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Monday, July 1, 2013

Starbucks: Behind the Bar

Sometimes, as though the planets were all in alignment, a coincidence occurs that so marvels the mind that one cannot help but wonder whether something more is involved in some larger picture. Such is the case for me today regarding the illustrious Starbucks company. A story in the Wall Street Journal so fits what I want to write about that I cannot help but wonder if my message were meant to spread. In short, my story involves Starbucks warming milk and the Journal's involves the company cooling it. It is as if yin and yang were finally in balance, and yet I find myself in a state of disequilibrium with that company. Chaos theory tells us that order and chaos can indeed coexist. Perhaps this is the nature of life itself, or at least human society.
I have frequented Starbucks on a regular basis for many years. My initial impression was that the employees were too “scripted” to be genuine. I kept hearing the same set of phrases being applied as if fresh to various customers. "What can I get started for you?" I'm so interested in you. In getting to know some of the employees in two stores in particular, I discovered that the scripts can indeed be dropped, with real people emerging or crawling out unscathed as if the scripts were made of heavy armor. Today in fact, the three guys on duty at the Starbucks where I am writing this essay are so familiar to me that I engaged with them in discussing the gay pride parade that one of them had recently attended. Even though he did not "come out," I was surprised that he mentioned even that he had attended the parade. My own pleasant demeanor toward the three guys today surprised even myself. It was as though one hand didn’t know what the other was doing. I suspect this is the secret behind love thy enemies.
When I arrived at the Starbucks store today, I was in a rather bad mood concerning the company. I had had a rather enraging phone conversation earlier today with two employees in the company’s “customer service” department based in Seattle. In brief, the conversation concerned milk. Yes, that innocuous white liquid. I do not like coffee cooling down too quickly, you see, so I regularly ask that warm rather than the regular cold milk be added to my cup of coffee. The addition is to "top it off" rather than being so much as to change the drink to a café au lait. To situate my rather acrimonious call this morning, a little history on the "controversy" is needed.
A month ago, the manager of my local Starbucks café got tired of her employees doing pour-overs and adding a bit of steamed skim in exchange for what the company regularly charges for a cup of coffee, she impetuously ordered her new employee at the cash register to charge me 60 cents more for the steamed milk. Stunned by the "change of policy," I instinctively told the cashier, "forget the milk" and she took off the extra charge as the manager looked on. What could she say? A bit later, as the manager gave me the cup of coffee, I told her that there was no skim milk over at the condiment table. She grabbed a gallon of the milk and plopped it in front of me. Apparently, I could help myself to as much of it as I wanted with no extra charge! I could even have made a café au lait! After I got home, I called the customer service department. “You shouldn’t have to pay extra for wanting the milk warmed so your coffee won't cool too fast,” the representative said sympathetically. “As long as the milk is less than four ounces, the temperature doesn’t matter. I’ll have the district manager talk to that store manager. Let's just say you are not the only person who has complained about her.” I thanked the employee, adding that retaining a store manager with a bad attitude may be convenient for the company at the moment even as the enabling subtly undercuts Starbucks' long term viability.

In spite of the promise made by the customer service supervisor, I discovered three weeks later that the  store manager in question was  training new employees to charge extra for steaming even just a bit of milk! Encountering one of those employees, who fortunately was accommodating to me in removing the extra charge, I thought to myself, either the district manager did not even speak to the store manager about my complaint, or the manager had dismissed it out of hand. Either way, I felt that my concern had been ignored.
                                                                    Charging More for "Customized" Drinks
                          Is Starbucks short-changing itself in being too petty in charging customers for "extras?"     Image Source: Bloomberg

