Guy in a suit looking defiant and frustrated sitting at a desk

Why you will never get anywhere

Elizabeth Bromstein|

“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.” – Henry Ford

One recent morning my husband went out to get us coffees from the new coffee shop around the corner. When he ordered me a half decaf (I was breastfeeding) he was told “We’re out of decaf. Sorry. We’re waiting for a shipment.”

This shop is a block away from the most popular coffee shop in the area. So, my husband went to the other place. And we haven’t been back to the new place.

I have a feeling that shop will never thrive. Why? Because the barista said the two dreaded words that define the line between the successful and the unsuccessful.

“I can’t.”

Not in those exact words, but, essentially, what she said was “I can’t give you decaf. We don’t have any.”

This is actually pretty crazy. If you’re running a brand new coffee shop and you run out of decaf, the obvious thing to do is to go out and buy some decaf to hold you over until your “shipment” comes in. It shouldn’t even matter if you’re new. Any coffee shop should do that.

You don’t tell a customer you “can’t” do something. “I can’t” are the two words customers and managers should never hear from you. Yes! It’s a cliché! But every cliché is rooted in profound truth. You say “cliché,” I say “classic.”

This advice survives the test of time, because it is classic, and because it is effective.

Never say those words. Strike them from your vocabulary. Replace them with “It would be my pleasure,” or, if things look dodgy, “I’ll do my best.”

If something really can’t be done – like, say your employer asks you to charter a plane in a hurricane – say, “I’m sorry it didn’t work out. I did my best.”

But really, you should always go that extra mile to get something done and there should be almost no situations in which you “can’t” do something.

Two more examples:

    1. A friend and I had finished eating at a not inexpensive downtown restaurant and I asked for my leftovers to go – in a plastic bag. I was informed that they were out of plastic bags and basically that she “couldn’t” give me one. Ridiculous. The waitress should have gone out to one of the many stores on the same block and gotten a bag. That’s what I would have done in her place. It would have taken her less than a minute. But she didn’t. I got one myself.

    2. I bought an expensive dining room table that broke in half, literally, so I sent it back to the store to be fixed. It took days longer than expected to get back because the store’s delivery people only work certain hours and the manager refused to call an outside delivery service.
    “I can’t do that,” she insisted. Of course she could have done it. What she meant was “I won’t do that.”
    I was having a dinner party – IT WAS CHRISTMAS! – so, finally, I called an outside delivery service and paid to have it done myself. Because, obviously, this was not as impossible as the store manager insisted. I never went back to that store and told everyone I knew not to shop there. It’s gone now.

Don’t be this type of person. Because in almost all cases, “I can’t” means “I’m not willing to try that hard,” and it drives managers and customers crazy. Managers love problem solving skills. If you don’t know how to do something, learn. You can teach yourself just about anything that doesn’t require a license on the internet.

Always go the extra mile – in the examples I’ve given, they really only needed to go an extra few feet – and never say “I can’t.”

You’ll stand out. Because it’s not very common.

I won’t guarantee that doing so will bring you the prosperity and happiness you desire, but if you don’t, you’ll never get anywhere worth going.

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  • GammaWolf

    Welcome to the service industry where employees are trained to be robots who are not authorized to think outside the box.

    I don’t really blame people who have among the worst jobs this economy has to offer for ‘not willing to try that hard’.

    • Beck45

      Yup true. As I once saw on a slacker’s t-shirt down at the bus station: “Pay minimum wage, get minimum effort”.

  • Louis Wang

    First of all, the extra mile is out of the server’s power. If that was you, will you going to the next store purchase the product out of your own pocket just try to help the customer who might never know what you have done. It is easy to say than done.

    • Mattie

      I totally agree. It’s unlikely to go and pay for a box of bags with your own money because that’s the owner’s responsibility to have a stock of bags. I would, however, remind the owner to get bags before it ran out. As for the furniture store, the owner could have made getting the table back a priority and ask her delivery staff to get it done – even if it takes paying them a little more.

      • Argo Dave

        I bet they weren’t willing to pay the delivery driver a bit of overtime to get it there. As a truck driver I’ve done that kind of work. Sometimes you simply cannot fit in one more drop during a normal shift, which for truckers can often be 12 hours or more anyway. You want me to lose weekend time? Pay me more.

    • Darcy Hudjik

      Regarding the very first example she gave, sometimes “can’t” isn’t a matter of choice. If you aren’t a manager or supervisor and work in a service industry job where you have hyper specific rules handed down to you, and get into massive trouble if you deviate from them.
      Obviously, the author has never worked in a service industry job herself.

  • paradistical

    Sounds like a high maintainence author to me anyways. Expecting the waitress to leave the premises of her employment to fetch a doggie bag? Is she kidding?? How arrogant.

