A second cup of coffee for today, and the music is ABC's "Date Stamp," witty 80's disco-metal-glam pop for English majors who can't dance:
The news in the Wall Street Journal yesterday got me thinking: Starbucks Corp. said "unexpectedly heavy demand for new juice and banana frappuccinos during the morning rush hurt its sales growth in July." Chief Executive James Donald admitted "we are losing some espresso business due to longer-than-normal wait times" at stores.
Thinking specifically about a) how nice a banana frappuccino'd be about now, and b) the fact that too long wait lines is a problem lots of businesses would like to have. As I wrote yesterday, "the problem at Starbucks isn't that customer service is poor, but that it's too good. For one thing it's the new standard in coffee shops, and for another it's highly impersonal." That column dealt with Starbucks setting the standard for coffee shop quality, today's deals with Starbucks' highly impersonal, competent, absolutely wonderful style of customer service that you don't notice.
"As an avid Starbucks fan (every morning, sometimes afternoon), I can tell you that in terms of the store I frequent, you nailed it: They are practically overstaffed, which makes for excellent customer service," a reader wrote in response to yesterday's column. Great. Now switch to minor key, here comes the villain: "The staff is also greeting customers by name, when possible, and I think that is how they are being trained."
As Miss Manners correctly notes, "No respectable job requires you to simulate human emotions." It's morally wrong to make a customer feel she needs to engage in conversation to avoid being rude to the staff when all she wants is a coffee, a table and some quiet time. Some people in your life you don't want to have to pretend to be chums with, you have to do enough of that at work.
The whole principle behind CRM is the company offering the service the customer wants. As I noted yesterday, this has come to equate "remembering the customer." Hotels like recording what kind of drink someone ordered to have it ready for that guest when she comes back next year. Amazon.com, of course, is famous for their "Hi Marv, we have recommendations for you" whenever Marv logs in. Is this "good" customer service?
Coffee shops are almost perfect laboratories for CRM. They sell a relatively fungible, commonly-available product, so service is important -- if you're the only coke dealer in town it's not like you sweat the customer service. They're easy to tinker with, and results of improvements -- or problems -- show up quickly.
It's received wisdom that SMBs can provide the more personal, customized customer service customers like, it's their great advantage over the huge impersonal conglomerates. In coffee shops this means you know the name of the guy who runs Andy's Kaffee Haus on the corner -- well, so does anybody who can read -- and he probably knows yours, knows what kind of coffee you like and how you like it. Some people like this.
And of course you get to know the regulars, and have to say hi to everyone, and the staff know your preferences and expectations so you're inhibited from ordering something new because it's a problem, and you have to chat with everyone and the help so pretty soon you have to find a new coffee shop where you can get work done.
Maybe it's just me, but the finest customer service is that which you're unaware of. I prefer the anonymity of big cities over the enforced acquaintance of small towns, too, so maybe I'm just a sullen misanthropic wretch. But I do have friends, I don't need the coffee shop guy to be my friend, I need him to sell me coffee. If I want to talk with friends at a coffee shop I'll bring them, I don't expect the shop to provide them.
Having a coffee shop "anticipate" my order irks me, I’m not a robot, I don't order the same thing every time I go into a coffee shop, and I don't want someone punch-drunk on CRM theory assuming I do. Start "anticipating" my coffee order and I'll start "patronizing" other coffee shops. Let me order, for heaven's sake, it's not too much strain.
As guru Bob Thompson said years ago, one of the problems with CRM is that customers don't want to be managed. I'd go one word further: A lot of customers don't really want a relationship either. At least not part and parcel with their business interactions. And as pleasant and casual as getting coffee in a coffee shop is, it's a business transaction and should be treated as such -- politely, professionally and competently.
At Starbucks the guy working the counter doesn't come over and talk to you, he lets you read or just sit and think. But if you're in Andy's Kaffee Haus, and you know Andy and he knows you, well, you have to make polite conversation which usually ends up with Andy saying "Hey, lemme put my band's new demo on the sound system, we're into atonal thrash metal now, tell me what you think of these first nine songs."
An article-length critique of yesterday's column appeared at a fine coffee-oriented blog, TheShot. The author writes "I'll agree with [First Coffee] that the world is littered with independent coffeehouse deadwood that could use a good, controlled burn. But I'll argue that customer service is just gravy in the larger scheme of things."
As TheShot notes, "I've had some of the worst customer service in the world (at least at first) at Sant'Eustachio il caffè in Rome, and yet it's one of my favorite cafés. Instead, I'd argue that the quality of the coffee and the welcoming nature of the location itself are the biggest drivers for making people pass over their local mom & pops."
Fair enough, point well taken. While I -- and I presume TheShot -- wouldn't advocate Soup Nazi-style service, a lot of people, myself included, prefer anonymous, cool, professional service, where you could order a venti caramel macchiato sixteen days in a row from the same clerk, and on the seventeenth day she says the same thing she said the first time she ever saw you: "Hello, what can I get for you?" Because, you know, everybody has their venti caramel macchiato limit, and yours might be sixteen.
Of course it might simply be that for people such as TheShot, who have the taste bud capacity where subtle grades of differentiation in the cup itself matter, customer service isn't such a big deal. If fine distinctions in coffee quality really affect your day, hey follow your nose and put up with surly employees, sixth-hand college dorm furniture and TIME magazines with President Hoover on the cover.
But the majority of people can't tell the difference between Kenyan AA and Sumatran and go to coffee shops for the overall experience, to them the service, the atmosphere, heck even the music is as important, if not more, than the actual java. And those are the people who like chatty employees. Me, I'll take an average cup of coffee and pleasant but cool help over Blue Mountain coffee with Chatty Cathy working the counter.
(And non-wobbly tables. Is it really so impossible, in a culture that can put a man on the moon, to produce tables that you don't have to spend five minutes balancing with napkins, sugar packets and pages ripped out of your notebook?)
Because when it comes to customer service, less is more. Most of the time simply smile, hand over the goods and shut up. If you get the order right I'm happy, I don't need five minutes of strained chit-chat, that's not good customer service.
My wife and I ran a coffee shop in Antalya, on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, for a couple years before moving up here to Istanbul in January. We quickly learned that by far most patrons wanted a pleasant interaction when ordering, prompt service and then to be left alone. When someone initiated conversation that was fine, but we didn't presume.
This is what Starbucks is great at -- cool, competent, professional service. It's why I go there. I enjoy Turkish coffee shops here in Istanbul, but there's always a friend of the owner's daughter who wants to take twenty minutes practicing her English with me, or bored counter help who strike up conversations about soccer, weather or Bush's foreign policy with the single customers, no matter how intently aforesaid customer's trying to read or work on a laptop. Good thing the Turkish coffee's so delicious.
In George Orwell's book Down And Out In Paris And London he writes of his time living the life of a street bum, and says when men lined up for charity meal tickets at churches, they hated clergymen who felt compelled to chat and shake hands while handing out tickets. There was one curate greatly favored among the men who would simply walk along the line, head down, and wordlessly hand out tickets. Orwell says the men paid him the highest compliment they could imagine: "He'll never be a bishop, that one."
That, my friend, is great customer service: Just what the customer wants.
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