Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Improving processes doesn't always improve customer service

I had to smile when I read a post by Scott Francis this morning, on how a process improvement at Starbucks had actually ruined his experience and enjoyment of buying coffee there, and slowed down the process at the same time.

I can sympathize with Scott in his tale, where the process improvement has made it less important for the staff to know their customers, since they are more fixated with tapping the order into the screen of the register than talking to the customer and remembering their name and obscure order. When you're a regular, it promotes a nice feeling to have you and your vague coffee-mocha-concoction remembered. But partial automation of the order taking process removes that human touch just a little more. Screen fixation is common enough when talking to people at any age who have grown up around PCs, so its kind of refreshing to get service that does force people back into that mode. Starbucks appears to have broken that.

Frankly, Starbucks is about volume. The kids working in the store probably don't earn a huge amount, and their benefits probably barely eat into a busy store's margin. So should Starbucks be gradually automating them out of the picture? Should they be aiming for a point where you tap your own order into a screen at the door, and pick it up from a faceless vending machine slot further down the line (because there is no reason that the register and the coffee machine can't be integrated, since the machine is mostly push button anyway)? That is not what people are paying for, but could be easily achieved if profitability per coffee is the only desire.

I wonder if Starbucks took any of the advice of the process improvement experts talking about simulation (which I blogged about a little yesterday) - they have a repeatable process that is prime for simulation, but did they test a hypothesis for a new process just on paper or in software, or did they try the new proposed approach in a range of stores, not just the poorest performing? Based on Scott's feedback, the process improvements actually destroy the performance of a well performing store. Perhaps Starbucks could have looked at a range of improvements - like getting rid of the floor blocking 'gift displays', that nobody buys stuff from, putting in an extra service spot for a real, intelligent human being earning little more than the wage of any other service job, but happy to have some more cash to buy beer in the next college semester. The ROI on that could perhaps have been instant, compared with the cost of installing a sticker printer and retraining staff to be less personal in their customer relationships.

Process improvement can be a driver for better customer service - but it seems that there is a breakpoint. Replacing poor service due to long waits and lost customer information with a good workflow helps customers no end. Replacing the human touch that people still sometimes desire with more and more automation actually takes it too far, and we can all see through the fact that better customer service is no longer the driver - cutting costs is.

A post from the Improving It blog

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