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.