I’ve spent a few days thinking about another blogger’s article entitled “Why Starbucks Lost a Customer,” written by Jamison Combs.  The crime in that article is not the content but the unforgiving title which quickly creates a spirited knee-jerk reaction in many.  Many people are not able to see past the harsh endpoint (a customer who states they are not coming back), and look at the meaningful discussion of what is the “Starbucks Experience,” and even more importantly, the implicit discussion of what should be the yard stick to know that we are getting it right.  One single customer lost from the sixty million a week never sounds like a big deal.

I’m sure that I could stop going to Starbucks, (and my readers too) and there would be no financial consequence to Starbucks.  My monthly Starbucks budget makes no difference to a billion dollar corporation.  Therein lies the unfortunate blog title of  “Why Starbucks Lost a Customer

The core discussion of what is the spirit of the Starbucks experience, and who is personally accountable is the difficult conversation that should be looked at.  Additionally, conversations about what is happening with the Starbucks experience inside the stores will occasionally make partners feel defensive, and those defensive feelings occasionally thwart the meaningful conversations that must be had.

Allow me to back up and recap some of the salient points of the Jamison Combs article:  Mr. Combs is a Starbucks customer in South Carolina.  (My apologies if I have incorrectly guessed that Jamison Combs is a “he.”)  He went to a Starbucks and discovered that his local baristas were no longer handwriting drink orders and names on cups.  This store in South Carolina now used a label maker.  He believed that the personal touch of his Starbucks had gone missing, and called his local store a “glorified McDonalds.”  Ultimately, Mr. Combs met with the store’s district manager and learned that Starbucks had not changed their policy as a whole, but rather his store had adopted a label maker.  He writes, “Guess my passion for the company is a bit high.”

Whether Mr. Combs is really lost as a customer, I will never know.  What I know is that we need customers with such passion for the company:  They can help make it a better business if we’re really willing to think about big picture issues.

And now  some commentary:  Over one year ago I wrote an article called, “Deconstructing the Starbucks Experience into Three Pieces.”  In short, I described that the Starbucks experience was the sum total of (1) the quality of the drink plus (2) the theater and romance plus (3) the felt-sense connection between barista and customer.   The gravamen of Mr. Comb’s blog post really is the loss of the theater and romance of the Starbucks experience and some of the opportunity of the felt-sense connection.

Many people think, “Who cares? If we install label printers in every store, things will go faster.”  Not every single customer is motivated by a faster drink.  The Starbucks Experience is the sum of all its pieces.  If you remove a piece, one by one, you remove the experience.  The challenge is that many people cannot see any reason not to change one small little thing, but all those small little things add up.  The Starbucks Experience IS the sum of its parts. It is something akin to this:  Starbucks Experience = clean store + smiling baristas + baristas genuinely interested in connecting with customers + a speed of service that is neither too slow nor too hasty that something is missed + a handwritten order on a cup + a handcrafted beverage + a passion for coffee + knowledgeable partners + ethical sourcing + community involvement … plus much more.  As Howard Schultz is famous for saying, “Retail is in the details.”

Rather than focusing on just the label maker, the larger question is the opportunity to ask: “What is the yard stick that every single Starbucks measures themselves up against?”  Does Starbucks hope to be a little better than the McDonald’s down the road?  In my humble opinion,  if each and every Starbucks believes that the yard stick is the level of care and theater and romance and drink perfection to be found at 1912 Pike Place, then they have their eyes set upon the gold standard.

The heart of the Starbucks Experience must be preserved.  I am not actually stating whether there should or should not be handwritten drink cups.  That’s not the relevant conversation.  The relevant conversation is ‘Does this affect the experience?’ and ‘how, when, and why can label makers be introduced or should they be introduced at all into the stores?’  Looking back to the thoughts on the yardstick we measure ourselves by, ‘how would you feel if you walked into 1912 Pike Place and the partner slapped a drink label on the cup?’

I am still not suggesting whether there should or should not be label makers at Starbucks.  From what I have been told about my local area of Starbucks (downtown Seattle), the policy is that no label makers are used on drink cups in cafe stores.  Label makers are permitted to be used at the drive through.  My gut intuition is that this is probably the right answer for this issue of label makers:  Drive thrus, yes.  Cafes, no.

Handwritten cup orders are a very meaningful thing for lots of customers beside Mr. Combs.  By the way, I know that once in a while I am absolutely charmed by what I will find written on my cup.  A barista in Austin, TX made my day, with “Welcome to Austin” on my cup when I visited her store.  Handwritten cups has come up as an issue at MyStarbucksIdea.com on many occasions:

And lastly, who is accountable for the Starbucks Experience?  The Experience always happens at the level of one customer at a time.  I’ll quote Howard Schultz, who in this segment was talking about his return as the corporation’s CEO in 2008:

I think what I was trying to do was to get everyone to understand that it’s not about Howard Schultz; it’s not about thousands of stores.  It’s about one store, one extraordinary cup of coffee, and a comprehensive commitment by everyone who wears a green apron – the most important people in our company – to do everything we can to exceed the expecations of our customers.


I think rather than think about this in terms of whether Mr. Combs did or did not leave Starbucks as a customer, we should thank him for opening up the door to important conversations about what is happening in the stores.  Reasonable minds may differ on whether there should be label makers in a Starbucks.  The quality of the Starbucks Experience, however, should be the same whether you are in South Carolina, or happen to live in downtown Seattle.

The End.