The recent kerfuffle in the daily press concerning Starbucks has once again illustrated the unfortunate fact that, while speciality coffee still gets a fair amount of media attention, the café business is vastly misunderstood. And for the café-bar trade, the media spotlight of the daily press shining in entirely the wrong direction has deflected attention from what is a very important practical operational matter.
The situation arose when Starbucks took a television commercial spot to say that it now wished to address its customers by name, and that any customer who introduced themselves by name in a Starbucks branch the following morning would receive a free latte. In return, Starbucks staff would begin wearing name-tags ‘in a bid to give a more friendly face to the in-store experience’. In addition to the TV work, the move was promoted to Starbucks’ 530,000 Facebook fans and 15,400 Twitter followers, and there were press advertisements.
The overall project has come in for a tirade of comments. The daily press were calling in experts to pontificate on whether customers like to be called by name. (They did not, curiously, address the well-known retail problem of staff not liking to wear badges giving their name).
The café-bar community were distracted, too – Twitter was swamped with comments from competitor businesses:
“I declined to give my name in Starbucks,” said one. “The barista, visibly put out, turned away muttering ‘suit yourself’. I’ve never felt more loved.”
Another coffee house said: “Come and introduce yourself today and I will make you a latte that’s worth paying for.” One of the new breed of super coffee houses in Birmingham said: “I’ve just realised I know the name of every customer in the shop and didn’t need to write any of their names down.” Another in the same city invited Starbucks to send its baristas to them on their lunch break for a free takeaway latte!
In east London, another of the ‘name’ coffee shops said: “Like all good independent coffee shops, we’ve been ‘making it the way you like it’, using double shots, and knowing our customers’ names from day one.” One of the top-quality London coffee carts sent the message: “we would like to thank Starbucks today for the rare gift they’ve given us – solidarity. Our customers have rallied behind us, so thanks heaps!”
Another commented, acidly: “Starbucks – where no one knows your name.”
The experts wheeled in by the mass media made some predictable comments about the psychological effect of being addressed by name, although a couple did raise the more modern issue that some customers find it an irritation and intrusive to be asked for their personal details.
Only two people got the real to the heart of the matter – that this move actually had nothing to do with friendly customer relationships at all – it was all about an operational change.
The director of strategy at a branding consultancy spotted immediately that the reason was in what is known as ‘the Starbucks method’, by which one person takes the order, while another brews the drink, which is then deposited at the end of the counter where the customer has to go and get it. “When a barista calls ‘latte’, sometimes 20 people might think ‘is that mine?’,” he observed correctly. If Starbucks’ order-takers now give the customer’s name to the barista making the drink, it ensures it will be given to the right person at the delivery point.
The point was also seen, and amplified, by Richard Heitmann, sales director of J2, an EPOS company which does a lot of work in coffee houses.
“In a lot of work we do with coffee houses, we are talking with them about the best way to move people along as fast as possible – it’s the classic ‘move them along’ concept. However, as you can see at some Starbucks sites, this means they shout out the orders and you have to put your hand up. Everybody gets frustrated. You can see in some sites that several people are all reaching for the same drink – ‘that’s mine!’”
Uniquely among those who commented, the J2 man suggested that this story illustrates how it is time that big coffee houses addressed their serving processes more creatively.
“When you go to the continent, you can see a better way on the Italian motorways – you go to the till, they give you a ticket, and you hand that to the barista, who makes you your coffee. Very few of the big coffee houses have developed a more efficient method than this… the continental way is the better one.
“The next thing we expect to see is more display screens coming up at the pay point, linked to small display screens coming up in front of the barista. These are now quite tiny, and don’t get in the way. The story does illustrate that there can be better methods. I do think that it’s worth suggesting to some coffee houses that this should make them consider a change.”