Starbucks is customer-centric because it listened


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Lately I’ve noticed an increase in discussion about “customer-centricity.” If ever there was a more nebulous term than CRM, this is it.

Is customer-centricity a strategy? A state of mind? A method for segmenting customers? Fortunately, no one is defining customer-centricity as technology… yet.

I think the answer is painfully simple: customer-centricity is in the eye of the beholder – the customer. If you’re providing the products, services, experiences and pricing that customers value, odds are they’ll consider your company customer-centric. At least, that’s what Dick Lee and David Mangen concluded in a CustomerThink-supported study a few years ago.

But every customer is different. For example, Apple is one of the world’s top brands and usually scored at or near the top of loyalty studies. Great products + great experiences = customer-centric, right?

Not for Maz Igbal and others (including me) who are disappointed if not outright disgusted with how Foxconn, an iPhone supplier in China, treats its workers. Maz recently wrote: “Apple is a great organisation and it fails greatly when it comes to Ethics.” To Maz, Apple is not customer-centric. Period.

Starbucks is another company that most consider customer-centric. But recently I felt let down by our local Starbucks. You see, several times a week my wife and I go for a walk in our neighborhood, and we usually buy a coffee and latte. I hate to add up our monthly bill, but I’m pretty sure it’s greater than my health club membership.

Anyway, since we tended to stop in the evening, we started noticing that about 30 minutes before the store officially closed, employees brought the tables and chairs from outside and piled them up inside the store. Frankly, it made the store look like “we’re closing” and customers weren’t welcome.

After a few experiences like this, I decided to do something about it. Starbucks prominently displays a feedback card “Share your thoughts with us” and listed a variety of ways to give feedback. Including, believe it or not, the personal name, phone, and email address of the district manager.

So I wrote a polite but pointed email to the manager one evening. I’m not going to post the entire email here, but here’s a key point I made:

“I feel that if we come into a store 10 minutes before closing, we should feel just as welcome as the middle of the day.”

Well, I’m happy to report I got an email response in less than 24 hours. He thanked me for the feedback and said he’d review with the store manager.

But it gets better. Not only did Starbucks listen, they did something. Fast!

That evening, and all the evenings since then (I checked) the tables and chairs were left outside until closing. And what do you know, there were customers actually using them!

Starbucks is customer-centric because it listened… to ME.


  1. Hi Bob, I am impressed with your Starbucks experience.

    Trader Joes is another example of customer delight, not only in their strategy, but most importantly in their execution.

    Ask them where a particular item is in the store and the associate will (actually must) walk with you to the product location.

    I was trying to find tomato juice once and they only had low sodium juice. They scoured the back room to find the product I desired… try that at Walmart!

    All the best and keep the stories of excellent customer engagement coming!

  2. Thanks, Dom. We love Trader Joe’s too. Interesting selection and nice people. Always a great experience.

  3. I see this all the time in the restaurant sector, but the most egregious example I ever encountered was at the local Wal-Mart. I drove the 15 minutes with plans to make a very specific, very quick purchase and was stopped at the door by an angry woman who said no more customers were allowed.

    The problem? It was 9:45PM. Not 10PM, the stated closing time. What happened to the rule that as long as you’re *IN* by closing, you’re good? What happened to doing everything reasonable to keep customers happy (especially when you KNOW that customer is about to make a purchase)?

    This type of occurrence is so common, in fact, that I now find myself ASKING staff if it’s “still cool” if I enter the store/restaurant and shop/order when closing time is within a half hour. As if I, a paying customer, should feel guilty about making the business run the way it is designed to run.

  4. Thanks for sharing this account, Bob. I would venture to guess that you feel even more loyal to Starbacks now than you would have been if the “premature store closing behaviors” had never happened at all. Am I right?

    This would be consistent with research showing that customers who experienced a problem with a company and got it resolved to their satisfaction became more loyal to that company than customers who never experienced a problem with that same company.

    Do you feel more inclined, even compelled, now to patronize this Starbucks because they responded to your feedback and the manner in which they did it, not because you feel you have to, but because you want to reward the behavior?

  5. No, I wouldn’t say that I’m more likely to patronize Starbucks than before. My consumption will probably stay about the same.

    However, I’m more likely to promote Starbucks as an advocate, which is one aspect of loyalty, no?

    However, if Starbucks had *not* listened and responded appropriately, I might have cut back my Starbucks habit. For a time, anyway.

    Other factors influencing my loyalty: Starbucks is more convenient than other coffee shops, and stays open later. These are also part of being “customer-centric” to me.

  6. Fair enough, Bob. And yes, I believe that promotion/advocacy is a component of loyalty – Reichheld’s research on customer loyalty and development of Net Promoter Score is anchored in that as well.

    Great discussion!


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