to not look down on people in the service industry (& every other industry as well). I wish more people were raised like me.

  23. I’ve worked in customer service in one form or another for my entire working life. I understand that some people are far too busy with their important jobs or personal business to stop talking on their phones for even a few seconds, although I think that’s a sad state of affairs. But if my job is to serve, I’d like to do it correctly, quickly, and efficiently. I have yet to find an instance where I can help customers more quickly and efficiently when they are on their phones. I can’t tell if they are talking to me or the person who is on the phone with them. I have to repeat mouthed comments back to make sure I understood correctly, which seems (understandably) to irritate the person as it interrupts their conversation. I don’t want to interrupt, but what if I end up charging you wrong?
    I feel lucky to have a job. I like my job. I feel sorry for people who are so dissatisfied with their lives that they feel justified making life miserable for service employees, no matter where they work. I would never dream of expecting service without being willing to acknowledge the person who was helping me. I don’t need people to “be (my) friend or smile or make (me) feel good” (see above) but for a few seconds, I do need them to pay attention and put their phone down so I can serve them.

  24. I am a Starbucks employee and I think the principle that needs to be remembered that isn’t in our training manual is “treat others as you would like to be treated.”. It’s not very difficult to follow if you are a halfway decent human being, but it seems that way with the amount of people who have been terribly rude to me.

  25. I work at starbucks and I have found not just at starbucks but in most retail places I go …i call it the Vending Machine Affect…or effect?? Anyways retail companies are trying to make their employees so uniform.. that well when we go to order it would be no different than ordering from a vending machine.. the fact is we the people are not vending machines and i have had more customers yell out orders and demand I come out even and stir in their splenda AT THE CONDIMENT BAR.. because they paid $5 for their drink… guess what I didnt make the prices its not my fault you decided to come in an spend $5 on a knew it would be $5 when you got your wallet out cause you were just here 8 hours ago before work and ordered the same thing. The point is humans by nature are not vending machines so when people are surprised that it is rude to talk on your phone while ordering..and they are bothered that we interrupt their phone conversation to ask them if they want whip cream or not…sorry I wish I had an automated button that withdrew your money from the cash register or made your drink in .2 seconds.. but Im not cause guess why…Im not a vending machine :)

  26. I am a barista at a stbx and and I have to say that it doesn’t bug me when someone is talking on the phone because I just ask them what I want, take their money and leave them alone and if their drink isn’t made right, well it is their fault because they were on the phone and of course, baristas have to remake the drink anyway if they are not satisfied, so they wait longer. Guess whose the loser now? The one on the phone. What actually pisses me off is the whole entitlement attitude with some of my customers who think it is ok verbally abuse me because a latte is not made extra hot or he waited 2 minutes and his latte isn’t made yet, while I have a line of customers and training a new partner. I will be friendly and provide great customer service as long as you treat me with respect or chill the f— out. Or it’s decaf for you.

  27. Have you ever worked in food service? Most customers are really nice but a small proportion are assholes who act like you don’t deserve an ounce of common courtesy because you’re behind a counter in a goofy uniform. Plastering on a smile while working quickly and consistently on your feet for an 8 hour shift is damn hard graft.

    Bitching about customers on some website is just blowing off steam because shop workers are expected to take any amount of abuse while on shift, smile then apologise for being born – you’d bitch too under those circumstances after a particularly unreasonable customer.

    That said I don’t agree with the phone complaints but if some guy in an office decides you should take X seconds to serve a customer and you’ll get a telling off if you don’t then it is frustrating to see people dig around for change and count pennies out. Long as the employees keep their bitching online and anonymous I don’t see a problem.

  28. The phone thing really bothers me. If I’m on the phone and enter an establishment, I will tell the person I’m speaking to wait one moment, and give the employee my full attention.I expect others to do the same while I’m at work. The whole mouthing your order and pointing does not fly. I’m not paid to read lips, nor guess which item you pointed to on the sign a good 5 feet above your head. I’ve had seemingly busy guests hand me a slip of paper with their drink order. Still kind of rude, but way more effective. If you want your drink made properly, communicate!

  29. this is where i believe whoever wrote this story has never worked in customer service. i’ve worked at starbucks for 2 years and have been a shift manager for 1 year now, and starbucks or not, it is incredibly rude when you are talking on the phone while we are trying to take your order. as for us complaining, has nothing to do with our work ethic (to each their own) i am greatly talked about amongst customers and management how i do a great job and have great customer service, yet even being extremely polite to some, they spit in our faces (not literally, of course) we constantly get complaints and rude customers for absolutely no reason. so maybe these customers should evaluate themselves other than evaluating the BARISTAS- not coffee ‘pourer’ wtf? – for “bad attitudes”. leave your personal problems at the door when you walk into an establishment, why should we deal with your shit attitude because you have a personal problem or maybe are just plain rude?


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