No one can question the phenomenal success of Starbucks. With over 2,000 stores worldwide, the company has created what it calls a “Third Space” between home and office in which to enjoy great coffee and other treats.

This is great, but I would contend that Starbucks has opportunities to improve the customer experience, and very little of it has to do with the product itself.

Here's a recent experience (my own).

Saturday, 11 a.m.: You walk in, and there's a long line. But you decide to wait because you're looking forward to a good cup of spicy chai tea. (I'm a Brit, what can I say?)

You move down the line, eyeing the mouth-watering treats, but resist in an effort to stay strong. The server makes eye contact with you. “Can I help you?” she shouts to be heard over the noise. You order, “Chai Latte Grande with skimmed milk.”

She doesn't hear you very well, so you repeat your order, raising your voice and feeling a little conspicuous, “Chai Latte Grande with skimmed milk.” She hollers to her colleague, “Grande Skim Chai.” You feel a bit silly, because you didn't say it the same way.

You pay your money and then move down to the serving area, but you're not quite sure where to wait. There are others waiting, so you back into a “free space” and try to blend in.

You're trying to remember how she described your order (which is different from what you thought you were ordering). You look and listen intently. You're looking for visual clues, eyeing others for validation. Drinks come up in pairs or more, but you ordered only one drink. Then up comes a medium-sized cup and the server calls, “Grande Skim Chai.” You think that sounds right. You lean forward to take the cup but he swings round and says, “And a Tall Mocha Latte.” Oops, not yours, so you quickly back off.

Eventually, your order appears and you grab it, hastily. Wait a minute… it doesn't feel very hot! You take a sip. You're right, it's only warm, and you think, “No way am I paying $4 for a drink that's not even hot.”

So you tell the server. You expect him to say, “Sorry, sir, let me replace that for you.” But instead you're met with, “Oh, really?” (As if you're lying!) He grudgingly takes the cup from you and pours it down the sink. Clearly, he's disgruntled and his body language suggests you're being a “difficult” customer. So not only do you have to suffer through this uncomfortable process, but now you have to deal with an attitude from “some kid.”

Eventually, the new hot Grande Skim Chai arrives and you make a beeline for the exit. As you leave the premises, you can actually feel your sigh of relief, “Phew!” You take a sip of your Chai, which is welcome, but in the back of your mind you're asking yourself, “Is it really worth going through all of that?” Surely, Starbucks could make this experience less stressful.

Most of what I describe is personal and emotional, with very little to do with the product itself. After all, Starbucks does make great coffee and chai. But as you go through similar experiences, you can hear yourself asking: “Why don't they do it this way, or that way? Why is there a disconnect between the descriptions on the board and how their drinks are described by their staff? Why can't the waiting area be more disciplined?”

By breaking down my Starbucks experience into the 3 Ps: People, Process and Product, we can begin to see where expectations are not being met:

  Expectation Performance Score*
People Polite, attentive, groomed Loud, stressed, sometimes rude


Process Simple, orderly Confusing, threatening, uncomfortable


Product Spicy, hot Spicy, warm (hot, eventually)


* 1 = Highly dissatisfied; 4 = Highly satisfied


A touchpoint analysis uses focus groups and other research methods to understand customer expectations, both physical and emotional, at different points in the buying process. From this, a company can assess its performance at each of these touchpoints and recommend ways to narrow the gap.

More importantly, however, it is often during this process that exciting ways to differentiate and exceed expectations at the most critical touchpoints will surface. While the initial goal may be to deliver consistently against your brand promise, with the right facilitation some great ideas will surface to provide a superior customer experience.

I use the term “superior customer experience” because often it's simply not good enough to satisfy your customers. Research by Forum indicates that “80% of customers who change suppliers say they were satisfied with their previous supplier.” The goal, then, needs to be to find ways to deliver a great customer experience around your product or service, the key to building customer advocacy.

Furthermore, customer expectations can be set—some may say unfairly—by other product categories. For example, if you're at the airport and the check-in line is long, you may ask why the airline doesn't open another desk, because in your local grocery store they open another checkout as soon as the line gets more than three deep.

Taking up the Starbucks example again, let's see what others are doing in their category to address the performance issues that we identified in our 3P analysis:

  • People: Pret A Manger hires staff only after they have been interviewed by the very people in the store with whom they will be working . Here's how, on its Web site, Pret A Manger describes its approach to employees:

We are equally passionate about the people we employ…we employ people with personality who we think have the potential to give genuinely good service—people who like mixing with other people, who are good-humored and like to enjoy themselves.

In a retail sector where high staff turnover is normal, we're pleased to say our people are much more likely to stay around! Our policy towards our people has won a number of accolades, including being rated by Fortune magazine as one of the Top 10 Companies to work for in Europe.

  • Process: Recent trials of self-service terminals by McDonalds have increased sales volume and profitability significantly as a result of the improved customer experience. Customers using these terminals are actually ordering more products compared with those speaking to a server. Because the ordering process is more efficient, wait times are down: i.e., food is served faster. How long will it be before Starbucks follows suit and deploys similar technology to deliver a better customer experience?

  • Product: There's no question that Starbucks makes a great product. But it is not without competitors, old and new, that are willing to offer similar products at a lower price. For example, it will be interesting to see what success Dunkin' Donuts has with recent additions to their lineup: lattes, espressos and cappuccinos.

Consider this quote from a recent press release:

“We are revolutionizing the way New Yorkers experience lattes and cappuccinos; our real espresso-based beverages will be served with democratic sensibility, priced reasonably and without long waits,” stated Jon L. Luther, CEO, Allied Domecq Quick Service Restaurants, home of Dunkin' Donuts. “Our real and authentic lattes and cappuccinos are the perfect complement to our quality coffee, the best-selling coffee-by-the-cup in America, and we expect the new offerings to tempt existing customers and attract new loyalists.”

Interestingly, my recent Dunkin' Donuts cappuccino was very hot, very fast, very good AND cheaper! But then, Dunkin' Donuts is a very different customer experience, and in the end it takes a lot more than a good cup of coffee to build customer advocacy!

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Chris Verlander is a principal with TouchPoint Experience (, based in Weston, CT.