Sometimes The Customer Is Wrong

from the better-customers dept

My friend Jacob Grier weighs in on a story that’s been getting a ton of attention: some guy went into a DC-area coffee shop called Murky Coffee (where Jacob once worked) and asked for an iced espresso. The barista told him that the shop has a policy against making iced espresso. The barista agreed to give the guy an espresso and a cup of ice so he could ice his own espresso, but a shouting match ensued and the customer wound up leaving a dollar tip with a message that’s not printable in a family blog. The owner of Murky’s Coffee responded here.

At first glance, it seems like if the customer wants his espresso poured over ice, that’s what the customer should get. But Jacob makes an interesting point: Murky’s fastidiousness (or pig-headedness, depending on your perspective) about coffee quality is part of what sets it apart from the run-of-the-mill coffee shops. Murky isn’t just selling coffee, they’re also trying to build up a clientele that takes coffee seriously. This reminds me of a great post Don Marti wrote a couple of years ago called “FUD is good for you.” Marti pointed out that while it’s true that Microsoft’s disinformation about free software could actually drive away some potential customers from free software, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. These are, after all, likely to be the least technically-savvy customers, customers who will consume a disproportionate share of tech support resources and unlikely to be repeat customers. In the long run, the company might find it’s actually more successful because some of its customers were scared away by FUD. I think we can see the same kind of attitude at Apple. For example, Steve Jobs took a lot of heat when he unveiled the iMac in 1998 without a floppy drive — one small part of a broader strategy of giving customers what Jobs thought was good for them rather than what they asked for. That attitude has alienated a lot of potential customers over the years, but it has also produced a lot of repeat customers who are more loyal than the customers of any other computer company. In contrast, the PC vendors that have tried to serve every customer have wound up in a brutally competitive market with razor-thin margins.

There are two lessons here. One, not all customers are created equal. To most customers, coffee is all pretty much the same, and one coffee shop is about as good as another. (Just as one all PCs and software stacks are pretty much the same.) But there’s also a minority of customers who pay more attention to quality, and the latter will tend to be a lot more valuable because they’ll be more loyal and more prepared to pay a premium for quality. If it’s true that icing an espresso ruins it (personally I think coffee is all revolting, so I’m agnostic on the question), refusing to serve iced espressos may be a good business strategy; the customers it drives away probably wouldn’t have stuck around for very long anyway. Similarly, Apple’s high-handed approach to its customers seems to have worked fairly well for it. It’s a niche player in the PC market, but it has proven to be an extremely profitable niche. Second, sometimes customers only discover quality after it’s shown to them. It turned out that Jobs was basically right about the floppy drive; I bought an external floppy drive for my iMac but almost never used it. Similarly, Jacob notes that the coffee shop customer seems to have enjoyed the alternative iced beverage that was suggested to him. I doubt that particular customer will be back, but there may be others who develop a taste for the specialty coffee served at Murky and then start to notice the defects of coffee from run-of-the-mill coffee shops. Niche businesses can create loyal customers by guiding them towards more refined tastes, and this can be more rewarding than trying to comply with every whim of every customer.

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Comments on “Sometimes The Customer Is Wrong”

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ScaredOfTheMan says:

Not so much

The customer can be wrong in this case I disagree, if you read the posts on consumerist, you see the coffee shop is trying to prevent ghetto lattes more than protect the integrity of their coffee.

The whole ‘Hot coffee hitting ice does ‘unexplainable molecular mysterious things, turning it into acrid acid’ only came out after these two guys got into it, and the shop owner was forced to defend himself.

The guy obviously thought, the customer was going to pour a half a carton of milk into the expresso on ice, instead of paying for a “real latte”, hence the policy. I don’t buy the ‘its for the coffee’ excuse.

Jacob Grier (user link) says:

RE: Not so much

The “ghetto latte” thing was part of it, but the shop’s been worried about espresso being ruined by ice for years. That’s why they have a standard procedure for when they add ice in the process of making an iced Americano. This is the kind of thing coffee geeks obsess about. Similar obsessiveness is what motivates their refusal to sell espresso and classic cappuccinos in disposable to go cups.

freakengine says:

Most store policies are developed to make sure the store ends up with maximum profitability. The grace of a given store’s management is measured in how well it fools the consumers into thinking the policies are in place to protect THEM. Despite rampant claims, however, I still don’t believe that bringing outside food into the movies is a bad thing for me nor that allowing someone to ice their espresso will lower the quality of everyone’s beverages.

