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Saturday, November 20, 2010

How well does your experience respond to its environment?

I see my share of airport terminal Starbucks, and always marvel about their dramatic demand variance. It seems I’m just as often to walk up to am open counter with three baristas attending to me alone as I am to join a line fifteen deep.

It’s the latter scenario where I tend to pay more attention, watching how teams react. Often, they’ll send one member, equipped with a headset and note-pad pre-printed with drink options, out from behind the counter and into the waiting line. She / he will then walk the line, taking orders, relaying them back to the counter via the headset, writing the Starbucks shorthand on the pad and handing the waiting customer a ticket to give to the cashier.

It’s an operational change that allows them to increase throughput, using time spent in line taking advance orders to eliminate the exchange that usually happens when the customer reaches the counter. I’ve heard a few fellow caffeine “enthusiasts” scoff at necessity of the high-tech headgear, but it’s great practice for both its real and perceptual effects.

The real operational impact is that the process makes Starbucks faster, allowing them to serve more customers (and take in more money) in a shorter amount of time. This in itself likely makes the practice worthwhile.

As tangible as those impacts are, the perceptual impacts may add up to something just as significant.

The approach divides the time between service activities and makes the line wait seem shorter. I don’t notice I’ve been in line 7 minutes if my order was taken 90 seconds ago.

They demonstrate process flexibility by modifying their operation to fit their demand minute-by-minute. While doing it, they provide tangible proof of their order customization by involving the customer in a direct role - providing the formatted order sheet to the counter staff.

Starbucks’ flexibility shows their responsiveness to their customers. Responsiveness is tough to measure at the best of times, usually incompletely measured as how fast a request meets a reply. It is that, but flexibility and customization also factor into responsiveness, and in modifying the service experience during heavy demand periods, Starbucks wins on all fronts.


Ted Coiné said...

Chris, you're right on the money - and as you point out, it isn't just the money of more transactions per hour. Their ability to speed the long along in a real sense is important, and as a customer I appreciate that tremendously. ...Especially because when I want my coffee fix, I want my coffee fix!

But much more important than actual haste is the psychological effect you outline, from breaking the wait up to including me in the Starbucks process with that little slip of paper. It isn't just the process, either. It's also just plain showing that they care and want to do something, anything(!), to help speed the line along.

I criticize Starbucks plenty when they deserve it, and they often deserve it. They often deserve praise, too. Great example of one such case.

Chris Reaburn said...

Thanks for the comment Ted!

Starbucks has certainly had their growing pains, trying to rapidly grow from a service quality-based startup to the most recongnized brand on the planet.

Some aspects of their execution have been very consistent over time, while others have waxed & waned as strategy changed.

One aspect that remains relatively consistent is their mastery of the physical environment where the service takes place. It's an underrated service aspect, and a difficult one to get right, but they consistently demonstrate that they understand the interactions that occur when customers are in the store - whether they're engaging the service, interacting with employees or other customers, or not interacting with anyone.