Comparing 2 Responses to the Same Customer Service Problem


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Photo Credit: AnnaDydo via CC License

This article was originally published on the FCR blog on February 21, 2017. Click here to read the original.

I frequent the same Starbucks fairly often on my way to work — typically when I have some time to write articles like this. My drink of choice is often Jade Citrus Mint tea. I mix it up on occasion but that one’s my home base. The last couple times I’ve asked for it, they’ve been all out and it’s interesting to compare the responses from the baristas who had to bear the bad news.

Response #1

The first time this happened, the barista looked behind the counter and said, “We’re all out right here. Let me see if we have any in the back.” When she returned, she walked up to me and said “Unfortunately, we’re all out of Jade Citrus Mint tea.” I bristled a little bit when she said “Unfortunately” and then asked for an Emperor’s Clouds and Mist instead.

Response #2

This happened again today and the barista said, “You know what? We’re all out of the Jade Citrus Mint until we get a new shipment from our warehouse.” He went on to start listing some of the other teas available to me and again, I settled on the Emperor’s Clouds and Mist. I guess I’m a creature of habit.


At FCR, the word unfortunately is on our list of stop words, meaning I encourage our agents not to say that word to customers. But since unveiling this list, I’ve spoken with a number of my colleagues and quickly begun to realize that better, more positive customer service messaging doesn’t simply happen by removing a word or two from our vocabulary. Thanks to a good thesaurus, other words will inevitably take its place.

So I guess this is an indictment on Response #1. The barista was friendly and all, but leading off with what she couldn’t do, was the wrong approach. Imagine if she had been assisting a new customer who was uneducated on the Starbucks line of teas. That might have been enough for a customer to walk out and not order anything.

Experience Engineering

So I’ve come to realize that responding to customers, especially when we’re bearing bad news, is about so much more than simply replacing a few words. It means a complete reframing of the message, and that requires creativity, collaboration, and brainstorming to get it right.

I’ve been chewing on the concept of Experience Engineering since reading The Effortless Experience. This technique is about presenting the customer with options rather than simply saying “no.” There are three important elements in Experience Engineering:

  • Advocacy- Take clear ownership of the situation and partner with the customer.
  • Positive language- Avoid using stop words like nope, can’t, won’t, and unfortunately, and replace with positive language.
  • Anchor expectations- Present a couple solutions that are available to the customer, sharing the one that’s less desirable first so the second one seems more desirable.

Looking at the second barista’s response through this lens, it was definitely better than the first. After offering to help and asking for my order (advocacy), he stated the fact that they were out of tea and would have more after their next delivery. He then quickly shared the variety of other teas available to me, and helped identify a suitable alternative (anchor expectations).

This barista’s response clearly had two of the three necessary elements and I think I’m willing to give him a pass on the positive language. He definitely avoided negative language.

Rethinking the Response

Even though I think the second response was really good, it’s important to engage in this exercise of rethinking our responses to negative situations. Let’s take a stab at aligning the barista’s messaging with Experience Engineering:

Barista: Good morning! What can I get started for you? (Positive Language)

Me: Hi. I’ll have a Jade Citrus Mint Tea

Barista: Great choice! Let me get that for you. (Positive Language and Advocacy) [Discovers they’re all out]

Barista: You know what? It looks like we’re fresh out of Jade Citrus Mint, but I think we can find a good alternative for you. If I know our delivery schedule, we should have more in a couple days. For today, can I interest you in another green tea like our Emperor’s Clouds and Mist? We also have a variety of black teas that you might like. (Anchor Expectations)

What do you think? Sometimes these messages sound better in writing than they do spoken which is why it’s good to role play these to make them as natural and unscripted as possible. I encourage you to take a handful of your typical negative customer situations and practice responding to them using Experience Engineering. If you are responding to these via email or chat, read through your macros (AKA canned responses) and rewrite them using this technique.

If you have any suggestions on ways to make these messages even better, please leave a comment. It takes collaboration to make our messages to customers the very best they can be. Our goal should always be to communicate to our customers that we want to do business with them, even if it requires a bit of creativity.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jeremy Watkin
Jeremy Watkin is the Director of Customer Support and CX at NumberBarn. He has more than 20 years of experience as a contact center professional leading highly engaged customer service teams. Jeremy is frequently recognized as a thought leader for his writing and speaking on a variety of topics including quality management, outsourcing, customer experience, contact center technology, and more. When not working he's spending quality time with his wife Alicia and their three boys, running with his dog, or dreaming of native trout rising for a size 16 elk hair caddis.


  1. Hi Jeremy, just for the sake of it – ok, no, not only the sake of it 😉 – let me contradict …

    latest after the ‘you know what?’ part I would have been antagonised, if not outright annoyed for being patronised. Something in the lines of unfortunately would work better for me – but then I am a German ;-). For me already the ‘Great choice’ part would be part of the noise – no information in it at all, and maybe I couldn’t care less about whether someone thinks of it being a great choice or not …

    I’d fully agree with the taking ownership, and advocacy part. Positive language to some extent, too – unless it starts to feel like exaggerated or a play – and I am missing the empathy part in the list.

    2 ct from Down Under

  2. Thank you, Thomas! I am fascinated by this topic and love hearing your perspective. I don’t think we’re too far off from each other here. My ultimate goal is to make sure the encounter is natural, that I’ve tailored it to the specific customer I’m working with, and that I don’t immediately make the customer feel as if there’s nothing I can do for them.

    Since you mentioned that you’re German, it would be a really interesting study to understand how this messaging works in different countries/cultures.

  3. What an interesting topic you have, Jeremy. The three important elements in Experience Engineering are spot on. In customer service, one of the first things to do is to take ownership of the situation. The “you know what” part is okay, but for me, it would have been better to be more empathetic. “There is nothing more frustrating than walking away unsatisfied.”

    I root for Response #2 – it offered workaround – a win-win situation for the customer and the barista. It might not solved the real problem, but customer did not come away with bad feeling.


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