Customer Experience at Starbucks

Although I don’t own any stock in Starbucks, I do drink an awful lot of their coffee as part of my morning wake-up routine. I’ve actually gotten a little sick of it. Their coffee is not all that good. Their pastries are, despite their tempting appearance, mediocre to the point of making me angry. What keeps me going back is the sense of energy, not the coffee. I think of the food and drink I buy as a kind of “social tax” I have to pay in order to be part of the community.

The seeds of discontent thus planted, I was keenly interested when I heard that Starbucks has their old CEO and founder Howard Schultz back at the helm through my Advertising Age e-newsletter. The cool thing about Ad Age is that they tend to write from the “brand perception” perspective; I was intrigued to learn that the changes that Schultz had in mind were related to customer experience, for example the complete lack of coffee smell at Starbucks (hey!) and that view of the barristas are blocked by the equipment (yeah, that’s right). I found this article at The Washington Post regarding the malaise of Starbucks particularly interesting, because it drew attention to just what I was missing from the coffee house experience.

While I enjoy the story of scrappy independent coffee houses battling the Starbucks behemoth, what it really comes down to is that I want a place where I can hang out and have all my senses engaged in a comfortable (but not dull) fashion. I love the smell of good coffee. Unfortunately, the best coffee I’ve had in some time has been from the coffee maker of my cousin Ben in California. He went through many batches of Pete’s coffee to find the magic blend of grounds and water to brew a fine cup. I need to do the same thing here, or find it somewhere.

One of the powerful draws of one’s home town is, I think, those places where you can let down your guard and be infused with the sense of community pride. Food seems to tie into this feeling a lot of the time. It might be the familiar taste of Hellman’s Mayonnaise in the chicken salad from that little market down the street, where you could get heirloom tomatoes way before they became “fashionable”. Maybe it’s the pizza parlor you went to as a kid, could be something about the crust that keeps you coming back, or the memories playing Asteroids back in the 80s after school, trying to stretch that quarter to a million points before going home. People recognized your face and knew what you liked, and in return you looked them back in the eye and smiled in recognition. That’s a good feeling, and one of the most accessible sources of this in any town is the coffee shop. Coffee drinkers share the love for the beverage, and we exult in the smell and the ritual of getting our cup just right. It’s just enough to pull you into a community without asking too much of you, the bare minimum of interaction to remind you that you are part of a greater humanity. At a great coffee house, you’ll see the regulars and get a sense of their personalities by overhearing what they are ordering. The great barristas anchor the experience like bartenders, assuming that your coffee comes right and smells like a morning that you look forward to.


  1. Wade Winningham 8 years ago

    I was thinking your post was going to be more about a personal customer service experience…

    I’ve been a Starbucks stockholder for about 5 or 6 years now. One of the reasons I am still a stockholder (aside from the financial aspects) is because of their customer service. As with visiting an Apple Store (and I own Apple stock, too), I tend to walk out of the store feeling good and like someone was paying attention to me in a friendly manner. Consciously thinking to myself about what a good experience that was. I don’t know of any other store I do that with.

    I know the experience probably varies from place to place but I agree with your comment about baristas and bartenders. I realize my personal experience may not mirror that of others.

  2. Dave Seah 8 years ago

    Hey Wade,

    I wasn’t sure where my post was going myself, so i am just as surprised as you :-) I was just itching to write SOMETHING. I need to re-implement QuickPosts.

    I am pretty happy with my Starbucks experience overall, as I’ve gotten to know the people that work there on a casual basis, so I think my personal experience is similar to yours. I’m rather curious to see what changes Starbucks makes to the environment, knowing that the CEO is very much engaged now in the customer experience.

  3. John Cox 8 years ago

    I travel overseas a fair bit and, whilst not a coffee drinker any more (reformed I am afraid), I always find it fascinating that my boss knows how to find a Starbucks regardless of where we are. I recall having a pleasant stroll through Zurich only to turn the corner to find the Starbucks and see the happy smile of familiarity cross my bosses face.

    Seems like that hometown familiarity applies to the big cookie-cutter multinationals.

  4. Mark 8 years ago

    You and I met up at Jaho in Salem one day for lunch. Jaho has the potential to be that great local experience.

  5. TERESA 8 years ago

    here in italy we don’t have starbucks, even if many other american multinationals have their stores here too (mcdonalds..). I think Italian coffee is the best one (eheh!!!),  and that you should try and fetch an italian bar to have your expresso (but forget Frappuccino!!!).. they’re a very friendly place to talk, here.. you can meet lots of people and baristas are willing to exchange some jokes :) (at least here in italy, but i’ve been to canada and it looked quite the same). Sorry for bad English..
    ps. i liked your post, it’s an overlook on american habits

  6. Barry W. Morris 8 years ago

    Howard Schultz has often said “Starbucks isn’t in the coffee business; we’re in the people business and we just happen to sell coffee.”

    While a bit of a stretch philosophically, it’s the Starbucks ‘people,’ baristas, managers, etc. who make the experience unique.

    Here on the Central Coast of California, Peets Coffee is Starbucks’ chief rival. While I don’t particularly care for it over Starbucks, my experience has been the same as far as customer service.

    One aspect of the trade Starbucks has nailed down is exactly what you refer to Dave; the familiar home-away-from-home feel of a Starbucks no matter where you might be.

    That’s branding at its best.

  7. Dale Wolf 8 years ago

    We all have our favorite coffee experiences. Coffee just brings that out of us. You might catch my recent post on El Cheapo Starbucks at

    The nut of the story … Starbucks is testing $1 coffee and I think this is a dreadful mistake. Not that I don’t like a good deal, but if they can make a good cup of coffee for a buck, then they’ve really hoodwinked us for a long time. Price says a lot about value and price is one of the elememts that puts Starbucks in a different category than most coffee houses.

