September 16, 2016

Mobile first. Customer second?

What does your brand stand for?

Long time readers of the Friday Digression may recall that I am an avid coffee drinker. After all, in this very space I’ve sung the praises of a small roaster’s memorable customer experience and given voice to the unique thrill of paying for a cup of joe with my phone.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I frequent Starbucks, well, frequently. While I was a Dunkin Donuts guy in my formative years living in the Northeast, my move to the West Coast virtually forced me to switch allegiances given the sparse population of “Dunks” on this side of the country.

And Starbucks coffee is rather good. I’m a particular fan of their cold brewed iced coffee, which is rich and smooth with just a hint of sweetness. So I certainly don’t mind that Starbucks has become something of a de facto stop when I’m jonesing for java.

Of course, I’m hardly the only such caffeine addict stopping for a fix and, despite the plethora of Starbucks locations near me (there are seven I know of in Burbank alone), there is usually a line, whether I go through the drive-thru or park my car and walk inside.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed the lines are shorter. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for me to find no line inside at all. And yet, somehow, the wait for my drink is often longer. Why is this?

Well, Starbucks has recently rolled out the ability to not only pay for your coffee with your phone, but to order it too. In doing so, you no longer have to wait in line to place an order. You can place your order through your phone and pay for it, then simply go to the bar to pick it up when it’s ready. The idea sounds great, in theory. No time? Skip the line!

Unfortunately, however, this technological solution has borne a number of unintended consequences. First, those of us who choose to place our order the old fashioned way now find that, in spite of the lack of a line to place our order, we’re waiting much longer for our order to be fulfilled by the bedraggled baristas overwhelmed by mobile orders.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Starbucks has reduced the role of their associates to that of an assembly line worker. Now, my wife was once a Starbucks barista and a passionate one at that. Though she wasn’t much of a coffee drinker (tea is her beverage of choice), she became very knowledgeable about the menu and was proud to offer advice to those who might be stumped by the vast selection and unfamiliar terminology. She got to know regular customers by their name, face and drink, and could often have their preferred beverage made and ready in the time it took them to park their car and walk into the building.

You see, Starbucks has always stood for much more than simply making and selling as many cups of coffee as is humanly possible. In fact, the reasons why caffeine freaks, myself included, were willing to pay more for our java had little to do with the contents of our cup. Baristas were matchmakers, learning and then pairing our tastes to a drink, and perhaps a baked good, that kept us coming back for more. And if we found our match wasn’t made in coffee bean heaven, they were always happy to offer us something else, often free of charge.

So while I applaud Starbucks for thinking mobile first in our increasingly ever-connected world, I lament that doing so has, in many cases, put the customer second. And that may force me, and others like me, to get our coffee somewhere else, one where I’m treated as a person instead of just the next order in line.

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