This is Why Running a Service Business is Hard

This Starbucks story illustrates the hardest part about running a service business

"Pregnant woman denied Starbucks bathroom useage"

Of course, Starbucks did not deny this woman access to the bathroom.  Had the board of directors, CEO, and most of the management been at the store, they would have happily helped the woman use the Starbucks bathroom.  This woman was actually denied access to the bathroom by some knucklehead employee of Starbucks, one of the tens of thousands they hire, who likely thought they were doing the right thing.

I am sure Starbucks has a policy that the bathrooms are for customers only, and honestly in a lot of urban areas that is an essential policy or else one finds themselves spending a lot of money cleaning the bathroom and providing the public facilities that the city or shopping center developer chose not to fund.

However, in a service business, one of the keys to providing good customer service and maintaining a good reputation is, ironically, having your employees know when the rules need to be bent.  This is the number 1 thing in every training session we have in our company -- when the rules have to be enforced (safety, fires, quiet time at night) and when to back off and not act like the campground nazi ruining everyone's visit.

I have thought about why this should be for quite a while.  If rules exist, shouldn't they be enforced for everyone?  And if not, shouldn't they just be eliminated?

First, there simply are exceptions.  This is the same reason that mandatory sentencing guidelines in criminal law and no tolerance rules in schools always run to grief.

Second, even if there are not exceptions, there are people who really, really, really, strongly, aggressively believe that they are indeed an exception.  Call this modern entitlement, but we get this all the time.  Dog owners are a great example.  Every single one of them understands perfectly why everyone else's dogs have to be on leash but no one believes their little darling is a problem.  Dogs are in fact the hardest issue we often have to manage.  Ask someone to put a dog on leash and we get vitriolic complaints sent to our government partners, newspapers, etc.  Let them run around and we get vitriolic complaints sent other visitors who are bothered by dogs sent to our government partners, newspapers, etc.

Finally, the marginal cost of serving one or two exceptions is really low, practically measurable, while the cost of allowing everyone to break the rule is high.  Take the case of bathrooms.  Letting one non-customer use the bathroom costs zero.  But once word gets out that you allow public use of your bathrooms, everyone in a half-mile radius is lined up at the door every day.



  1. Earl Wertheimer:

    Of course the simple solution in this case would have been to buy something in order to become a customer. No exception required.

  2. Incunabulum:

    On the other end - the question is why should Starbucks (and every other business) need to provide special exemptions in the first place. Pregnancy isn't an emergency and we have a pretty good idea what to expect. Why doesn't this woman take these special needs into consideration when going out?

    I mean, its certainly good PR to do so but that's only because we tend to forgive *individual's* lapses of personal responsibility while expecting the franchise owner to pick up the cost (a *pregnant woman* is more personal than a large corporation - even if the large corporation is actually just a franchise owner with one store who's struggling to make a profit).

    IN the end, the store's actions are stupid (if nothing else, they'll suffer a greater loss for denying her than they would cleaning up after - worst case scenario) but I've got little sympathy for her.

  3. a_random_guy:

    (BTW: The link no longer works)

    Yes, she should have planned; maybe she did, but even the best laid plans go awry. One does hope that individual employees exhibit some common sense. And finally, of course, all she had to do was buy a cookie.

    This is why "zero tolerance" is an idiotic policy. it is simply impossible for laws, regulations or company policies to foresee every possible exigency. Moreover, "zero tolerance" excuses people from applying common sense to ordinary situations - even when (as with police officers, judges, principals, or whatever) applying common sense is part and parcel of their job.

    Zero tolerance for zero tolerance!

  4. HenryBowman419:

    the marginal cost of serving one or two exceptions is really low, practically measurable

    I assume you meant to write immeasurable.

  5. Matthew Goldey:

    Ultimately, we share the risks and costs through social agreement for those creating the next generation. This is what is codified in custom. Unfortunately, there's very little that's logical or able to be planned about pregnancy aside from avoiding it. It's a very serious deviation from normal that few readily adjust to in making their plans.

  6. Sol:

    Dude, in all your life, you've seriously never been startled by a sudden, unpredictable need to use a bathroom ASAP? I know I have, and I certainly didn't have an eight pound baby riding my bladder at the time.

