Ask the Sprofessionals—Boundaries in Service

In this series, seven industry experts sound off on issues around café policy, breaking down the ins and outs of how policy affects morale and retention.


Check out Volume 1 of this series here, Volume 2 here, and Volume 3 here

Volume 4—The Sprofessionals on Boundaries in Service

Today, a panel of veteran coffee pros lend their expertise to a make-or-break issue within customer service culture: boundaries.

Since the idea of “the customer is always right” took hold in U.S. service settings, cafés have always had to consider the line between creating boundaries to prioritize safety and respect for workers and retaining customers at all costs. Every café has to deal with abusive customers at some point, and the dilemma is clear.

Should cafés have strong service policies to help workers respond to situations by the book, or should they keep it as loose and flexible as possible? Should workers be encouraged to accommodate customers no matter what, or should they be empowered to use their judgment and keep the space safe and respectful? Perhaps most importantly, do cafés lose money if they remove problem customers, or is it possible to use service boundaries to create better service overall and keep the space more comfortable for respectful customers and workers alike?

The Sprofessionals are here to walk us through the ups and downs of boundaries in service.

The Question:  What do you think about cafés having service policies that allow for worker boundaries?

Amanda Whitt, 12 years in coffee, bartender/barista

“I think most employers are afraid to be explicit about this, and it hurts service. Everywhere I’ve worked in coffee it’s always been something that has been called out after the fact and always met with, ‘Of course everyone here knows they can kick people out.’ But, if you never say so or have it in writing, do they?” 

Liz Dean, six years in coffee, regional manager at The Wing

“In my last role, I was lucky to be able to essentially set the service policies. One of the most important aspects of this was, as much as possible, never to be punitive about service issues. So, if a customer complained about service, I didn’t scold or punish staff members, and I certainly didn’t fire them. Instead we would just talk, and I would listen to what they had to say, and we might talk about what could’ve happened differently.

A lot of times bad service can be chalked up to an employee who, for whatever reason, doesn’t feel connected to the work they are doing. They might be upset about policy changes, or a coworker. Or, sometimes, the customer was actually really abusive to them.

So, I think it’s really important that when there is a service issue the first thing you should do as a manager is listen to the staff member. Hear them out. Understand why it happened. If it was a simple mistake, you can gently and easily help them figure out what to do differently. If they’re lashing out from a lack of support, then you should figure out what you can do to better help them in their role.

Liz Dean believes bad service indicates a failure in leadership, and addresses the needs of her staff instead of reprimanding employees based on customer complaints. Photo courtesy of Liz Dean.

I would also argue that a lot of service issues come from poor training and a lack of knowledge. So I also really think that most service issues should always be turned back to the management rather than blamed on individual staff members. It’s the job of management to make sure that staff members have the tools, resources, and knowledge to do their jobs well. If a staff member is confident about what alternatives they can offer customers who are trying to order something that isn’t on the menu, it’s less likely that there will be problems.

During my time at Irving Farm, we had a pretty high employee retention. A lot of the staff expressed how happy they were to work in an environment where the default customer service policy wasn’t ‘the customer is always right,’ and that they felt supported and cared for. This was especially important when staff also came to me in situations where customers later had to be banned for harassment. Those staff members probably wouldn’t have come to me if they didn’t feel like I would take them seriously. Establishing that level of trust with your staff is huge.”

Joe Marrocco, 12 years in coffee, senior sales & director of education at Café Imports

“I worked for a company that gave full rights to every employee to deal with customer situations with full empowerment, meaning that if a customer service issue came up, the barista had every right to remove the customer, fix an issue by giving product, do a full return without manager override, and deal with situations with 100 percent autonomy and authority. This supported an environment in which all staff felt valued, as though they were trusted, and safe.”

Randy Levine, four years in coffee, barista at Café Volan

“I don’t think any of the places I have worked have had clearly defined policies. I’ve been fortunate to work for people who I believed supported me and would support me in the event of service issues.

However, in the absence of clear policies, there is no assurance of such support or consistency of support. I have spoken up to a few customers over the years who I felt had crossed a boundary with sexist remarks, and have supported other employees (when I was a manager) when they felt uncomfortable with customer behavior, but I firmly believe that all employees would benefit from a more clearly communicated policy on how to handle these boundary issues and the support they will receive in doing so.”

The Takeaways:

  1. Service policies help workers address difficult and dangerous customer interactions.
  2. The more explicit they are, the better.
  3. Empower workers to handle situations and support them even if they make mistakes.
  4. Bad customer service often stems from larger issues.

Do you agree with the Sprofessionals? Leave your take in the comments section.

RJ Joseph roasts coffee and writes a blog called Queer Cup in addition to her other adventures in coffee journalism. Her writing focuses primarily on equity, workers’ rights, and alternatives to the status quo. In her free time she loves cooking, reading, and being in Oakland, Calif. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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