Two Phrases That Kill Your Business

coffee shop

Living on the East Coast means winter is always a mix of snow, rain and ice. The order in which this precipitation appears, combined with the amount that arrives and whether the temperature stays above or below zero, can create incredible challenges for pedestrians, drivers … and customers. I recently found myself in a situation that reminded me: how we handle winter’s inconveniences says a lot about our values and can either gain or lose us business.

What situation did I find myself in? And what are the two phrases no one in our companies should ever say?

Wednesday morning I popped into a neighbourhood Starbucks on Kaye Street here in Halifax. The first thing I noticed was that it wasn’t filled with the usual buzz of conversation and crowded tables. Maybe what I’m about to share is a contributing factor.

I’m in this Starbucks fairly often and have gotten to know some of the staff, but on this occasion, everyone was new to me. I placed my order for a grande latte and moved to the side counter to wait.

A gentleman arrived and approached the cash. He pointed outside the Starbucks window and asked if it was possible for staff to clear some of the ice that was making it impossible to use the sidewalk. The young man behind the counter was already shaking his head “no” before the man completed his question. “It’s up to the city,” he said.

The man then explained, in a very warm, calm voice, that he understood, but there were many elderly people in the neighbourhood, some using motorized scooters, etc. Wasn’t it possible for the store to clear their part of the sidewalk? He had done it in front of his business.

The young man at the cash started to tell the man to contact the building’s landlord when another employee arrived from the back of the cafe. He had taken the man’s request personally. He was angry and aggressive. “It’s not our job,” he said. “We don’t get paid to do that.”

My heart sank. No one should ever utter these words to anyone in any place of business. I’ve been very fortunate in all my interactions with Starbucks, my first one going all the way back to the 1990s in Vancouver. This employee’s behaviour was 100% against the company’s brand. Not only that, this coffee shop has built its customer base as a neighbourhood meeting place. This has taken time and effort – and was about to be destroyed.

From the employee’s perspective, they had cleared by the front door, but much of the cafe is on Isleville and as I looked out the window I could see the thick layer of uneven ice, where a very few footprints offered evidence of how difficult it was to navigate. There’s no doubt clearing it would be a big, difficult job.  Rather than create a confrontation, the employee could have said something like: “Yes, we know it’s dreadful. We’ve been able to clear the front so far and are also in touch with the landlord to get some help.”

Instead, the conversation between the man and the employee continued to deteriorate. The angry employee thrust a gift card at the man and said, “You can call head office and talk to them. The number’s on here.”

The man with the query about the sidewalk looked at the gift card and was quiet for a moment. Then he raised his voice. “You are suggesting I need to call your head office about this sidewalk?” he said.

“We don’t get paid to do that work,” the employee insisted.

The man put the gift card down on the counter and left. I know he will never be back. And I know that he will tell many others in the neighbourhood who will also never return.

After he left I was still standing by the counter, latte now in hand. I couldn’t help myself; I had to say something. “It is about being part of the community,” I said calmly. Sparks flew in my direction. The angry employee told me he didn’t appreciate people coming in and shouting at him.

“No one shouted at you,” I said. He couldn’t hear me.

As I left, I realized I wouldn’t be back. I walked to my appointment nearby, noting how other businesses had found a way to clear all of their sidewalks. It confirmed for me that I couldn’t support a business that doesn’t understand its place in the community, or that hires people who don’t understand and represent their brand.

And while I didn’t take the time to phone head office, I am writing this post. I hope you’ll share it on social so that Starbucks hears this story.





17 thoughts on “Two Phrases That Kill Your Business”

    • There is a lot in this story. I wouldn’t normally call out a specific business in this way, Steve, as you know, but it was all so … harsh. I’m hoping that Starbucks Canada reads the post and is able to offer the location some support. I believe the manager that was there for a long time has moved to a new location and perhaps that is part of the issue. Thanks, as always, for your comment.

  1. Yep. Every time I hear “NO…” or “That’s not my job”, I scratch both the individual and the business off my list.

    You mentioned Vancouver. I have been noticing this type of response in most establishments in Vancouver for the past 3 years, and quite frankly, I am very tired of it. I travel the world and very rarely will I receive such a response from a service or salesperson. Thank goodness I only have to travel as far as Pender Island and eat at Jo’s to redeem my faith in humanity. My friends and I are always welcome there, and no request is too grande. (Get it?)