  7. Ward Chartier:

    Rules are most often meant to cover not quite 100% of the circumstances one encounters. Rules for safety, of course, are the exception.

    Maybe the Starbucks employee received thorough training for what to do under nearly all circumstances. It is difficult to train for all possible and reasonable exceptions, and then expect employees to remember them all and all of the time. Better to hire people who can think with common sense on the spur of the moment, but these are very hard to find much less identify during an interview.

    All of this said, isolated events like what occurred at Starbucks are to be expected, and should be used as examples for training. I'd guess that the corrective action response from the Starbucks higher-ups was swift and sure.

  8. obloodyhell:

    }}} If rules exist, shouldn't they be enforced for everyone? And if not, shouldn't they just be eliminated?

    Rules are a finite attempt to define proper behavior for an infinite number of circumstances. No matter how absolute a rule you come up with seems to be, I will guarantee that I can find a case -- perhaps a pathological one, ridiculously improbable and blatantly devised to violate it, yes -- that will be an exception to it.

    More critically, if Godel's Incompleteness Theorem is true, then it's impossible in mathematics to create a rule system which is complete and needs no exceptions listed (including that system with the exceptions added! It's still got exceptions not covered!!). And if you can't do it in mathematics, you damned sure can't think it's possible in a messy system like English.

    "A great rabbi stands teaching in the marketplace. It happens that a husband
    finds proof that morning of his wife's adultery, and a mob carries her to the
    marketplace to stone her to death.
    The Rabbi walks forward and stands beside the woman. Out of respect for him,
    the mob forbears, and waits with the stones heavy in their hands. 'Is there
    anyone here,' he says to them, 'who has not desired another man's wife, another
    woman's husband?'
    They murmur and say, 'We all know the desire. But Rabbi, none of us has acted
    on it.'
    The rabbi says 'Then kneel down and give thanks that God made you strong.' He
    takes the woman by the hand and leads her out of the market. Just before he
    lets her go, he whispers to her: 'Tell the lord magistrate who saved his
    mistress. Then he'll know I am his loyal servant.'
    So the woman lives, because the community is too corrupt to protect itself
    from disorder.

    Another rabbi, another city. He goes to her and stops the mob, as in the other
    story, and says: 'Which of you is without sin? Let him cast the first stone!'
    The people are abashed, and they forget their unity of purpose in the memory
    of their own individual sins. Someday, they think, I may be like this woman,
    and I'll hope for forgiveness and another chance. I should treat her the way I
    wish to be treated.
    As they open their hands and let the stones fall to the ground, the rabbi
    picks up one of the fallen stones, lifts it high over the woman's head, and
    throws it straight down with all his might. It crushes her skull and dashes her
    brains all over the cobblestones.
    'Nor am I without sin,' he says to the people. 'But if we allow only perfect
    people to enforce the law, the law will soon be dead, and our city with it.'
    So the woman died because her community was too rigid to endure her

    The [third, more famous] version of this story is noteworthy because it is so
    startlingly rare in our experience. Most communities lurch between decay and
    rigor mortis, and when they veer too far, they die. Only one rabbi dared to
    expect of us such a perfect balance that we could preserve the law and still
    forgive the deviation. So, of course, we killed Him."

    - 'Speaker for the Dead', Orson Scott Card -

  9. obloodyhell:

    }}} Rules are most often meant to cover not quite 100% of the circumstances one encounters.

    Change that to "but can't" and I'm with you 100%... well, except for circumstances not specified... :-D

  10. obloodyhell:

    And what does that have to do with it? She can buy a freaking cookie. She can throw down 5 bucks and tell the barrista to give her the key, she'll be back in 10 to place an order. Why is she supposed to get a special pass? This is not "women and children first". No lives are threatened. Just personal dignity. While everyone values their own it's hardly a needful application of WACF.

    It would have been wiser to grant her the pass, but the real fact is, she had no actual right to one.

  11. JW:

    Why is this news? Have the criminally annoying and self-absorbed taken over everything good and pure?

  12. Andrew_M_Garland:

    What happens if a business charges $1 for bathroom use to non-customers? Does it solve the problem, or do other annoying things happen?

    And, even so, a business is probably better off giving its bathroom to emergencies. It is hard to fake pregnancy.

