“Oh … milk!”: Is This The Solution To The Customer Interaction Puzzle?

What Occurred and the Experience of What Occurred

In the last post I shared with a customer interaction that took place at Starbucks. If you are to get value out of this conversation it is necessary for you to go and read that last post. Before we proceed, I feel compelled to issue a warning: this post is not for those whose attention span is limited to 30 seconds.

How are we to make sense of what occurred?  Let’s start with how the author (Anna Papachristos) makes sense of the interaction between her mother and the Starbuck’s barista

I’m not sure what was more baffling–the fact that no one in the coffee shop listened, or that they’ve become blissfully unaware of the basics. I understand that Starbucks stands as a status symbol more than anything, but have we really distanced ourselves from the simple things in life that badly? This barista’s mistake may have been the result of a random miscommunication, but her confusion was nothing short of hilarious.

Making Sense of This Customer Interaction: Multiple Perspectives

Two people took up my invitation, in the last post, to put intellect-expertise into action and generate-share an explanation of what occurred.  First, lets listen to Gord Demers:

I can’t help but wonder if this could be an English as a Second Language (ESL) situation were one of the parties didn’t have English as their first language…… Maybe the music was too loud and the customer spoke softly and the employee never truly heard the correct order?

James Lawther shares a different take on what occurred:

My guess, though difficult as I wasn’t there…  The barista was bored out of her mind, waiting for her shift to end and was in a world of her own. How’s that?

Finally, lets just remind ourselves as to how Don Peppers choose to interpret this interaction:

Starbucks, like the roadside diner and any other business, tries to maintain quality and control costs by standardizing processes and operations. Routine tasks, if they can’t be automated, are at least handled in the same way by every employee.

My Take On What Occurred

It occurs to me another way to look at the situation and what occurred is to make use of the insights of two philosophers: Wittgenstein and Heidegger.

Wittgenstein on Language

Let’s start with Wittgenstein and his insight into language.  Wittgenstein starts his book, Philosophical Investigations, by sharing a quotation from St Augustine in order to put on the table our taken for granted understanding of language.  This is what Wittgenstein says about this account of language:

These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language.  It is this: the individual words in language name objects—sentences are combinations of such names. In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.

Wittgenstein does not see language in this way.  Wittgenstein sees words and language as tools.  What kind of tools?  Social tools for social purposes in specific domains of social life:

A common summary of his argument is that meaning is use—words are not defined by reference to the objects they designate, nor by the mental representations one might associate with them, but by how they are used……

He shows how, in each case, the meaning of the word presupposes our ability to use it….

Wittgenstein’s point is not that it is impossible to define “game”, but that we don’t have a definition, and we don’t need one, because even without the definition, we use the word successfully. Everybody understands what we mean when we talk about playing a game……

Wittgenstein argues that definitions emerge from what he termed “forms of life”, roughly the culture and society in which they are used. Wittgenstein stresses the social aspects of cognition; to see how language works for most cases, we have to see how it functions in a specific social situation. It is this emphasis on becoming attentive to the social backdrop against which language is rendered intelligible that explains Wittgenstein’s elliptical comment that “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”

Source: Wikipedia/Philosophical Investigations

Heidegger: human being as being-in-the-world

In grappling with the question of being Heidegger chooses to look at the being who has an understanding of being: human being.  In so looking, Heidegger asserts that a human being is a being-in-the-world. It is tempting to interpret this as meaning that the world is a container, say a glass, and the human being is in the world, as water is in a glass. Wrong!  A more accurate representation is to see a tapestry and a human being is one thread in the tapestry. Notice, there is not a thread isolated from the tapestry – the two are one!

Not only is a human being a being-in-the-world, it is also so that a human being is situated within specific worlds. What kind of ‘worlds’?  The world of academia.  The world of business. The world of politics. The world of education-schooling. The world of Christianity.  The world of Islam. The world of the high-tech start up. The VC world. The world of finance …… 

What constitutes a world?  A world consists of human beings, their concerns, roles, interactions between human beings, tasks and equipment (stuff). 

“Oh … milk!”: the solution to the riddle?

In our average everydayness what is closest to us is our environment (Umwelt) in which we are caught up in our concerns and activities.

– Heidegger

Situated in a world, busy with the concerns-activities-equipment, we approach each encounter from a particular understanding. What kind of understanding?  The automatic-default understanding of a particular world.  For example, in the world of dining at restaurants you automatically ask for the bill, pay, leave a tip. Do you do the same after enjoying a delicious meal at a friends house when you have been invited as a guest?  What would happen if you did ask your hostess for a bill? Or insist on paying for the meal?  