Anonymous Coward says:

As a former bartender I agree with the coffee shop owner.
As a matter of practice, I would refuse to serve any of our premium liquors with some mixers, eg any vsop with coke or grapefruit.
Part was snobbery on my part. The other half is that I knew from experience that the customer would complain that he could not taste the alcohol, and that it was too expensive.
If they wanted those kinds of drinks, i would pour a shot into a snifter, and give them a glass of ice and the mixer. They could mix it themselves if they chose to. My manager actually backed me up on this.
Iced coffee drinks need to be brewed a little stronger. Pour a regular coffee over ice, and it is immediately watered down. Complaints will follow.
Its his store, he can not sell whatever he wants.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I think the main failure here is that they do, in fact, sell it.

The Iced Americano is the exact same drink, to their high standards. All the Barista needed to do was inform the customer of this and all would have gone smoothly. He could even have gone as far as explaining *why* they do it that way, as it would likely have impressed the customer that so much thought had gone into it.

Instead, the Barista offered a flat “we don’t serve that”, and followed with a condescending “I know what you want to do and I just want you to know that it is really…really…Not Good.”

In your case, you’d serve them. Sure, they’d have to mix it themselves, but if you informed them of *why*, then their distaste after mixing it themselves would be their problem entirely…you tried. The Barister didn’t.

Godric says:

So tell me this...

If a company has a single product and their sole purpose is to provide that service or product, and they are nationwide. For example a car rental company.

Customer calls and asks for a rental car for that day. Local office says they are out of cars and says they are unable to fulfill the request (as a matter of fact, they say the don’t even have enough to comply with their reservations for the day) and there is nothing they can do to help. There are other offices within a 100 mile radius that have cars available, yet the local office refuses to have one transferred to meet customer demand. A call to the corporate customer service line yields the same helplessness and apathy.

Is this the customer wrong for getting a little more than pissed for a company not being able to do it’s sole job in life; provide a car?

This is not related to the coffee shop in question at all… it is in the realm of the customer is right/wrong. How do you rate this?

Remember… A car rental company has no other mission in life than to provide a vehicle upon request and payment. There is no reason they should ever run out of cars.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: So tell me this...

Yes, the customer is wrong for getting pissed that they cannot supply a car. The only mission in life for a car rental company is not to provide a vehicle upon request (as you postulated). It is to be a business. And when you run a business, you run it on private property that you own, and have the right to refuse to serve a customer.

SupRspi says:

Car Rentals?

@ Godric

“There is no reason they should ever run out of cars.”

Really. So nobody ever overbooks something? Demand never rises extremely higher than estimated occasionally, but not often enough to merit a rise in unsaleable/rentable stock?

So you’re pissed that you couldn’t rent a car. (or someone couldn’t) Maybe the car company was being priggish about it. Maybe the customer was. Either way, I don’t understand what this has to do with the article in question – nor do I know why you would do your survey about a car rental company in the comments for a coffee article.

An airline’s only job is to fly people to specific destinations, but sometimes they run out of seats. Do we go on tirades because of this too?

Jimbo says:


Yep, starbucks bit it.

I hated that place from day one. But, I asked them to whip me up a Turtle Mocha like caribou coffee does, and they acted like they never heard of it. Needless to say, that large coffee at caribou was 3.74, now its 4.25 or somethin ridiculous. I feel sorry for the adiicted folks kinda. Screw starbucks and Murked, obviously they don’t have a winning combo, or knew how to make one.

Maybe theres a growth in the more demanding customers sector these days?

I know quality when I see it, at least to my standards. And that my friends is, no lag on a 22″ inch monitor with intel e8400 wolfdale with a nvidia 8800 and DDR3 and 25mbps connection. Icey.

Allen (profile) says:

Re: Marketing.

Yeah certainly the fuss this created is about marketing.

The idea that “The customer is always right” is pure marketing. It comes from the concept that one way to make money is to give your customers whatever they ask for.

A different marketing idea is that a company should focus on a particular market segment (eg coffee Snob/Connoisseur).

A lot of people like that first concept because it puts them at the centre of the universe. But those objecting most rabidly are forgetting (or probably never knew in the first place) that marketing is about maximising earnings and profits. Sure it does this through trying to understand customers/markets, but its about the money.

If these guys have got their marketing wrong they will go bankrupt. No need to get offended or moralistic.

Trails (profile) says:


I’m a bit confused here. Techdirt is typically a big supporter of the “”if you buy it, it’s yours” mentality; I am too.

The opinions here seem a bit of an about-face.

