The *Hot Coffee* Rule

By Amy Willard 2 months ago
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Recently, I was working with someone I have done business with for years.  After a number of emails and a couple of phone calls, I thought we had about tackled the logistics.  Nearly done with the project, I asked about a particular feature I wanted and they told me it would cost a fair bit more to do that.  It was suddenly quite clear that we were NOT on the same page.  In fact, we were in different books.

Don’t you hate it when you feel your time and money has been wasted?  When things go south, whether it’s a relationship or a messed-up food order, it’s almost ALWAYS from lack of clear communication.

The Hot Coffee Rule.

Based on the famous lawsuit 26 years ago, McDonalds paid a woman damages because she spilled her coffee in her lap while in her moving car and was severely injured.  She suffered 3rd degree burns on her legs and groin because she was forced to sit in it long enough to cause damage.  McDonalds maintained the, “Duh! It’s hot coffee!” defense.  It was later proven that the coffee was, in fact, too hot.  The lesson, oddly enough, was that they would need to label their coffee cups with warnings so that they couldn’t be sued again.  Almost every company since has followed this new rule. Because, if they don’t tell you, you don’t know, and some fancy lawyer can prove negligence.


This is something we must all take to heart.  We just can’t assume that another person understands what we are talking about, even if that person is a “professional”.  It doesn’t mean that people are stupid or that they shouldn’t be in business.  We have all had confusing interactions with others.  A few clarifying questions can remove confusion.

If you really want your money’s worth…anywhere, communicate EXACTLY what you want.  If you want your baseboards cleaned every time, then tell your cleaners that.  But understand that the more details you request…with pretty much anything…the more you should be prepared to pay. There’s really only one place where this rule is readily apparent…

“I want a medium iced soy 2-pump vanilla and 1-pump mocha latte, light ice and no whipped cream.”

Ever get behind someone at a coffee shop who’s ordering for the office?  It’s why they can charge upwards of $5 for it now.   When communication flows clearly and cleanly, it’s a beautiful thing.  You get what you want and are happy to pay for it (hello!? $5 coffee!) and they make money.

Let’s take for example, you order groceries to be delivered, and tell them, “I need eggs, milk, and ground beef.”  You might get the cheapest eggs, a gallon of skim milk and a monster package of hamburger because that’s what your shopper would buy for themselves.  What you really meant was: 1 dozen free-range eggs by X company, a half-gallon of low-fat milk by X dairy, and 1 pound organic 90% lean hamburger.  The prices are quite different as well.

Don’t Assume

We all know the addage…”Don’t assume, because then you make and ass out of you and me (ass-u-me).  In today’s world of skewed and twisted news, subtle jokes and social media memes, nothing is simple anymore.  We must learn to articulate clearly what we want and need.  While it might be a no-brainer to you, it may not be for someone else.

My cleaning company has lost jobs because we “should have known to do that” while in someone’s home.  I have learned after 3 decades that “clean” is a subjective term.  What is clean to one person is another’s “How do you live here?”.  We end up as baffled as the customer is angry.

Being explicit doesn’t mean you’re picky necessarily, it means you are leaving little room for error.  On the other hand, if you are telling your professional how to do their job…then that might be a bridge too far.

When hiring anyone to do ANY project or service for you, make sure that there is a solid back-and-forth dialogue between you.  They should ask questions and you should answer with what your expectations are and how you envision the end result.  If that result doesn’t happen, go back to your professional and tell them (nicely) that it didn’t meet your expectations.  Sometimes it happens.  Don’t be angry that it didn’t go exactly the way you think it should have.  Give a little grace and anyone worth their salt will happily work to fix it.  You want the finished product you see in your head.  They want happy customers.

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 Amy Willard

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