    • Good to hear from you on this one, Pauline. And disappointed to hear about your experiences of this behaviour increasing. Also … that first Starbucks in Vancouver? That was with you! And yes, I love the grande.

  2. Being in the same building as the Starbucks and knowing the wonderful warm feeling the employees give me when I come in the store I would say don’t judge a business or company based on one bad negative response. The store was taking the heat for the Ilseville and Kaye Street sidewalks not being plowed by the city for days and turning to a icy bobsled track.

    I agree ‘that it is not my job’ is a killer phrase and do love your conversation starter which is why do we expect the business to clear the sidewalks. Halifax City has stated they are responsible to clear sidewalks which takes them 2-4 days to complete the job.

    • Thanks, Glenn, for adding this perspective. And you are correct, I was not aware of the “back story” here, about how many other times the staff had been spoken to about the ice. Really, my reaction was to the use of “it’s not my job” and I’m very glad you’ve added this to the story.

  3. I was there for that situation. I’m a regular and that men was yelling at the poor baristas. With corporate workspaces like that, cleaning outside the perimeters becomes a liability. They get hurt, someone else does and it’s on them. They didn’t say this stuff to be mean, they said it so the man could calm down. He was, in fact, YELLING. Multiple customers once he left apologized on that man’s behalf. The barista in question gave the man several options to call the city, call the store manager, call the building manager, and even offered up a gift card with the Starbucks customer care number. I don’t know these people personally, but I do know they always are around. So if you didn’t recognize them, maybe you don’t actually go in as much as you do. Before you make a comment, let alone an ESSAY on a situation that seems quite one-sided to me, get your facts straight. All the best!

    • Thanks, Rory, for adding this to the essay. I appreciate it for a number of reasons. The man with the request did indeed yell, I’m not denying that … but not initially. He did start the conversation in a very regular tone of voice, with a request and talked about the elderly folks in the community, etc. He certainly was yelling by the time he left. And I do find it interesting that you and I can have such different perspectives on the same situation. This is a good reminder to me to let things settle for a bit before I write about them and to see if I can find an alternative perspective. I’m really glad you’ve added your experience.

  4. I have also frequented this store on a number of occasions. The staff is always friendly and inviting. In regards to the snow removal, the front entrance of the building is always cleared. The same way the other businesses on the street clear theirs. It is not the stores responsibility to clear the side of their building. It is the city’s. People have a tendency to think that people in the service industry are only there to serve them, and it’s just not true. If the establishment on the corner was a bank, would this man run in and berate the bank tellers for the snowy sidewalk? I highly doubt it. Servers aren’t servants!!

    • Thanks, Alex. Great point about the side of the building being different than the front of the building. Once again, I have to say, the man did not berate the staff. He made a request and was shut down so quickly he then became upset. As Glenn has mentioned in a previous comment, the staff was taking a lot of heat for the side street – a back story I was not aware of – and this likely contributed to their flash reaction to the man’s request. I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to add to this conversation and distinguish between the side of the building and the front of the business.

  5. As a frequent customer of this location, your comment about the other businesses having their sidewalks cleared, but Starbucks not? They did clear their sidewalk. I do not see how they are responsible for a side street. Their storefront was completely cleared, complete with paths through the snowbank to the street, especially at the handicapped parking. You’re making it sound like they don’t care at all about their customers, and just letting the snow pile up in front of the door. I’ve seen those guys out spreading salt out front when it’s icy. How is it good community and neighbourly to blast them for something that is, in fact, not their job but the city’s, and leaving out key info to make them sound worse? And why is it not okay to say it’s not their job? Should they lie and say it is? Because it’s hands down not their job to shovel a side street. When would it end? Their customers might have to park two blocks away. Do they need to shovel that far? We need to be realistic with our expectations during storms. We cannot snap our fingers and make the snow go away. Yes, it’s frustrating. Yes, it’s inconvenient. But it’s not okay to take that frustration out on others, and then blame them for being honest and saying while they cleared their store front, they didn’t clear the side street that has no store access. They are not city employees. Nor are they the only tenants in that large building. In the community-minded view, why are they to be solely responsible? It is not Starbucks’s sidewalk. Why is only Starbucks to be held accountable? What about the other businesses in the building? Other tenants? The landlord? Being on a corner does not automatically make you responsible for more than your storefront.

