Are You Up for the Human/Tech Challenge?


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I’m convinced that the new customer experience leadership challenge will be … (drum roll please) … integrating human and technology based service. I refer to this opportunity as the human/tech challenge.

That challenge involves leveraging technology for efficiency while integrating it with the warmth of human service delivery. In my opinion, your future success will hinge, in part, on how well you provide technology-aided, human powered experiences that seamlessly deliver when and how your customers want to be served.

Here is a prime example of the challenge. While generating a profit in their most recent quarter, Starbucks failed to meet analyst expectations. In the call explaining how those projections were missed, Howard Schultz, the historic face for and genius behind the brand explained that the slight stumble was the result of in-store “congestion”.

On deeper analysis, that “congestion” has been pinned on the tech/human challenge. According to a Reuters article, “The digital world can dump an avalanche of orders in a short period of time, creating delays and lines that scare away customers…baristas at the company’s busiest cafes had difficulty keeping up with mobile orders in the latest quarter, creating bottlenecks at drink delivery stations and leading some walk-in customers to walk out.”

Starbucks is looking at a variety of ways to address the “congestion” problem. Some of the options they are exploring are human powered and others rely on mobile solutions.

From the human perspective, Starbucks began adding additional staff (baristas) to focus centrally on mobile orders. At some point, this becomes a problem of scale and infrastructure since there are a limited number of espresso machines available to address drive-thru, walk-in, and mobile traffic.

From a technology perspective, Starbucks is exploring ways to message mobile customers to let them know their drink is NOW READY. The theory behind this exploration is that mobile orders can have a more precise pick-up time (now it is an approximately 5-minute window) and in the process of this pinpointed time, baristas can more effectively work around in-store traffic.

In my books about Starbucks (The Starbucks Experience and Leading the Starbucks Way), I outlined Starbucks’ strategy and efforts to increase customer-centricity through technology.

Based on my journey with the brand, I’ve watched leadership move from a time when customers had to pay for Wi-Fi to a present state where Starbucks is recognized as a leader in mobile pay and mobile ordering. In many ways, Starbucks has not only championed extraordinary digital solutions (for example the amalgamation of loyalty and social programs through their tweet-a-coffee program) but they’ve constantly invented solutions to the challenges of human/technology interface.

While Starbucks will likely innovate in response to their current opportunity, many leaders I’ve worked with are less prepared to address the human/tech challenge. They are not poised to seamlessly integrate human service delivery with digital assets.

The opportunity for those who offer seamless integration is huge. Accenture Interactive reports that 79% of those who own smartphones use those phones to aid their purchases. What if your customers could rely on both your technology and your people – no matter how or when they seek to interact with you?

As customers, we form impressions of brands based on the diverse experiences we encounter across service platforms. Are you delivering self-service/ease-of-use technologies blended with warm, genuine and compassionate service providers?

If so, I probably will be writing about YOU someday soon!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Joseph Michelli, Ph.D.
Joseph Michelli, Ph.D., an organizational consultant and the chief experience officer of The Michelli Experience, authored The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and the best-selling The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary.


  1. We are challenging technology since the smart-phones entered our life! Soon enough the step forward on IoT will be made. Will be the Starbucks the first company that integrate AI on everyday baristas?

  2. Eilidh, great question. Yesterday Starbucks announced voice ordering capabilities within the Starbucks mobile iOS app and Amazon Alexa platform. The technology is cutting edge and progresses down the path of voice recognition and multi-device integration. I did see an article recently about an all robot coffee shop. It truly was more robotics than AI!

  3. Hi Joseph: interesting business challenge! In theory, this initiative to enable customers to order their Starbucks beverages in advance of their arrival in the store should make it easier for Starbucks to plan capacity and work-in-process at the store level. It’s a great customer service tool, and relieving rush-hour lines in the store isn’t a bad outcome, either.

    This is a logistics problem that a skilled manufacturing or operations engineer should be able to help solve. Maybe what Starbucks needs isn’t more technology, but more coffee pots and espresso machines, more efficient workflow in the food prep and Point-of-purchase areas, and a few sets of additional hands to pick up the demand at peak times.


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