    • Darcy Hudjik

      I don’t think the author grasps that the restaurant may be a little understaffed or perhaps it’s lunch or supper rush; is the server to inconveniece the other customers in order to satisfy one excessively demanding customer?

  • Adam S

    I agree you should go the extra mile to get things done and there should be almost no situations in which you ‘can’t’ do something. However, in the case of the coffee shop, you don’t know whats going on behind the scenes. The owner may have told the barista to say “Sorry, we’re waiting for a shipment” while they were going to the store. Realistically, the only thing the barista can say is “would you like to try _____ instead”, which deviates from saying “I can’t”. That’s the problem and reality of today’s society. Everyone wants everything right now; and if they don’t get it, they complain, and then they go somewhere else. For all you know, it could be the best decaf in town, and that’s why they ran out. But, because they couldn’t get it to you right then and there, you shunned the company and haven’t been back. I also think these examples tie into the saying, “you get what you pay for”. In eg. #2 you were at an inexpensive restaurant so they may not have a steady supply of bags. Yes, they should have a supply on hand, but did you really need one? In #3 the dining room table broke in half. I’ve never heard of this happening so the quality of the table must be low, or poorly built, and therefore, you get what you pay for. If the furniture is cheap, chances are the wages and budgets are too, which usually also limits capabilities of the managers. In #3 they should have tried to go the extra mile though. All that being said, going the extra mile makes the difference between an ordinary and an extraordinary company; and in order to be successful, we must strive to be extraordinary people.

  • koyoandi

    How odd that one would think a coffee shop should run out to a brand product they probably would never serve. I do agree that they should have found a different way to explain being out of decaf. They easily could have said something like, “Our decaf was so popular that it sold out! We would love for you to try it! We will have more on (whatever day the shipment is due)” Make the fact that you are out of decaf, an exciting piece of news and customers’ interest will be piqued! They will be back for sure.

    Expecting that a server would leave their job to run out and get a plastic bag? While I get where that was coming from, that expectation was perhaps a tad over the top. I strongly suspect, that were a server to run out and get a plastic bag, the complaint would then be that there was a wait because the server left the restaurant rather than appreciation for her having gone the extra mile.

    Besides, the leftovers were already packaged, there was no real need for a plastic bag as well. If a bag is truly necessary (perhaps if not going home after the restaurant), always carry a cloth bag in your purse, coat pocket, etc., and refuse plastic bags whenever possible. Not only is it more economical to do so, it is far more attractive than carrying a dumpy ol’ plastic bag around.

    As for the dining table story….agreed, 100%.

    Going the extra mile is incredibly important and a pleasant surprise when customers don’t expect it….that is what makes it “extra”. Doing what a customer expects one to do, is meeting expectations. The author clearly expected that server to run out and get a bag; that would not have been a “wow” or “extra mile” moment in those cases. Had that happened, the author would have been merely satisfied, not impressed, surprised or writing an article about it.

    The common denominator in those situations is positioning. There are times when people “can’t” (or “won’t”) do something but should never position it as such. Find a way to put a positive spin on it rather that merely saying something that amounts to simply “sorry for your luck”, will make all the difference.

    I like the point though, that the author is trying to make in this article about customer service.


    Some contrast in the form of examples of good service would have added some punch. The article itself is rather like the examples of the “I can’t” situations cited; just as those individuals focussed on only an “I can’t” kind of answer rather than positive positioning, so this article focusses on only “why you will never get anywhere” rather than how to get somewhere.

  • Amber Payne

    To be fair, she is picking on the lowest tier of employment. I’ve been there. If I were to take that kind of initiative without a manager’s permission? Write up at best, firing at worst. I don’t think this author understands how little managers at this level of employment care if you “think outside the box” or not. They just want you to shut up, show up for your shift, work, and go home. It is highly unfair to pick on us in the food service industry, because it is NOT the place to strut your stuff and shine. It’s the place to barely scrape by and survive. Getting noticed usually makes your job that much harder, and being a jerk as a customer and putting the employee in a situation where in your terms, we fail, only hurts the employee. Get your nose out of the air, and apply this to where it matters. Like an office. Or a car dealership. =<

  • aimedon

    I am a bit surprised at how many people misunderstand the author with regards to the shop being out of a certain item. She is really not insinuating that the server should go out and buy some decaf and then return to the store to serve the waiting customer and the others behind him (if there still are any)!!! What the author means is that, while the shipment was expected to arrive, the shop should have acquired some bags of decaf from some other source (a grocery store) even if it means it would have to pay a higher price for it. That way there would not have been such a situation where the customer was told “sorry, I can’t do that”. It is so simple!
    I enjoyed the article. It made me think a lot.

  • divine

    good principle for business people.if you like to patronize yours, then by all means you have to cater your customers need right?