Chinks in the Armor

Even the most-admired businesses have a few flaws. And they should want to get better, right? So we’ve helpfully identified “opportunities for improvement,” as they say on performance evaluations, at companies otherwise celebrated for great customer experiences. Here’s how they’re fixing the problems — or not.

Company: Starbucks

Known for: Premium coffee and espresso drinks; creating a holistic consumer experience from java to e-jukebox service.

The rap: Underwhelming food. Selection of too-sweet pastries and wrapped sandwiches doesn’t match the quality of its coffee. And who wants a $6 cheese plate? No wonder food accounted for only 14% of retail sales last fiscal year.

The fix: Starbucks is testing warm breakfast sandwiches in Seattle and Washington, DC, prior to a national rollout. Move over, McMuffin.


Company: Amazon

Known for: User-friendly Web shopping, cool search features, and enormous product selection.

The rap: Barely there live customer support. Amazon’s site doesn’t offer a toll-free number or live chat software for direct customer help. (Access to live customer reps is buried under the “Where’s My Stuff?” link.)

The fix: None, and none coming. Amazon believes providing self-help tools is the best form of customer service. (Does that mean Jeff Bezos pumps his own gas?)

Company: Ikea

Known for: Affordable Euro-style furniture that makes everyone a design snob; reinventing the furniture outlet as theme park.

The rap: Inexplicably primitive online store. Its ordering system requires filling out a form online, then completing the transaction by phone.

The fix: Ikea plans to launch a revamped online store this fall that will fully automate the ordering process.

Company: Home Depot

Known for: Empowering do-it-yourselfers everywhere; allowing The Apprentice contestants to showcase nail-hammering skills.

The rap: Independent contractors for flooring, cabinets, and countertops generate complaints. And every line is the slow line at checkout stands.

The fix: Home Depot is issuing contractors handheld devices to zap job specs, instead of faxing, to improve order accuracy. And self-checkouts are now available at more than half of all stores.

Company: Vonage

Known for: Cheap Internet phone calls with wireline-quality sound; helping to drive AT&T out of the long-distance business.

The rap: Bare-bones 911 service. Most callers to the number don’t get connected directly to an emergency operator, and their locations aren’t automatically reported (as with landlines).

The fix: The Federal Communications Commission in May ordered Net phone companies to provide full 911 services within 120 days. Vonage is working with Baby Bells to fix this problem.