Saying something like “That’s not on our menu, but I can pour espresso over ice for you” is an alternative the store should have (imo) exercised. Saying “it’s against our policy” comes off as elitist bullshit, plain and simple.

Further, the notion that ice ruins espresso/coffee is a purely subjective opinion. To the bartender further up who claims he/she would refuse to sell high end spirits with mixers: really? Don’t you think that’s overbearing of you?

It strikes me as an attempt to exploit one’s position of power (i.e. the purveyor of coffeee/booze/whatever) to impose one’s tastes onto others.

If somebody orders Lagavulin and drinks it with coke so be it. If somebody buys a T-Bone steak and then boils it, more power to em’. just because I think both of those would taste awful, doesn’t mean someone else can’t/shouldn’t do it.

To be fair it sounds like the coffee purchaser in the original story flew off the handle. I’l grant that, and the dollar bill is just over the top.

However, should vendors be allowed to impose their preferences on how we consume their products? The arguments put up by the coffee shop owner sound a lot like the arguments put up to support things like DRM; maintaining the (subjective) quality of a product, etc…

Am I missing something here?

Wolferz (profile) says:

Re: Confused

You’re missing the part where he never bought it… because it wasn’t something they were willing to sell. He never bought it, therefore it wasn’t his… it was still the coffee shop’s… and they have the right to do, or not do, whatever it is they choose with it. If he had bought it he would have had the option to add ice to it… since it would then have been his.

This is completely different from DRM which controls the use of a product AFTER it has been purchased. DRM would be more akin to selling the espresso and then when the guy tried to put ice into it the shop kicked him out and took the espresso away.

Frank says:

Re: Confused

Well, I think we feel a little too entitled with places like Burger King “Have it Your Way” when in reality if I own a restaurant I can be the Soup Nazi all day long and if you don’t like it get out.

If you went to Peter Lugers and asked for your Porterhouse boiled, the chef would come out and tell you to go home. There is no way they would risk ruining their reputation by sending out a grey turd… Again you’re not “wrong” but you’re the wrong customer for that establishment.

Wolferz (profile) says:


Actually find myself on both sides of the street with this one.

Ok… the customer is always right… unless they are going to “harm” themselves in some way. In my tutoring sessions I have had clients who insisted on doing something a certain way… a way that wasn’t just different but inherently doomed to failure from the beginning. For example, one customer started by insisting that I do not use ANY computer terminology when teaching him about computer basics. This of course devolved rather quickly into convoluted descriptions such as “the thing which you place the things that contain the things that are your things” for a description of a folder.

Other clients would ask a question that could be answered a thousand different ways but in the end the answer was (of course) the same… and they refuse to accept the answer as correct telling me, the teacher, that I am wrong. I’ve been wrong… but when I go to tutor some one it is always on a subject I know a great deal about… and as such I am rarely wrong. When asked a question I am not very sure of the answer I look it up on the spot.

Unfortunately if I accept that the customer is right and my answer is wrong… then teaching the next concept which requires them to understand the previous concept becomes impossible. If I allow a client to be right when he insists that Java and HTML are the same thing then when I move on to showing him how to implement each one he won’t be able to understand it.

So no the customer is not always right. However, If the customer wants ice in his coffee put ice in his coffee. If the client doesn’t take coffee seriously then that is his own problem. You could always make a suggestion that he not drink it that way but in the end there is no logical reasons to deny a paying customer what he wants (little picture) when it does not interfere with him getting what he really wants (big picture).

Such items could be off-menu items and could cost more as a deterrent (and a way to turn a slightly higher profit from people who care less about money and more about time or routine). There are dozens of ways that you could maintain the focus on quality while still allowing individual customers the option to choose. I don’t agree with the sentiment that allowing customers who don’t care about coffee to get the coffee they want and providing high quality coffee to those who want it should be mutually exclusive. Besides… there may come a day when an iced espresso is considered high-class coffee. It’s all a matter of opinion in the end.

That said the asshole in the shop had no right to demand the shop do things his way. Yes perhaps it is absurd for the shop to try to tell a paying customer what is in their best interests… but in the end that is their right… as it is their right to lose money hand over fist if they really want to (which doesn’t seem to be the case here). He could have simply said “ok, thanks anyway” with a smile and a wave and mentally noted that they didn’t sell iced espressos there as he walked out. If he was in a hurry then that was his own fault. If there was no other coffee shop near where he works then it sucks to be him… life isn’t always fair. Based on information provided here and at the links there was never at any time a justification for being rude. His sense of entitlement is misplaced.

Wolferz (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I did read the article. Whether he bought it or not is irrelevant to my point. As is whether or not coffee is something special. As is the whether the customer is right or wrong.

