Sunday, August 5, 2007

Covering Your Rear (against coffee burns)

The San Francisco Chronicle was very late this morning, probably because there was a last-minute scramble to make sure that Barry Bonds was above the fold on the front page (accompanied, no doubt, by a major overhaul of the Sports section). At least now I know why there was an eruption of automobile horns outside my window at around 9:15 PM (when I was trying to listen to C. P. E. Bach). The result was that I found myself reading Matt Smith's latest column for SF Weekly about what happened when a Starbucks' barista spilled a fresh (and hot) cup of coffee on his father. This appears to be a relatively straightforward account of what happened next:

Instead of running to get some ice, the barista grabbed a questionnaire.

"I don't remember all the questions, because I was thinking, 'What am I going to do with this burn?'" Dad recalls. "There was a man in the shop who was a male nurse. He came from where he was sitting and said, 'I've been watching this, and I'm a nurse, and I must say to you, you must not fill out this form. You must take yourself to the bathroom and make sure you get some water on your foot.'"

The nervous employee persisted. "He said, 'I'm almost done.' I said I had to go to the bathroom and cool my foot," Dad recalled.

The resulting burn was so bad that Dad had to go to the emergency room, get the welts on his foot treated, and take pain medication so strong he wasn't supposed to drive for three weeks. His hospital visit and medicine cost around $500.

The rest of the column is concerned with Starbucks' "official" reaction to this incident. The reader can obviously expect some bias here if "standard operating procedure" involved asking the customer a list of questions (presumably in anticipation of subsequent litigation), rather than giving the customer enough personal attention to assess the extent of the accident (which is the priority of a trained nurse). Nevertheless, Smith took the trouble the recognize the context of the situation:

But for all the good feelings associated with coffee and caffeine, the fact is that, when served at piping-hot temperatures, it can and routinely does cause severe injuries. This consumer safety issue has been pushed from the public's mind over the years in part by a popular coffee-based PR legend stemming from a 1992 case involving McDonald's. The legend says Americans don't take responsibility for their actions and corporations are victims of a justice system that is out of control.

Even without reference to his father's case, it was good for Smith to remind us of that fifteen-year-old McDonald's story, since it was one of the more overt nails in the coffin for the burial of the precept that "the customer is always right." Indeed, when a businesses operation procedures basically treat the customer as an object (as I have previously argued), then the question of whether or not the customer is right is no longer an issue, since objects cannot distinguish right from wrong. However, the remainder of Smith's column indicates that the Starbucks case is more than another instance of objectification of the subject:

I asked Starbucks spokeswoman Tara Darrow if the company instructs employees to help people who are burned at their stores. In other words, should people feel safe patronizing Starbucks?

"Do we have a policy in place for responding? Yes, we do. We have a policy in place. I can't really give you details," Darrow said.

She said that scalding incidents do happen at Starbucks stores, but that it's a secret how often.

Can't you explain how you care for people who are scalded in your stores? I asked.

"No, because, first of all, we don't give specifics on the program," she said.

Did you just say "program?" I asked.

"Our scalding incident program," Darrow said. "They have guidelines for how to respond. I'm not sharing those, because they are part of an internal practice."

Customers might like to know what's going to happen if they're hurt.

"I'm sure they would," Darrow said. "But that's internal information."

She said the company sometimes pays for customers' medical bills. But under what circumstances Starbucks decides to leave scalded customers to fend for themselves is a company secret.

Darrow said that the company keeps first-aid kits on site, and that employees are trained to use them, but that the specifics of this training are also secret.

"I can't give you the specifics of step by step what our response is. That's internal information," she said.

From this exchange Smith drew the conclusion that Starbucks "knows it burns people, and it has put a low priority on taking care of them;" but, in the context of my own previous observations, I have a slightly different reading of Darrow's text. All of that secrecy indicates that, for all the impersonality of the "scalding incident program," Starbucks does, indeed, recognize its customers as subjects; but it also views every customer as a potential adversary. I can think of at least two ways in which revealing that "internal information" could be problematic from Starbucks' point of view.

  1. Any customer who would really like to be adversarial could use that information to "game the system." This is judo applied to a mega-corporation. If you want to bring your opponent down, concentrate on the weaknesses of the opposition rather than your own lack of strength. For all its enthusiastic customers, Starbucks also has a lot of enemies out there, many of whom would be creative enough to make advantageous use of such "internal information."
  2. Then there are the lawyers. The McDonald's case was ultimately resolved by a secret settlement, meaning that there is no record of either the compensatory or punitive damages. Presumably, however, this amount is greater than the value of the $50 gift card that Smith's father received in the mail two weeks after he was burned. The case is thus not only what Smith calls a "PR legend" but also a potential opportunity for a new generation of creative personal liability lawyers. (Why chase an ambulance when you can find the action at your local Starbucks?) Starbucks wants to do all it can to avoid such litigation, as this could impact both its budget (for a settlement) and that "public image" from which the PR staff earns its keep.

Here in the Civic Center there are any number of places I can walk to for coffee. Ironically, the nearest Starbucks is the most distant among all those alternatives. Nevertheless, I make my coffee at home; and, since I do take responsibility for my actions (and continue to write about this as a virtue), I feel I am sparing myself the potential hassle of having to make my case to a well-financed team of corporate lawyers!

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