    • Mark, thanks for adding to this conversation, especially the distinction between the front and side streets. Really, my piece was about the frustration of the staff at the man’s request which, at the beginning, he made quite reasonably. I was unaware that the staff had already heard a lot about the issue of the side street and it was definitely irresponsible of me to not investigate the back story here. My point is that the staff’s quick negative reaction made the situation with the man worse, not better. While it is true the snow removal isn’t the staff’s job, there were other, more professional ways, to say this i.e. “We know it’s terrible and we’ve had lots of comments, and we are in contact with the landlord and the city. We cannot clear it ourselves. We aren’t provided with the right tools, which is a safety issue.” That’s just an example, but the man was not angry when he entered the cafe. But he left furious and, having a front row seat to the conversation, I know it could have been avoided.

      • I agree, it was irresponsible to post this without investigating the back story, especially going so far as to say you’ll never return, which encourages others to do the same. If as another commenter mentioned, they’ve been catching the heat for this, it’s more understandable that a reaction may come off as more harsh that needed. However, there are two sides to every story, and the truth is often somewhere in between. You weren’t the one to whom the man is addressing, and perhaps the tone heard by you doesn’t match with how it felt to the person it was directed at. As a bystander, and not a part of the initial conversation -as stated yourself- and contradicted by another commenter who was in the cafe, yours is only one view of the interaction. Others felt it was different. Before posting things than can be damaging to others, please think about how your words will have impact. How would it feel for those staff to read this? Being villanized? Did you speak with the manager? Will this one point of view wrongly lose this business customers? It’s very easy to watch a situation as an outsider, and say what could have been said and done different, after the fact. Perhaps some poor word choices were made. But this seems like a harsh judgement over something like snow removal. The staff at that location are always so friendly, they don’t deserve this post. Perhaps a better approach would have been to speak with them directly, or the manager, after the fact. Going to social media seems like an overreaction.

        • Thanks, Mark. All great points. I will include them in a future post about how things can be perceived. At the time of this interaction, I was the only customer near the cash and the counter, so definitely the closest to the man who made the request about the sidewalk. I did hear the interaction from the beginning. However, I do agree with you that I could have written this differently and will examine this more fully in a post later this month.

          • What I find most bothersome about this is that if the point of this is phrases best not said, there is no reason to call out a specific business, state you will not return, and suggest others share, implying that they should do the same. You could easily have posted the exact same story without intentionally damanging the reputation of a local business. Big cooperation or not, it’s a local business. It’s run and staffed by fellow Nova Scotians. It puts a roof over their heads, and food on their tables. Calling them out in such a way without attempting to seek to better understand the situation is not helpful. This is not educational, and this is not communicating in a constructive manner. This only shames.

          • Thanks, Mark, for continuing to contribute to this post. And … you are absolutely right. I should not have written in all the specifics here. I have never thought of this as “shaming”, but, I believe this is a valid point. It was certainly not my intent, but that doesn’t matter, does it. Know that I hear you clearly, that I believe you are correct. I made a mistake here. While I can’t undo it, I can apologize – to all my readers and followers – share all I have learned through this experience. You have been instrumental in the learning and for this I am grateful. I think there’s learning for everyone. Anyway … there will be a future post containing an apology and a detailed look at this experience. Thank you!

  6. I have to chime in because I don’t think this post is irresponsible at all. The point is that all this debate wouldn’t even be happening if those 2 phrases weren’t used. Employees should be trained to not use those phrases regardless of the situation, to have another way to explain that doesn’t include those phrases. Much like telling an upset person to “calm down”, those 2 phrases are always going to escalate an already bad situation. This is a prime example – it could have all been avoided. The details aren’t the point but the fact they’re being discussed IS the point.


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