The only relevant point you’ve made was that some one was a condescending jerk… though not necessarily the cashier but rather the company itself.

Next time you tell some one to RTFA try reading their comment first.

oh and “barista” is no more arrogant a title than “bar tender”… minus the liquor they would be called a waiter/waitress.

Malthusan says:

Missed opportunity

“sometimes customers only discover quality after it’s shown to them”

Murky didn’t make an effort to show this customer the quality. The clerk essentially said, “Fuck you. That’s stupid. You’re an idiot.” How is that helpful? If, as Timothy claims, Murky caters to a rarefied clientele, isn’t it still in their best interests to increase that clientele? How does Murky get new customers? Do they wait for the ignorant to educate themselves, to apprentice themselves to a succession of improving coffee shops until, one day, they finally see the light of Murky and approach the counter, aglow with the promise of the enlightenment only Murky can offer?

Bullshit. Murky pissed on a customer, and the customer got pissed off. Follow the tale a little further and you’ll see he went back for a second cup, and, after he showed the proper deference to their leet coffee skillz, they poured him up an iced Americano which not only met their rigorous quality controls, but also satisfied the customer’s desire for an iced coffee beverage. Is it even remotely possible that this whole ridiculous conflagration could have been avoided, and a new, perhaps loyal customer created, if the clerk had simply said, “We don’t serve iced espresso because it ruins the flavor. However, we can do essentially the same thing in an iced Americano and preserve the quality.” or something similar?

Rather than cast this incident in the light of a company catering to a more educated clientele with a more refined taste, as if it’s a new concept these amazing companies have discovered, it’s more accurate to view it in terms of how to use a policy to educate and create a new customer who could, in fact, become a loyal, repeat customer. And how not to treat people who are spending money on what is, essentially, a luxury item, and not a necessity (caffeine addiction and coffee fanboy outrage be damned).

Alimas says:

Customer was an Idiot

Working in convenience stores in such for a time taught me that usually, the customer is actually wrong.
They demand things you don’t have, or that are illegal, for cheaper than you can give them or are against store policy, all the time.
I got so sick of idiots like this moron who went into the shop and threw a hissy-fit because we didn’t offer what they wanted. If I had a nickel for every moron I had to tell to get out.
The store and this coffee shop are not the customer’s own personal quarters. When you go to a store to buy something, what your effectively doing is asking to take the owner up on his offer to trade money for an item. If you make a different offer and he rejects it – tough.
If you start getting rude to the clerk, owner or whomever, they are well within their right to get rude back.

That coffee shop is doing itself a world of favor and saving a lot of headache ensuring that that asshat and those that would behave like him don’t show up at his place of exchange.

Davis says:

What the hell?

If the customer buys the coffee, he/she is free to do whatever he wants with it. That includes load it down with cream and sugar and whatever else he/she wants.

Don’t get me started on calling coffee “ghetto.”

“Take coffee seriously?” What the hell? There are more things in world more serious than coffee. Stop being such a damn snob.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: What the hell?

I disagree, they should not have offered something ‘similar’ in the first place. Maybe the customer didn’t want a second shot of espresso, you never know. The first suggestion of giving the customer the drink he asked for, with a side of ice, was the right suggestion. The customer acted like an asshole about it, and deserved no other suggestions at that point.

Anonymous Coward says:

Simple, really:

Reading the actual story, the guy goes back and asks them what they *do* serve that is close to what he wants.

They end up suggesting the “Americano”, which is *exactly* what he asked for with 1 extra shot of espresso and some water.

The original “Barista” could have prevented the entire fiasco by making that very simple suggestion. There would have been no problems and the customer may well have returned (his GF had a dance class in the area apparently).

This is the “Barista”‘s job. He did not do it.

If there is any one rule to live, even for the snobbiest of industries, it is, ‘Never say “I don’t know” *unless* it is immediately followed by a, “But I will find out for you.”

This can be applied to this situation with the simple change of “never say “no.” unless it is immediately followed by a suggestion of something similar or equal that *is* on the menu.

The fact that they served they *do* in fact, serve what he asked for (with only minor adjustments) and never bothered to suggest it was FAIL beyond measure, and the “barista”‘s cocky and condescending attitude upon serving the drink did not help the situation in the least.

Personally, I’d have simply walked out the moment they said they didn’t server it and failed to offer the suggestion of an alternative.

Joe says:

It's only coffee...

