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"Closed until 2:15" read the hand-written sign at the counter of the Starbucks inside of the headquarters of an enterprise client. A repairman seemed to be at work reassembling the cash register. My caffeine-deprived companion and I stood perhaps ten feet away from the counter and I cheerfully observed that it was two-thirteen, that our wait would not be long. So there we stood, savoring the anticipation of the experience before us. This proved to be a mistake.

I should now tell you something about the experience within the enterprise, as it is rather different from what might be called the Starbucks Experience at one of the usual shops. While there is a seating area and some people do stay there, the vast majority will pick up what they want and head off to their next meeting. Absolutely everything is served to go— so if paper cups aren't your idea of an elegant delivery mechanism, you'll have to settle for inelegance in presentation.

My usual beverage of choice is the caffe doppio—two shots of espresso, unadulterated. As previously reported, espresso here is served as properly as can be in paper cups. Thus, I often arrive at a certain mid-afternoon meeting with a tiny paper cup in-hand to what might be best described as catcalls ranging from observations about how “cute” my coffee is to advice that I consider bringing a “man's coffee” in future.

On this particular day, however, I was not heading directly to a meeting, nor was I in the company of a lady inclined to think my espresso “cute.” We stood in anticipation of enjoying an actual conversation over our legal addictive substances in an environment not entirely devoid of charm. And we were but two minutes away.

Apparently my ability to read a watch and to perform basic arithmetic was not lost on the keeper of the shop—a person I had never before seen. She quickly grabbed the sign and disappeared behind a display case for perhaps fifteen seconds.

When the sign was returned to its location in front of the cash register, the 2:15 had been struck through and replaced with the text, “further notice.” New Person, never having made eye contact, disappeared again behind the display case. Repair Man continued going about his work. Despite the text on the sign, it was clear that the real message was “Go Away.” After finding seats and waiting for perhaps five minutes more, we finally took the hint and went away.

Perhaps New Person imagined that we wouldn't be able to tell the difference between actually being busy and looking busy. Activity “behind the counter” must mean that a zillion things needed to be done. It's not like any of us would have any idea what it takes to operate a retail outlet, despite the fact that we were in the world headquarters of a $10 Billion retailer.

At this point, you might wonder what it is that an employee whose job is fundamentally to enable an experience by performing tasks that essentially consist of packaging an order of coffee drinks and confectionary in exchange for sums of money best represented in scientific notation could do better. Some options I have assembled for your consideration follow.

Upon realization that two customers were waiting, New Person might have said, “I guessed incorrectly at the time we'd be back in operation. Please don't give up; I'll open once repairs are finished!”
Upon realization that two customers were waiting, New Person might have said, “I'm sorry but both the cash register and sign are broken. The repairman for the sign hasn't yet arrived.”
Upon realization that two customers were waiting, New Person might have said, “I'll have to handle payment manually [and, depending on circumstances, maybe cash-only] so it'll take a bit longer than usual.”

Maybe you could come up with a few other options. In any case, observe a common theme that runs through each of these options: engagement with the customer. Being close enough to hear an observation and then to react to it without engaging the customer is exactly the wrong thing to do when your job is to enable experience. Instead of taking care of us given diminished available resources or delivering the bad news, New Person decided not to acknowledge us. A good move, that. Customers exist only in the abstract! They'll keep coming back to you because of great marketing! Whatever experience you deliver, they'll be back for more! The stock price will continue to grow on an exponential curve forever!

Starbucks does well to consider whether it is losing its soul. Experience seems to suggest that the answer might well settle in the affirmative, and it could have a lot more to do with whether the espresso machines are loaded with pre-packed ground coffee.

Once repairs were completed and the shop reopened, I had a chance to go back for an afternoon espresso. I opted against it, however, preferring to spend my time and money with those who think of me as more than an abstraction.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2007-04-09 01:13 PM
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