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Did Starbucks Stumble on Service?

Aug 14, 2008
The buzz in the world of coffee these days is not being produced by caffeine intake. It's generated by the swirl of news reports and comments about Starbucks plans to close over 600 stores.

For me this begs the question: Did Starbucks stumble on their vaunted customer service? As Starbucks has become an American icon, as much a part of our landscape as McDonald's and Wal-Mart, have they lost their customer service edge? Has growth come at the cost of serving their customers in their unique way, the way loyal Starbuckians have come to expect?

There is evidence to suggest this is the case. In a recent BBC News article, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz commented on the "dilution of the Starbucks experience". He added "the firm had lost its focus". Comments from Starbucks customers also support this notion:

From OregonLive.com

And some customers who say they have asked a barista to make them a cup of bold coffee say they have been refused.

An employee on the other end of the line offered her a free replacement, and when Curry stopped by the store two days later to pick it up, a store manager accused her of running a scam.

From OrlandoSentinel.com

There have been other disturbing signs over the past five years. Staff turnover seems epidemic; I seldom see the same faces on repeat visits. I read about poor staff morale...And staff seem less knowledgeable about the coffees and each blend's character.

Author Kim Fellner, asked "Can Starbucks really be big and good at the same time?" And her answer seems to be "no, they can't". In interviews with Starbucks employees she heard comments like this: "When I started six years ago, this was the best job of its kind. Now it's all about the money. It's like nobody cares about us any more." And if employees feel their company does not care about them, the chances are they'll care less about the customers.

But, I'd bet my mortgage payment that for every bad customer service story at Starbucks there's a good one.

In what is probably the most astonishing example of an employee putting her customer first, Starbucks barista Sandra Andersen gave up one of her kidneys for a customer. Maybe that's too far beyond the norm to even count. But more typical examples abound:

From Telegraph UK

It's not about the coffee, the latte or anything else for that matter. It's about the ambiance. A temporary haven to duck out of the grind of a hectic morning/afternoon and relaxing over a coffee, tea etc.

From Galesburg.com

The monthly coffee seminars, the friendly (and quite often funny) conversations in the cafe and the drive (through), and the knowledgeable staff make this a top-notch establishment.

Across the USA, communities are asking Starbucks to reconsider closing their favorite Starbucks. How's that for customer loyalty? Having your customers beg you to stay! Most companies can only imagine having such a bond with their customers.

It's easy to assume Starbucks growth into the 8000 pound gorilla of coffee shops had a deleterious affect on their ability to offer the same customer experience that made them famous. When you have 16,000 stores and over 300,000 employees, it's hard to be on your "A" game with every single customer interaction. There are bound to inconsistencies, foul-ups and a general change of culture. It's a natural side effect of growth.

At the same time though, Starbucks has drilled themselves into the lives of their customers like few global goliaths ever have. They've become a part of the fabric of their host communities, a fabric many people do not want torn.

So, is Starbucks retrenching because of bad customer service? Lacking any sort of scientific data I'll go with my gut and say no. Customer service is not the reason Starbucks is slowing. I think it's a combination of many things like the economy, competition and the evolution of their market. Though many of their stores probably fail to deliver the typical Starbucks experience, overall I think they do a pretty decent job.
About the Author
Kevin Stirtz is the Amazing Service Guy. He is a customer service speaker and trainer who helps companies increase revenue and profits by delivering Amazing Service. Kevin has spoken to thousands of people across the USA and in Europe about how to improve customer service. Get a free copy of Kevin's Amazing Service Toolkit at: http://amazingserviceguy.com
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