Big Business and the Customer Experience

Yesterday I was reading the cover article in the July issue of Fast Company on Starbucks and its foray into music (link to that specific article is not available at the time of this posting). The article was about how Starbucks is rolling-out a service in many of its locations whereby customers may browse and listen to a catalog of songs and burn their own custom CDs onsite. The article went on to discuss the marketing behind this venture and how Starbucks is not in the coffee business, but the people business. They see this service as a natural extension to the experience people go to Starbucks to receive.

This post is not a commentary on the music service – it’s a commentary on customer experience because an hour after finishing that article I found myself in a Starbucks and fresh off reading the article, my critical eye was roving. The first thing I saw were five full trash bags piled-up in plain site (in the walkway between the front and back of the house) waiting to be taken out. The bags were clear so in addition to a pile of trash bags, the trash itself could be seen in all its glory. Then I ordered my coffee and when it was handed to me I said, “Thanks” and the clerk (or barista, if you prefer) said, “Uh huh.” So, I’m thanking them for my coffee and their way of thanking me for frequenting their store and helping to keep the lights on is to say, “Uh huh.” Next I moved to the fixin’s bar for some cream and sugar only to find the container of half and half empty and spilled coffee stains all over the counter (actually, they were probably stains from people pouring out some coffee to make room for cream because even when you ask for room for cream you rarely get it – so they end-up with coffee in the trash can and all over the counter). I brought the empty container to the clerk, they handed me a new one, I said, “Thanks” and they said, “Uh huh.”

So my question is, when does a company get so big that it can no longer really control the fine details of the customer experience? They can control the macro stuff – the furniture, the lighting, the music, the product offerings. But, when the interface between the company and its customers, at 8,000 locations (in Starbucks case), is a part-time hourly wage worker who probably doesn’t care all that much (I know I didn’t back in the day when I held a similar type of job), the micro stuff – cleanliness, friendliness, attentiveness – seems difficult (if not virtually impossible) to manage to the company’s highly strategized and fine-tuned corporate standards.

Ultimately it’s the micro stuff that matters most. If the coffee is good but the staff is not friendly or the store is not clean, I will prefer to go elsewhere. Now, the counter-argument may be that the deficiencies I have described are really not all that significant because people still flock to Starbucks locations all over the world. What I wonder though is, if there were a Starbucks and another premium coffee shop on opposite corners, what percentage of people would pick the Starbucks? I, for one, would not. I go to Starbucks for convenience, but when it is no more convenient (or not much more convenient) then somewhere else, I choose somewhere else.

What that makes me wonder is this – Starbucks has created a demand for premium coffee drinks and consumers are clearly interested. But, do people now go to Starbucks because the product and experience are outstanding or do they go because they have a taste for what Starbucks has popularized and the ubiquity of Starbucks has made it the most convenient location? And, if the latter is true, then I ask again, when does a company get so big that it can no longer control the customer experience and in addition, when does customer experience become less relevant?

As a final thought, I have one more observation – why at Starbucks do they still call out the details of each drink, only to have those details yelled back and written with a Sharpie on the cup? Why don’t they have a system that prints-out the drink order like the way bartenders receive orders from servers at restaurants? The barista then wouldn’t have to stop what they are doing to write the next drink order on a cup before they forget it and they could end all that repetitive back and forth yelling to each order. Just a thought.