  13. bigmaq1980:

    Geez. Pretty sure that is what that employee thought. Hence, a standoff ensues, and emotions run high.

    All I can say is that at that price point (wage) good judgement is hard to find.

    We cannot write enough rules for every exception and zero tolerance rules like this just won't cut it when faced with real life situations.

    Case in point...

    Lifeguard fired for saving life outside of his "zone".

  14. bigmaq1980:

    "No matter how absolute a rule you come up with seems to be, I will guarantee that I can find a case -- perhaps a pathological one, ridiculously improbable and blatantly devised to violate it, yes -- that will be an exception to it"

    Eloquently said...I made similar point on another comment before reading this.

    Indeed, it does not have to be pathological, but it sure can be a revenue generator under the stealth argument of "safety". For instance, yellow light timing...

  15. rxc:

    Even rules for safety have exceptions. People who operate machinery sometimes have to know when to violate the operating rules, because there is a situation that calls for it in order to avoid a greater harm. The difficulty is training people to know enough about the machinery to be able to go beyond the limits, be confident in their knowledge to be able to do it, and wise in their application of that confidence, to do it right, at the right time, and only at the right time. Blind procedural compliance can be just as bad as mandatory sentencing.

  16. mesaeconoguy:

    Running a service business is hard because people are stupid.

  17. Not Sure:

    And have been told their whole lives that they're special, so they're entitled to whatever they want.

  18. mesaeconoguy:

    But you can't tell them that.

  19. Incunabulum:

    There's no 'social agreement' here.

  20. Daniel Barger:

    The issue of course is one of management making blanket rules they require employees to follow without consideration of future side effects of those policy's. The hospital I work in has a written rule....a policy. It states that NO PATIENT be it in the ER or on the floor be allowed to walk to or from another part of the hospital....PERIOD. No exceptions, no room for discretion or judgment on the part of an employee....even a highly trained long experienced clinical professional. This policy is written by people who sit at desks who have either NEVER seen a patient or not seen one professionally for YEARS. What happens? A young strapping healthy patient in ER needs to have a simple exam such as a hand x ray performed. The patient INSISTS on walking to the radiology department. The employee INSISTS that the patient ride in a wheelchair because the policy MAKES NO EXCEPTIONS POSSIBLE. Outcome.....standoff with an angry patient, an angry ER MD and a frustrated employee. ALL because idiots in charge write rules THEY don't actually have to work with.

  21. Mike Powers:

    It's because of slip-and-fall lawsuits, you clod. Someone INSISTS, FLAT OUT INSISTS, WILL NOT DO ANYTHING ELSE but walk. Then they "slip" and "fall" and "injure" themselves and have "back pain" that's 10/10 severity and resistant to anything but Oxycontin and prevents them ever working again, and only a two-million-dollar lawsuit will make their life worth living.

    Or you can insist that everyone currently checked in for treatment ride in a wheelchair.

  22. Daniel Barger: I didn't know WHY they do it...Of course it's because of the massive infestation of legal parasites we suffer from. I mean it's not like I haven't been in healthcare for more than 35 years, not that I haven't been a department head in a 600 bed hospital or NEVER TOUCHED A PATIENT. These rules are the knee jerk reactions of bean counters and when you write a rule that's 100% inflexible to deal with ONE issue you inevitably create OTHER issues. And then act like it's a total surprise when such issues arise.

  23. Treble:

    The obvious solution here is a tax on pregnancy that will be distributed as a bathroom subsidy to businesses serving the public. Haven't businesses been oppressed enough by women, let alone pregnant women - who, quite frankly, are oppressing for two, as they breed a new generation of entitled defecators.

  24. Gospace:

    You're not supposed to vomit on cops. Yet, I've known two pregnant women who have no it with no retributions. Pregnancy is a good excuse for a lot of rule bending. My wife's boss stood guard outside the men's room door while she was inside dealing with morning sickness. If a pregnant woman says she has to go- SHE HAS TO GO! Don't get in her way.

  25. milo:

    I would think NOT providing a bathroom for even non-customers would cost more (in cleanup and repeat customers), especially if pregnant women are denied use of facilities.
    common sense is not so common anymore.