Starbucks Coffee. Image via bigstockphoto.com.

Starbucks Coffee. Image via bigstockphoto.com.

At first I used to enjoy giving myself fanciful names, because there’s nothing quite like listening to someone yell, “flat white for Nebuchadnezzar,” in a crowded Starbucks.

But the fun fell out of it when the staff began to recognize me, so they’d just ask, “and who are you today?”

This was last April, when Starbucks decided to encourage their staff to request the names of customers when taking orders and then announce them when the drinks were ready.

It was an attempt to manufacture authenticity – to artificially create the social bond that might naturally grow between a vendor and customer in a bygone era when local customers patronized local shops staffed by local employees and everybody was on a first-name basis.

Bringing back the “good old days”

This familiarity and sense of community is a powerful force. It’s one of the nostalgic aspects of the past that causes some people to believe that the “good old days” were a better time to be alive, having conveniently forgotten that the same past was also generally more racist, sexist and homophobic.

But as a person who viewed Starbucks’ move with cynicism, you can imagine my surprise when I came to the realization that it had worked.

A few weeks after the new policy was in place, I had forgotten how clunky and forced it had felt initially. My local branch was suddenly staffed by people whose names I knew and who (to varying degrees) knew mine as well.

Written versions of my name on the cup varied wildly from Ken to Trent, Kenneth and Clint, but there was definitely a connection there.

As time progressed, our connection grew and I realized that we now had a relationship that felt authentic. I cared about them and they cared about me, at least more than we had before the name game started; Starbucks had successfully manufactured authenticity.

Service vs. quality

Starbucks launched its naming policy in the U.K. in April 2012. Image by Kayes via Flickr.

Starbucks launched its naming policy in the U.K. in April 2012. Image by Kayes via Flickr.

Unfortunately for Starbucks’ shareholders, a superior – and genuinely local – coffee shop opened up just down the road a little while later.

These new kids on the block didn’t give two hoots about my name. In fact, they were almost indifferent to my patronage, but damn, could they make a good coffee.

There was no sense of community, but the warm fuzzy feeling of an excellent flat white trumped the warm fuzzy feeling of a mediocre flat white made by someone who thinks my name is Trent. So I defected to the new shop where I’ve gone ever since.

Then, in the aftermath of the December break, I returned to work and was shocked to find my new coffee dealer was still closed for the holidays. I sheepishly returned to Starbucks, expecting to be welcomed back to the store by teary staff, overjoyed at my return.

But not only did no one recognize me at the big green mermaid, no one’s name was being requested or announced.

The staff were the same, some of them even sporting the old name badges, but gone was the familiarity, the camaraderie and the community.

I haven’t been back since and this was only one store, so I wouldn’t consider this a rigorous, scientific appraisal of Starbucks’ customer service policy. But it did teach me a couple of things:

  • You can manufacture authenticity, but it takes effort, focus and consistency;

and

  • Even if you create a better experience, you’ll occasionally lose out to a superior product.

My regular coffee shop is back open now and they seem to have come back from the holidays even more caustic and unwelcoming than they were when they left.

They could certainly teach Starbucks about how to make an absolutely banging flat white, but they can learn a thing or two from Starbucks as well, namely:

  • Focusing on your customers is never a waste of time, but you have to keep at it;

and

  • Anyone who calls himself Nebuchadnezzar is nothing but trouble.