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Innovation: LEARN from Starbucks – Too Much of a Good Thing?

When it comes to customer experience, reliable rarely means exceptional. This is especially true at a Starbucks store. With all due respect to the dedicated evangelists of the ubiquitous company, having a cup of coffee can either be a utilitarian situation — I’ve got to get coffee in me to wake up — or extraordinary — I want to go to that one store because the coffee is so good and the ambiance so different that I love spending time there.

When it comes to customer experience, reliable rarely means exceptional. This is especially true at a Starbucks store. With all due respect to the dedicated evangelists of the ubiquitous company, having a cup of coffee can either be a utilitarian situation — I’ve got to get coffee in me to wake up — or extraordinary — I want to go to that one store because the coffee is so good and the ambiance so different that I love spending time there.

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Anywhere in between there is trouble on the horizon. The coffee is priced at several dollars above other chains, which could give the store an air of exclusivity with ample space to sit down with a friend. Yet the place is often packed with people ordering and the space to sit down is usually taken so the coffee is more often than not “to go”. This mix makes it an average experience, even though the brew is quite consistent in taste.

How many times do you go in, stand in line waiting after long and elaborate orders and fight other patrons for a seat at those prices before you start giving up some of the taste for convenience? How long before you meet in a less crowded, more exclusive place?

The coffee was supposedly so good, the opportunity so great, that customers kept filling the stores and stores kept opening on every corner. For the sake of efficiency, better machines where installed — faster to make coffee, less interesting to look at while waiting. For the sake of greater food and coffee choices, the seating was sacrificed in many smaller stores — more traffic, less stickiness of the brand experience, in an out.

It’s not just the service that is average, but predictable. The coffee is the same way. Many coffee connoisseurs point out that Starbucks house coffees are actually fairly inexpensive blends, roasted a bit more than you’d expect. But there’s a reason for this: it keeps the coffee the same every time you drink it. Over-roasted Brazilian beans taste pretty much the same as an over-roasted bean from Mexico or Guatemala. Regardless of price and supply, each cup tastes just as you’d expect.

Predictability can be a double edged sword. It can put people in auto pilot, for example. Or it can lull a company into believing that all is well as its best customers start moving away. Predictability is the friend of complacency and taking things for granted — on both sides of a relationship. Was Starbucks too much of a good thing? Maybe predictability is fine if you achieve success, then move on to innovate in another (or related) area.

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Valeria Maltoni • Conversation Agent • Philadelphia, PA • www.conversationagent.com