Recently, a few disgruntled Starbucks baristas have been making the headlines. Whether it’s creating a video about rude customers that went viral or resorting to writing an unflattering term on someone’s cup, Starbucks is failing to deliver their “legendary” customer experience.
Full disclosure: I used to be a Starbucks barista.
To put this into context, I have been a student of customer service ever since I got my first job as an ice cream shop cashier at the tender age of 15. The timeless retail mantra of “the customer is always right” was instilled in me by a father who was a top-notch manufacturing sales rep and said without customers, he’d be out of business.
In 1982, Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. published a landmark business tome, In Search of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies. I devoured the book, fascinated with companies like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and DuPont; and how they achieved success in a fiercely competitive market. I deliberately got a part-time job at The Disney Store just so I could learn how they delivered customer satisfaction. And, I joined Starbucks for similar reasons.
I didn’t just want to learn how Starbucks did customer training, but I looked forward to working in an environment that I knew I’d enjoy. I was (and still am) a coffee aficionado and I wanted to learn the recipes to my favorite drinks so I could make my own.
I still have the training manual from 2003 (the “Learning Journey Guide”). From the introduction letter inside, the barista is expected to deliver a true “Starbucks Experience”, upholding Starbucks high standards with every customer, with every product, every day, on every shift. (Emphasis in the letter.)
I only worked part-time, and as a result, didn’t receive enough experience “on the bar” (making the espresso drinks) in order to ever fully feel confident. But I did an okay job with the drinks although my strength was definitely working the register and connecting with the customers as soon as they came through the door.
I’ll never forget the man who came in on a Saturday morning to get a hot coffee drink for his pregnant wife that had ten various customizations on it. I busily marked the cup and the barista rolled their eyes at me after he left. We both shook our heads over the complicated order. And then the next day on my shift, the same man returned saying, “You guys did such a great job yesterday with the drink that I’m going to get another one!” Oh, joy.
Did we deliver it with a smile? Of course we did. But there’s a saying Starbucks employees have when they get frustrated with overly demanding customers: It’s just a cup of coffee. It helped restore our sanity after trying to meet the high expectations of a particularly demanding customer.
However, this begs the question: where did these demanding customers come from?
And the answer is: Starbucks.
Starbucks began the battle between barista and customer by elevating their brand into an elite symbol of success. That young professional walking down the street, clutching the iconic white cup with the hunter green logo is a living billboard: I know the economy sucks. But I’m doing well enough to justify buying a $5 cup of coffee for myself. Go, me!
It was Starbucks that produced a small booklet of how to order more complicated customized drinks that were delivered in Sunday newspapers across the nation. And it’s Starbucks who profusely apologizes to customers who didn’t place their order right the first time and rewards their inability to distinguish between a latte and a cappuccino by showering them with free coffee vouchers.
In other words, Starbucks has become the indulgent parent who denies her child is a complete brat.
What are the results of such conditioning? Surly baristas who are increasingly more frustrated with the customer and customers who believe that dammit, they deserve to be treated like a king or queen because they’re paying $5 for a cup of coffee. It’s a no-win situation.
The take-away is this: make sure you’re not setting the bar so high that your service delivery team can’t consistently satisfy your customers. Don’t encourage unrealistic expectations from your customers. Have a staff member shadow the front line employees to observe and understand what the obstacles are in delivering “legendary customer service.” Take note of unsatisfied customers and work toward an agreeable solution. Sometimes that means a free drink, other times it may mean a discount for their next visit. But use customer loyalty programs carefully to avoid abuse by those just looking for a free ride.
We all know that there will always be a few customers who won’t ever be satisfied. Whether they’ve just had a bad day or they’re a relentless critic always finding fault; it’s a good idea to have customer comment cards so they feel as though their concerns have been heard. However, most customers just want to feel as though they’ve received value for their purchase and as long as a company is taking time to add a few extra-special touches (like a regular who is treated to a discount because the staff knows her), customers will return.
Who knows? You may avoid having a ticked-off employee make a viral YouTube about your business at the end of the day. And you may notice less employee turn-over around the holidays, too. I think both your employees and your customers will be happier.