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October 04, 2005

Touchology Trumps Technology

[Third in a series of posts on Starbucks Tribal Knowledge]

“If we greet customers, exchange a few words with them and then custom-make a drink exactly to their taste, they will be eager to come back.”
Howard Schultz, Starbucks Chairman & Visionary

Developing a loyal customer base at Starbucks is not overly complicated. As Howard Schultz says, it’s nothing more than greeting customers in a friendly manner and making a drink exactly to their desires.

Seriously, that’s the blueprint for how Starbucks has cultivated a fanatically loyal customer base where 20% of its customers visit more than 8 times per month and 80% of all their coffee purchases are made at Starbucks.

Starbucks views each customer interaction as a high-touch experience. From the way customers are greeted by a barista to the way their hand-crafted espresso beverage is ordered, prepared, and enjoyed, each customer’s experience at Starbucks is individually customer-ized through high-touch means.

Delivering great customer experiences through touchology requires companies trust its employees to be themselves when connecting on a personal level with customers. Unfortunately, too many companies are reluctant to place that much trust and responsibility in the hands of customer-facing employees.

Instead of trusting their employees to be human, most companies attempt to replicate personal interaction through high-teching their business with technology. Be it loyalty cards to recognize and reward frequent customers, self-service kiosks to increase efficiency, or automated phoned systems to facilitate servicing customers, these high-tech methods drive the human equation out of the business transaction.

It’s not that Starbucks hasn’t tried high-tech methods to improve the customer experience. Indeed, they have.

In one experiment, Starbucks sought to increase speed of service, an important factor in delivering a great customer experience, by implementing a high-tech hand-held ordering system designed to reduce the logjam of customers ordering at the register. A store partner, with techno gadget in hand, would take orders from customers standing in line and wirelessly beam each customer’s order to a barista at the espresso bar. While this high-tech ordering system did improve speed of service, customer feedback negated the efficiency gains. Customers complained the mechanized ordering system was too impersonal and took away from their overall experience.

Starbucks ditched this high-tech ordering system and went back to the high-touch method of personally connecting with customers at the register during the ordering process.

For Starbucks, high-touching its business is about empowering and trusting store partners to be real, to be genuine, and by all means … to be human. Starbucks does not give partners a detailed script that instructs them what to say and how to act with customers.

Instead, Starbucks acknowledges store partners have been trained to understand all facets of the business and the company trusts these partners to show their personality when interacting with customers.

Starbucks has learned customers appreciate the high-touch human interaction with store partners and not the high-tech mechanisms which attempt to emulate personal relationships, but are a poor substitute for the real thing.

High-touching its business through touchology means is one more example of how Starbucks is in the people business serving coffee and not in the coffee business serving people.


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» Great series of posts on marketing lessons learned at Starbucks from Emergence Marketing
John Moore over at Brand Autopsy has a great set of posts (here is one) on what he learned at Starbucks - some which definitely resonate with my high tech marketing background, others which are confirming what goes behind delivering... [Read More]

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» Touchology from *Star In The Margin
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It's not just their coffee either. I don't drink coffee. I drink hot chocolate. Starbucks makes the best you can purchase made to order. I fit the average, just not drinking coffee.

Except that lately, my local Starbucks in Franklin, TN has been so busy that they've taken to having the barista behind the counter calling to customers 5 or 6 or more back in line to yell out their coffee drink. That's even more impersonal than someone taking the order on a techno gadget.
And, as stupid as it sounds, for someone who is very introverted, yelling out Venti Vanilla Breve Latte with whipped cream and a pumpkin scone, to a Starbucks loaded with people, is not fun. It's even worse the second or third time you have to yell it out because the barista can't hear over the noise. And then they still get it wrong. :-(

I do believe that at some of the Starbucks, especially those that go head to head with Dunkin's, they will sacrifice the personal touch for speed and "processing."

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