It occurs to me that the author (Anna Papachristos) committed the same kind of blunder (asking your host for a bill at the end of the meal) when the authors mother walked into Starbucks and asked for “Milk”.  In the world of Starbucks, the world of coffee and coffee drinkers, one does not walk into a Starbucks, stand in line, get to the barista and ask for milk.

The barista is in the world of coffee and in a dance with customers who show up and ask for a coffee. In this world the request for milk is puzzling. It is nonsensical in the sense that one cannot automatically make sense of it.  How does the barista make sense of it?  Probably by looking for the coffee word that sounds closest to milk: “Mocha?”  Notice, that the barista did not get milk until the authors mother said: “No. Two percent white milk.”. What was the barista’s response? “Oh … milk!” Finally, the barista has made sense of the nonsensical request for “milk”.

What makes me confident of my interpretation?  The author writes (the bolding is my work):

This barista’s mistake may have been the result of a random miscommunication, but her confusion was nothing short of hilarious.

Yes, the barista was confused. She was as confused by the request for milk as a hostess would be by a guest’s request for a bill!

Let’s move on and consider why it is that even when the barista got the demand for milk, Starbucks delivered steamed milk and not cold milk:

Our barista proceeded to ask if we’d like the milk steamed, but we opted for cold. (They steamed it anyway.) Eventually, we managed to get our order straightened out.

Think back to Wittgenstein: the meaning of a word is the use to which it is put within a particular social world.  What is the meaning-use of the word ‘milk’ in Starbucks?  Milk that goes into coffee. What kind of milk is that? Steamed milk.  Put differently, in a game of chess ‘castle’ does not mean a castle as in a castle where a lord lives. Nor does castling in chess mean moving between castles in real life!

Why Have I Made Such An Effort With This Challenge?

Think research: how can you be sure that the question that you asked is the question that the customer answered?

Think Voice of the Customer feedback: how can you be sure that what you took the customer’s feedback to mean is what the customer meant?

Think requirements gathering: how can you be sure that you have understand the requirement that the customer is actual communicating?

Think experience design: how can you be sure that you have gotten the experience of the customer that you talking to, right now?


To truly understand our fellow human beings we have to immerse ourselves in them. How? By living in their worlds. Which is why it takes a nurse to understand a nurse, a doctor to understand a doctor, a CEO to understand a CEO, a woman to understand a woman, a person with back pain to understand a person with back pain, an immigrant to understand an immigrant.

If you do want to understand another then learn from Undercover Boss.  Get out of your office.  Dive into a particular world by fulfilling a particular role in that world.  Dress for that role, train for that role. Dive into the activities that go with that role by actually doing the activities – not as a simulation but for real. And spend enough time, at least five days, living that role.

It takes a woman to understand a woman, a CEO to understand a CEO, an immigrant to understand an immigrant, a teenager to understand a teenager, a person with back pain to understand another person with back pain …….. How do you know when you have arrived at this level of understanding?  You live-breathe-speak the same language! And it speaks you.  Enough for today ..

5 thoughts on ““Oh … milk!”: Is This The Solution To The Customer Interaction Puzzle?”

  1. Maz,
    I really like your exploration of this issue from a philosophical angle and learnt a lot from it. I also agree with the lessons you shared at the end, particularly the Undercover Boss approach……I love that show/idea and wonder why more bosses don’t do this…..probably, believe too much of their own hype.

    However, at the end of the post I found myself wondering if the heart of the problem was something quite humdrum and that the barista just didn’t listen. She obviously heard something but didn’t properly listen for whatever reason….fatigue, lack of care, language, bias, agenda etc etc

    As you point out, if we don’t get out of our way and our own ‘heads’ then we’ll struggle to understand and really help and serve others.



  2. Hello Adrian,
    Many thanks for sharing how the post showed up for you.

    Reading your second paragraph it occurs to me that I have not succeeded in communicating that which I intended to communicate.

    And your third paragraph communicates to me how ingrained the existing way of thinking is. And convinces me to write a further post to clarify that which I intended to communicate in this post.

    Many thanks for providing me with valuable feedback. An opportunity to see how my speaking is landing and to make adjustments.

    At your service / with my love


    1. Maz,
      Thanks for your reply. I believe I did get what you were communicating…..James captures it very well with his comment……so, perhaps I didn’t explain myself very well and for that I apologise.



    1. James,
      Many thanks for that which you share here. It occurs to me that you have gotten ‘that which I write and wish to communicate in this post’. That leaves me delighted and makes me say that it was worth spending the hours it took to think about, write, share this post.

      Further, I thank you for the second gift. Which one? Pointing me to the Elvis video. I find myself deeply touched. He communicates that which I was seeking to communicate in this post. And he does it in a manner that really speaks to me.

      With my deep appreciation for your existence. And with my love


Comments are closed.