What your SME can learn from Starbucks


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Yes, you read that right. Your small or medium-sized enterprise can most certainly learn a thing or two from Starbucks. The coffee-chain megacorp famously started out as a single store back in 1971, and grew to become a behemoth employing more than 150,000 people in 55 countries, with more than $13 billion in revenue in 2012. Even if your aim is not to become the next be-all and end-all in the coffee world, here are a few things that the company can teach you.

Starbucks doesn’t sell coffee

Could have fooled you, huh? When you go to Starbucks, coffee is what you usually buy. But what you’re really buying into is the whole experience. Sometimes you might be craving, say, a non-fat frappuccino with extra whipped cream and chocolate sauce, and only that will do. But what customers generally get from Starbucks is the whole experience. It’s a place to take a moment for yourself, in a predictably comfortable environment. You know exactly what sort of feeling you are going to get there, and that’s what the company is really selling you. Oh, and the barista is going to shout your name when your coffee is ready for pickup.

Your website is the equivalent of a Starbucks branch; it’s the environment that your business is offering. Put thought and effort into constructing your website. Good websites don’t necessarily cost megabucks (though quality doesn’t come cheap), but the details are important. When you visit Starbucks, every aspect of the experience – from the colour of the paint and chairs, right down to the music played in the store – has been carefully selected. If you have a webshop, curate your goods carefully and ensure that each product you offer projects exactly the image you have in mind. If you sell a service, put extra care into composing your text. Make your site a place that customers want to come to. Make it a wonderfully familiar hangout, where they truly enjoy spending time.

Starbucks sees its customers

While you may have been to a Starbucks where the server was having an off-day, I’m sure it’s fairly rare. I’ve chatted with Starbucks employees in branches from Los Angeles to Madrid (to Amsterdam’s Oud-Zuid), and the one thing they all had in common was that they really spoke to me. To me as an individual. They acknowledged my existence. They saw me.

When giving customer service online you’re not in a position to comment on a customer’s brooch or make a remark about the weather. But there are still plenty of cues you can take from the email which will up the personal factor. Most obviously, the customer’s location. If you know anything about it, you can add a mention. I get this one a lot: “Oh, I love Amsterdam! I had a lovely holiday there last year.” As in real life, the trick is to do this without sounding fake. If you genuinely care about your clients, this interest will show through in your writing.

Starbucks changes face every season

Starbucks has become famous for its Pumpkin Spice Latte, a seasonal product available for only three months of the year. Tumblr and Instagram are full of photos and jokes about the popular drink, and vegans have even been campaigning for a vegan-friendly version. In December, Starbucks cafes are decorated for the holidays, and of course there are different types of coffee and snacks on offer at different times of year.

Selling seasonal products is fraught with dangers for retailers, who have to be careful not to end up with unwanted stock. But if you can come up with a concept which your customers will associate with your business, you’ll avoid that trap. A few bits of clip art added to your website won’t cut it. Try extra seasonal offers, or wrapping paper or boxes which vary according to the time of year if you sell tangible items. Get your team together and start brainstorming for extra-special seasonal ideas which will be unique to your business.

Starbucks loves its employees

Coming in at number 73 on Fortune’s 2012 list of best companies to work for, Starbucks is famous for offering health care to its part-time employees in the US, a country in which affordable health insurance is not always easy to come by. I’m sure there are considerable down sides to working there (as with any job), but Michael Gates Gill didn’t call his 2007 memoir How Starbucks Saved My Life for nothing.

Depending on your location, health care benefits might be either unnecessary or economically unfeasible, but the point behind them remains: employees who feel valued give better customer service. By offering appropriate perks to your customer service staff – whether they be a company iPhone 5 for working remotely, or cupcakes in the office every Friday afternoon – you’ll ensure that the good vibes are passed along to your customers.