    If you get a chance to taste their One Buck Coffee, let us know if it’s any good. But the bigger question is what are they doing to their brand image?

  8. Royal 8 years ago

    More and more I think Starbucks has jumped the shark.  All I have visited beyond the initial location in Seattle have seemed as bland as their pastries.  Not their homogeneousness but the lack of staff personality.  Starbucks simply feels like an assembly line…for waiting in line. 

    Lately their stretch in to older urban locations has resulted in poor facility planning.  Two of the busier locations in my city have located the pickup area behind the ordering line such that there are frequently six to ten people huddled in front of the ten waiting to order.

    I vote for Howard and I am a fan of Starbucks but Dave is dead on.

  9. y0mbo 8 years ago

    I’ve started haunting the local coffee shops. They are more personal, especially when you are semi-regular.  Besides, more of my money stays in the local economy that way.

    Indianapolis even has its own independent coffee house website:

  10. bec 8 years ago

    My Starbucks experience was a little too impersonal and corporate for me, but then again the shop was in a strip mall and the coffee was not spectacular either.

    Coffee is a huge part of my life – I was a “barrista” back when it was more commonly known as “server” in a hole in the wall coffee shop at a Post Office Square on Cape Cod – I greeted people daily, and had their orders ready as they whisked buy on their way to get their mail – I did not even drink coffee back then but the smell alone got me through my day. The contact with the customers was personal and friendly.

    We have a local coffee shop here in the White Mountains and they import the beans and roast them on-site. The whole town smells wonderful on roasting days. I’ll be happy to send some samples!

    Good coffee is like good wine – a rewarding experience!

  11. Dave Seah 8 years ago

    John Cox: I wonder what the magic combination of factors that Starbucks uses to place their stores. Perhaps your boss is attuned to it. I can sometimes sense the presence of an ice cream stand in a similar fashion…a combination of easy foot traffic, “on the way home”-ness, and nearby attractions both natural and man-made.

    Mark: I did like Jaho. Wished there was something like that closer to me.

    Teresa: That’s very good to know about Italian coffee bars! One day I’d like to travel to Italy for that experience (along with the food :-) I think one needs to spend at least a week living in one place to get a feel for it.

    Barry: Succinctly stated! Thanks!

    Dale: I haven’t seen the 1 buck coffee at the local Starbucks yet…fascinating. I actually don’t find their regular coffee to be that good either. The best cup of coffee I’ve had was brewed by my cousin using Peet’s French roast in a coffee maker that he had perfected the ratios. Dark, rich, without lingering bitterness. Mmm. Liked the post, btw…thought provoking!

    Royal: I’ve noticed some of that planning problem in our local Starbucks. The layout isn’t that inviting, and traffic issues occur frequently. It’s a tiny store, and I guess we’ve made it ours just through sheer perseverance. Normally we sit outside when the weather is nice, but that won’t be for a couple of months here in the frigid Northeast. Sigh. As for personality, it did take some time for us to crack into it, but with time it happened. I just had to ask a question one day, and then asked what their name was so I’d remember it. It’s amazing how far that goes!

    y0mbo: That’s cool! How’s the experience going with the local shops?

    Bec: I totally miss the smell. I want my Starbucks to smell like coffee. It would go a long way. I’ll have to come up and visit that local coffee shop one day. That might not be a bad project overall…mapping out the coffee shops of the world. I’m sure there’s already a site for it, but the difference would be that it’s my site :-)

  12. y0mbo 8 years ago

    I’m sitting in my local coffee shop right now.  I like it here: free wifi, friendly service and good coffee.  Another benefit is that even when it’s busy here, it isn’t nearly as crazy as a Starbucks, so I can concentrate and get some work or writing done.

    It has been interesting becoming a “regular” here.  I haven’t met many people yet here in Indy since I work from home, so The Wife and I joke that my only friend in town is the barista.

  13. crowdstorm 8 years ago

    Rather than basing my opinion of a coffee house on the levels of customer service they provide, I would go on the quality of the coffee. Starbucks coffee is a little bit inferior in my opinion (for the prices they charge), so I would always take a chance and choose a smaller, independent store!

  14. leslie herger 8 years ago

    You want good coffee here on the East Coast? try Terroir coffee. The company is owned by George Howell and he’s a fanatic about GOOD coffee. I have bought many bags of Terrior and have loved every regional type and roast he offers. The great things about Terroir is that even the darks roasts don’t taste or look burnt. The only place I know to buy it is Whole Foods, and it is pricey but think of the cash you’re spending at Starbucks.

    You could also try Atomic Coffee. Now located in Beverly MA and Marblehead, MA they make some great coffee, great drink, awesome sandwiches and good pastries. Also their coffees in bags are great too.

    If your headed toward Central MA, you could head for Karma Coffee in Weston. They only offer a few blends and roasts but they do them well. They have a little shop next to the Papa Ginos in Sudbury on RT 20, which I haven’t been to I just buy the bagged coffee.

    There are loads of places other than Starbucks where the baristas will soon learn your name, the coffee is 100% better and there is plenty of atmosphere and free wifi. That being said , when I’m in a rush I head for my local Starbucks and when I do a coffee run from work I head for the Starbucks in Sudbury.

  15. eric 8 years ago

    yeah, you do have to wonder why the pastries suck so much at starbucks. quelle disappointing.

A message from Dave:

I really believe we all benefit when we share our own perspectives on common experiences. It would be great if you added your own anecdotes and comments, even if you don't necessarily agree with the premise of the post; that's just good conversation in my book. The house rules are "treat each other with kindness and respect" and "enjoy the flow of ideas!"

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