This brings us up to today. This morning I called Starbucks' customer service department yet again, speaking first to a rather know-it-all employee and then to his immediate supervisor. The two obviously communicated with each other while I was on hold to speak with the supervisor, for they both had virtually the same message: warming milk is considered a customization and thus subject to an extra charge even if the milk is less than four ounces. “But I was told that is not the case by another supervisor in your department three weeks ago!” I tried to explain to the supervisor.  “Who on my team was that?" she asked. "Your team?" I instinctively asked. "Yes, we are a team," she pressed. "Whomever you spoke with was wrong,” she added out even a pause. “You can’t be wrong?” I retorted. “No,” she answered definitively. “Well, I am getting different answers from you and your colleagues so I can’t take yours as definitive,” I said. She refused to accept this logic and again insisted that her interpretation of the company's policy was definitive. She could not be wrong. When I asked her for a way to contact her boss, she lied that the district manager of my local store is her boss. “Is there someone in Seattle, at the company headquarters, who oversees your department?” I asked with utter astonishment. “No, we stand alone,” she replied incredulously. She did finally provide me with an address, which, it turns out, just happens to be that of her own department! She must surely have thought I was as dumb as some farm animal. No boss. No broader division of the company in which her department resides. No accountability. 

The message to me was loud and clear: That front-line supervisor is infallible and I don't matter. Shocked that any company would have so much difficulty in getting it together on something as banal as deciding whether to charge extra for warming a bit of milk and that a “customer service” supervisor would refuse to put me in touch with her superior, not to mention even admit that she has a boss, I ended the call. The cocktail of arrogance and incompetence, and the obvious lack of accountability were just too rich for me to swallow. Starbucks is just begging to go out of business, I thought to myself.
It so happens that near where I happened to make the call this morning, a locally owned and managed coffee shop  was open, so I walked over and asked the employee on duty whether she would charge if I wanted a bit of milk warmed. “No,” she replied. Clearly, she was surprised to hear that any company could be so petty. I explained to her what was behind my investigation. Her surprise reinforced my own sense that something is very wrong at Starbucks. I assured her that I would be back once I have used up the remaining money on my Starbucks card. “I have had it with them,” I said fatalistically, and she nodded as if to say, I understand. “I’m not surprised that Starbucks would charge for such a small thing," she added, "but I am surprised at how the company has so mishandled your legitimate complaint,” she said. Vindication is sweet.
Walking out of the local coffee shop, I found myself wondering how unlikely it would be for me to find a current newspaper story critical of Starbucks that I could use as a basis to write an article of my own on my experience with the company. I headed over to Starbucks to use up the remaining money on my gold card. After chatting with the three guys working in the store, I discovered an article in today’s Wall Street Journal not merely on Starbucks, but more specifically on the topic of temperature. Jackpot!

“The chain is testing a new Cold Foam Mocha at some of its cafes in Nashville,” the journal reports.[1] Cold espresso is poured over the “cold foam” in a cup. Will customers be charged for the cooling of the foam? What if a customer asks for frozen foam? What about specifying dry or wet foam? How many price add-ons do you suppose could be applied to “an iced quad venti espresso Machiatto with soy milk, extra dry, extra ice, cold foam?” Should Starbucks take customization literally or selectively? The jargon itself strikes me as pretentious even for a chain that charges premium prices for a "fast food" process. How can such a model survive competitively?
The still larger question concerns how a company that has grown perhaps too large can be so profitable even as its managers miss the forest in focusing too narrowly on the trees. Starbucks made record profits in 2012. In 2013 as I write this essay, I could understand if my criticism of the company fell on deaf ears in the public sphere. Success speaks for itself, especially in America. Perhaps the question is more abstract: why is it that the inertia of the status quo—the value just in being part of the establishment—is so powerful that even the small-mindedness of puffed-up arrogance and dismissiveness can triumph? Put more concretely, how could such a badly-run chain have become so ubiquitous, so commonplace not just in North America, but globally?

Visiting Seattle some time ago, I was astonished when locals downtown urged me to bypass their native Starbucks for a couple local coffee shops. Starbucks is for the idiots out there. We in Seattle know better. This was the message from Starbucks' home turf.  

1, Julie Jargon, “From Molecular Gastronomy to a Starbucks Near You: Cold Foam,” The Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2013.