Can You Solve This Customer Interaction Puzzle?

Q: What Is The Cause Of This Customer Interaction Turning Out As It Turned Out?

Do you have an avid interest in designing-conducting research, eliciting-capturing requirements, listening to the voice of the customer, or designing customer experiences?  If you have this interest then I invite you to help me solve the following customer experience puzzle:

Last week, while on an average holiday shopping trip, my mother and I decided to stop by Starbucks to get a quick snack…..

When we got up to the counter, my mother placed our simple order, at which point she asked for a “tall” cup of two percent white milk. This is how the conversation played out:

“Mocha,” said the barista.

“No. Milk,” my mother repeated.


“No. Two percent white milk.”

“Oh… Milk!”

….. I attempted to withhold my personal thoughts. Milk. You know, that white stuff you pour in the coffee? Yes, well, we want an entire cup full of that. Minus the coffee, of course.

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, but not without a few stifled giggles.

– See more at:

I ask you to put your intellect and expertise into action. Please consider the situation and give an answer to the following question: What is the cause of the mismatch between the customer’s request for “milk” and how Starbucks responded to the customer’s request?  

Why it is worth spending time on this puzzle?  Because we are grappling with that which lies at the heart of making sense of the customer’s voice and sound experience design.  It is also the reason that so many systems, including CRM systems, disappoint customers even though the designers are convinced that they have listened to the customer and designed the system to meet the customers needs-requirements.

What Explanations-Interpretations Have Been Put Forth To Date?

To date, I have come across two ways of explaining-interpreting that which occurred between the customer and the Starbucks staff.  Allow me to share these with you.

The author of the story (Anna Papachristos) explains this breakdown in communication (and the resulting experience) as follows:

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. 

Don Peppers in his post (How To Deal With Customer Variability) sees the same situation in terms of variable customer needs-behaviour coming up against standardised processes and operations:

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.

But customers are all different. They want different things – different sizes of products, different delivery dates, different specifications for services, and so forth.

Variability like this is something Frei and Morriss call “customer chaos,” and they suggest it can be managed in two basic ways: either by eliminating it, or by accommodating it. If you choose to eliminate variability, you will generate more efficiency. If you choose to accommodate it, you will generate better service.

My Take On This Interaction?


p>I do not find myself in agreement with the author (Anna Papachristos). Nor do I find myself in agreement with Don Peppers.  I propose to share my answer to this customer interaction puzzle in a follow up post – hopefully after some/many of you have put forward your answers by commenting.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant. Passionate about enabling customer-centricity by calling forth the best from those that work in the organisation and the intelligent application of digital technologies. Subject matter expert with regards to customer strategy, customer insight, customer experience (CX), customer relationship management (CRM), and relationship marketing. Working at the intersection of the Customer, the Enterprise (marketing, sales, service), and Technology.

5 thoughts on “Can You Solve This Customer Interaction Puzzle?”

  1. 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. We are assuming – so far – that there were no cultural or language barriers – only the resulting miscommunication and poor customer service. Coworkers would not necessarily step in to correct miscommunication if they were uncomfortable doing so. (Which could be for any number of reasons.)

    It would help to have more information about both buyer and seller.

    Maybe the music was too loud and the customer spoke softly and the employee never truly heard the correct order?


    1. Hello Gord,

      I thank you for the generosity you have shown by responding to my invitation and sharing your take on the situation. It occurs to me that there is a language issue present. And it is possible that it was noisy in the store and the barista never heard the customer properly.

      As promised, I will share my take on the situation in a follow up post which I intend to write the weekend.

      I wish you the very best

      At your service / with my love


      1. I always enjoy the “heart” you bring to your commentary Maz. Now I see it demonstrated in basic correspondence. I must say, I’m blown away you even bothered to write much less so graciously!


  2. Maz,

    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?



    1. James, you may be right – it’s just that simple. I would like to think that being a barista could be interesting for some people who are keen to interact with the general public on a daily basis. (Yes, we exist.) There are those, however, who must find the service industry not unlike factory work – even in the more stylish Starbucks. Factory work is mind-numbing, repetitive drudgery for many, for others it is likely blissfully mindless. (Please – before the letters start – I’m not saying factory work doesn’t require intelligence or skill, but it is a different skill set than interacting with the public.) Maybe the barista in question is not actually well-suited. Or maybe she’s hearing impaired? Yes, it could be really simple.


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