One Cup of Coffee, 20 Experiences: Take a Tip From Starbucks

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Until recently, I was not a coffee lover. In that way, I’m not very different from others in mainland China. China has a deep-rooted tea culture, and a few years back, no one would have foreseen a demand for paying $3 to $5 (in U.S. dollars) for cup of coffee. But things changed. Besides the rapidly growing middle class and the vast volume of foreign travelers and expatriates in China, the branding and the new experience that the giant coffee chain Starbucks brought here may be the most fundamental reason for this beverage-altering "miracle."

I consider myself a loyal Starbucks customer but not an advocate, yet. I visit Starbucks shops in cities around the world. What drives me to buy and buy again? It’s certainly not advertising. We all know that Starbucks seldom advertises (if at all). So how does the company build its brand? If you believe a brand is the aggregate of customer experiences across all touch-points, then the in-store customer experience is my answer. Walk with me from the beginning to the end of the entire in-store experience in Starbucks.

Before the first sip
Imagine this is your first time at Starbucks. Far away on a main street, you see an attractive signage. You want to take a break, so you enter the store. You catch an extremely tempting aroma, and you’re immediately refreshed. The light background music further soothes you and confirms that you made the right choice. Besides the delightful sensations to your nose and ears, your eyes are treated to the in-store decoration, which is very "coffee-savvy." Displays, leaflets and all the merchandise reassure you that the people who run this place are very professional. The warm greetings from the counter staff make you feel good.

But the long queue in front of the counter ruins most of your pleasant feelings. You’re reluctant to spend five minutes to queue up just for a cup of coffee. But you are there, so you just go with the line. You look up the coffee menu, and the varieties amaze you. But the price does, too—and not in a positive way. You don’t expect to spend $3 for a cup of coffee! You may think, "OK, I will try it. But I may not come back often."

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You’re served by an enthusiastic staff. Because you’re new, the woman behind the counter gives you recommendations. You notice that all the staff members speak in their "coffee jargon." This reinforces your perception that they love coffee! Someone asks you how you’d like to pay. You say by credit card. At the same time, she gives you a $1 cash coupon for your next visit.

Oh no! Another long queue while you wait for the coffee to brew! But finally you get the fresh coffee and you grab all you need at the self-serve counter. You look for a comfortable sofa. Sorry. All full. You end up with a not-so-ideal hard-back seat outdoor near the entrance. Well, you still feel pretty good after you settle down and stretch your legs, and the place here is tidy and clean.

The first sip
OK, you enjoy your first sip of the coffee, and this impresses you. You almost change your mind and consider returning, despite the high prices and long queues. Looking around at the people sitting next to you, you notice they all look like well-educated middle-class professionals with "taste." You don’t talk to everyone, so you can’t verify this, of course. But you have a "feeling." It makes you feel good, and you’re happy to be seen, too. At this point, you might want to do something while you drink your coffee. But the variety of magazines is limited, and you didn’t bring a laptop. There’s no Internet kiosk available. But there are other people using their own notebooks.


You visit the washroom. It’s neither great nor bad but acceptable. When you return to your seat, an employee has you sample a new coffee. Five minutes later, the person returns and asks sincerely for your opinion. You feel your opinion is valued. After a while, you decide to continue shopping. Just as they greeted you when you entered, the employees say goodbye and smile genuinely as you depart. In the end, you just love the experience.

Parsing the experience
You can make your Starbucks experience work for your business, if you consider, well, the experience. You can think of interactions with a business—a visit to a coffee outlet, if you will—as a set of processes.

The Customer Experience Map above provides a breakdown of my Starbucks experience into 20 sub-processes. You can enhance your business by mapping the customer experience at competitors, industry leaders and your own business. Here’s what you do:

  • Map competitors and industry leaders. Imagine if this is your competitor’s or an industry leader’s customer experience map. Compare a map your own customer experience with theirs and find out the gaps. You don’t necessarily have to fill all the gaps, but it gives you a clear picture of where you are and how you could narrow the gaps or even outdo the competition.
  • Map your desired performances. When you map your desired performance and compare it to your current performance, you’ll see clearly where you need to improve.
  • Map your past and current performances. When you compare the two,, you can see the improvement progress breakdown into 20 subsets in quantifiable terms.
  • Manage and enhance the process. Because we could break down the whole in-store process into detailed sub-processes, we could manage each sub-process by defining the input, key steps, involved parties, outputs and measurement metrics. By defining clear measures for each process, the customer experience can be managed in a more objective manner.


Delivering a great and consistent experience does not happen by chance.

A good mapping of critical customer experiences and corresponding process management is just the start. Your organization needs a structured framework to align the whole customer experience to your overall business strategies, considering other elements like your people, process and technology. The following diagram may give you a hint of this interesting journey.


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