I am amused by those who say “It’s only coffee.” I am NOT a snob coffee drinker. I’ve drank “river coffee”, “lake” coffee, coffee made with distilled water, coffee made with hard water, coffee made with soft water, etc. ad nauseum.

But in the final say, a good cup of coffee is wonderful.

I’m in Wolferz camp about who’s business it is, and why folks say they MUST do it “everyone’s” way. If Murkey’s wants to loose a customer then that is THEIR business.

Sorta like folks who sue because they are offended. Hmmm, I checked the Bill of Rights and that right is not in there. I checked because I get offended a lot.

Yes, it may only be a cup of coffee, but to those who like coffee there’s going to be those who like things a little better. That’s why I drive a higher quality car than a Yugo. (my apology to Yugo lovers).

ClosedEyesSeeing says:


I find it interesting that the coffee shop at least offered a solution, by providing an espresso and a cup of ice so the customer could ice his own espresso. If the store has a policy of not icing the espresso then it’s their right not to do it, but they had the decency to provide a solution. They didn’t (as I read other comments) tell the customer to just “f*** off”.

I’m not exactly sure why the customer got so pissed either, I’d jump at the chance to ice my own coffee (even though that sounds horrid). I would expect them to put too much or too little ice for my liking and in this scenario I could control how much I got.

All in all, I’m just saying that A) The coffee shop could probably get off it’s high horse… or at least find a shorter one to ride. B) The customer shouldn’t of overreacted the way he did, a solution was provided to fix the issue. If he didn’t agree he should of just found a different coffee shop.

kevjohn (user link) says:

Hot Coffee

Murky’s owner reminds me of the moronic chefs who get offended, OFFENDED!, if you ask for salt & pepper or other condiments after they’ve created their ‘perfect’ dish for you. Get over yourselves, and (do your damn best to) give the customer what the F they want.

Yes, the customer could have just accepted their offer to mix his own drink, or just left never to return. But as hectic and stressful as today’s modern world can be at times, I can fully understand getting into a huff and going off when all you F’ing wanted is some g-damn coffee mixed with some g-damn ice! WTF, man?!?

Richard Dalziel-Sharpe (user link) says:

Customers and businesses.

The sole purpose of a business is to make a profit.
Customers avail themselves of businesses that meet their needs or desires.
The case of the coffee shop and its potential customer reminds me of websites that only allow Internet Exporer to be used.
Coffee is coffe and HTML should be HTML. However, the coffee drinker can get his coffee how he likes it from another business, even if he wants ice in it. The website user who is snubbed by the IT department of such a website, often has no alternative.
In this case a business (the website owner) is dismissing either deliberately or through ignorance, a considerable percentage of its potential customers and therefore potential profit.

shifuimam says:

This has got to be the stupidest argument ever.

I used to work at Starbucks – for three years, in fact. I used to be a coffee snob. As in, I thought I was better than other people for drinking Starbucks. I still prefer Starbucks over other premium brands, but if you want to drink Peets or Folgers or Seattle’s Best or the shit at the gas station, that’s your prerogative. I don’t care.

But. Seriously. It’s against company policy to put espresso over ice, so that it might get a tiny bit diluted as the ice melts, but it’s totally fine to serve a beverage that is essentially highly watered-down espresso? WHAT THE HELL?!

If this coffee shop is truly dedicated to forcing their customers to drink undiluted, we’re-better-than-everyone beverages, they should probably quit providing sugar and cream for regular coffee, since those both dilute the flavor. They should also quit serving any fancy espresso drinks, including but not limited to lattes and cappuccinos.

It’s people like these head-up-their-asses coffee shop owners who make the world suck a little more.

Dale Sundstrom (user link) says:

Murky's owner admits the policy is NOT about the coffee

In a discussion with me in the forums on CoffeeGeek, Nick Cho admitted that the main reason for the “no icing espresso” was not “Mostly for quality reasons,” (the coffee) as he originally claimed, but to discourage the abuse of complimentary dairy products.

Setting policies for stuff like this just prevents your employees from using and developing their own good judgment and communication skills. Coffee and customer are both important; choosing one at the expense of the other is foolish and unnecessary.

dena clark says:

sometimes the customer is wrong

the person that owns the business has just as much right to list what they will serve as the person has a right to say what he will buy. This is what i have for sale period. People keep giving in to rude customers then they get what they want. if it were a child or a dog it would be as plain as day. if they throw a fit give it to them. you then have a monster. why is this exceptable because servers need there job, the boss allows them to be mistreaded. I say we should have a high serves charge for anything above the menu then let them deside how important it is to go to a business that dont offer what you want and ruddly fuss til you get it.

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