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The Starbucks customer experience: A work in progress

25th Jun 2008
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Several months ago I expressed my confidence in Starbucks' ability to reinvigorate its flagging customer experience. My belief was rooted in Starbucks’ customer-centric DNA and its commitment to reconnect with customers who were increasingly disenfranchised with the company’s experience. Although the jury is still out on Starbucks’ customer experience redesign efforts, there is much to be learned, even in this short period, from those steps that the company has already taken.

From the outset, I must commend Starbucks on not implementing 'lipstick on the pig' initiatives. This classification is reserved for strategies and initiatives that serve to mask a systemic problem with a façade, often in the form of emotional advertising, press releases, memos and posters – all without any actual follow through.

"Starbucks recognises that the process of redesigning its customer experience is a journey that will take time, effort and resources."

While these strategies and initiatives might realise immediate but brief gain, they are only likely to aggravate the underlying challenges and alienate the very customers that these companies are trying to attract and retain. Customers are unimpressed with slick advertising campaigns or promotions that over promise and under deliver – the typical outcome of lipstick on the pig initiatives

Starbucks understood that its problems could not be addressed with cosmetic changes and set about identifying, acknowledging and addressing systemic challenges to its customer experience.

  • Redesigning the core product – The company (unlike most others) took a courageous step of recognising that the actual product needed improvement. Following this admission, the company launched a new brand of coffee, The Pike Street Roast, which combined a new and rejuvenated taste with a new look and feel to the cups.
  • Reconnecting with customers – Starbucks established a portal ( to build a more intimate relationship with its customers. Through this portal, customers can post, rank and discuss ideas regarding what the coffee purveyor should do to offer a more compelling value proposition and customer experience. Starbucks has already implemented a number of these suggestions including newly introduced in store, free wi-fi service, and its loyalty card.
  • Continue innovating – Despite its exponential growth and financial success, the company remains humble and true to its roots of seeking innovative ideas to improve its customer experience. Nothing is ever too small or insignificant for innovation. My favorite is the new green spill stopper called the splash stick. The company introduced the splash stick to prevent its customers from spilling coffee through the little hole in the coffee cup’s cover. While the introduction of the splash stick will not solve the company’s core challenges or generate additional revenue, it illustrates to customers that the company cares about them, listens to their concerns and acts on their suggestions.
  • Admitting your mistakes and moving on – One idea that diluted the company’s experience was the hot breakfast menu. Bacon sandwiches would leave an unpleasant smell during preparation, overwhelming the coffee aroma, which was so central to the in-store experience. Despite the financial implications, Starbucks decided to eliminate the hot breakfast menu in order to stay true to its original experience promise. This decision and many like them, takes a degree of courage seldom seen in today’s corporate environment.
  • Small touches make a difference – I recently noticed flat screens in some stores displaying the songs being played over the in-store sound system. The company’s goal is to connect and familiarise its customers with the songs its stores play, so that they can become part of the larger Starbucks experience. Through this initiative, Starbucks stores not only become a more familiar and personal place, but also a venue of discovering new tunes – rejuvenation through coffee and music!

Starbucks recognises that the process of redesigning its customer experience is a journey that will take time, effort and resources. The company understands that while it will have successes, there will undoubtedly be failures. Above all, Starbucks recognises that there is no magic pill or secret formula that will solve its challenges over night. For the company to be successful (in its customer redesign efforts), it will have to openly and honestly evaluate every aspect of the value proposition and determine which among them necessitates change.

The customer experience is based on many building blocks. All touch points matter as they influence the customer through their experiences. Indeed, every touch point has the potential to create an amazing and differentiated experience. These experiences can be as mundane as preventing customer frustration resulting from coffee spills, or as exhilarating as introducing a new song (and the customer bragging rights associated with “discovering it first”). Judging by the direction and speed of Starbucks’ customer redesign efforts, I am confident that the company will continue on this exciting path and regain its position as a customer experience vanguard.

Join Lior at the Customer Experience Management Certification Program.

Recent articles by Lior Arussy


Lior Arussy is the president of Strativity Group and the author of several books. His new book is Excellence Every Day: Make the Daily Choice-Inspire Your Employees and Amaze Your Customers (Information Today, Inc. April, 2008). To learn more about customer strategies, visit


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