Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz there are a few bewildered coffee reporters calling out a different reality because they are caught up with Rachel Woldoff, Dawn Lozzi, and Lisa Dilks’ interesting sociological research based on three Starbucks and three Independent Coffee Shops in Boston. According to these reporters, the sociologist's discoveries somehow lead to a conclusion proclaiming Starbucks as the proven winner over independent coffee shops in all things related to customer service. Albeit limited in scope in terms of defining the multifaceted layers of what it means to provide excellent customer service, these sociologists’ research challenges the old ideals of Ray Oldenburg’s understanding of a healthy community’s need for a third place, and begs an answer to the age old question for the 21st century independent coffee house: Identity. An identity challenged by the demands of providing a quality product and outstanding customer service amidst the complexities of human needs and wants.
Watched an elderly couple ordering at the Coffee Studio in Meridian, ID. They were asking for what kind of iced drink they should order from the barista. They “always” have something hot and thought they would “try something new” that day because it was going to be over 100 degrees for “the fifth day in a row.” The barista must have asked five or six different questions to both of them of what they preferred in an iced drink (they had several board choices and he took the time to create something they wanted, something unique). He commented on their life and how good it was to see them. The couple’s interaction was meaningful and genuine. It took time to place the order and create it. He told them, “If it’s not what you wanted, bring it back and we’ll try something else.” Crowning Starbucks as the great and powerful Oz behind quality customer service vs. the independent coffee shop’s courageous, heartfelt, and reasonable extra efforts to provide great customer service based on these limited conclusions will always favor Oz. That is not fair to independents or to Starbucks.
The sociologist’s method is about challenging the old ideas of a third place that ultimately lead toward their findings of what they call “new third place needs.” What would be fascinating is to use Woldoff, Lozzi, and Dilks’s approach in cities and towns all over North America and see the results. My humble, accurate, and not so sociological opinion based on their system is that each demographic will prove Starbucks a winner 80% of the time because their process favors big box stores delivering what a customer wants (free WiFi, enough space for work, leisure, and discussions, identical coffee choices at every store) as opposed to also meeting customer needs. Excellent customer service provides for both, and will go the extra moment to create a product while genuinely recognizing you, engaging you in the moment, and that meets a need.
Evaluating and critiquing the customer service of each independent coffee shop as if they all operate under the same homogenous classification as Starbucks (whose branding desperately demands homogeneity to promote their brand success) is like comparing a the city of Oz to small town in Kansas. They have their similarities and there are enormous differences. Many big box stores (Home Depot, Starbucks, Marriott) claim customer service as their specialty and go to incredible lengths to train their employees toward offering their brand’s understanding of what customer service means in relation to their brand (“Make sure the store is Grand Opening ready everyday before we open,” one of many Home Depot statements promoting their vision of providing the best customer service in the world). An individual coffee shop’s existence (and any entrepreneur in the service industry) depends on meeting the obligations and desires of every individual who comes through the door every day.
Often times the experience of an independent coffee shop is as unique and great as you, and you do not have to go to Oz to find it.
Dr. Tom Lobaugh