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How customer service and Starbucks are killing conversation

One of the defining activities of human beings is conversation. We like to talk to one another, and do it often.

In our interactions with companies, our conversations have become increasingly, and insidiously, scripted. When we call “customer service”, we’re put in contact with someone who has been told how to talk to us, and is discouraged from veering off-script. And when we try to have a human conversation with them, we get what are clearly canned responses (especially if we’re expressing dissatisfaction with a product or service).

Actually, though, we’re now happy to get a human, even if it’s scripted, because the increasingly typical first line of response for a phone call is Interactive Voice Response, where we’re expected to talk our way through a series of menus. Such systems became famous for pissing off customers, and so they were programmed to respond to the use of profanity by getting you to a human. At the outset, this was, in a small way, joyous, because it actually felt like we were being heard. But recently I’ve realized I will swear or yell at an IVR at the outset, because I know it will trigger the system to connect me with a person. Which means I’ve been programmed by IVRs in how to behave. The IVRs have co-opted us.

Many conversational spaces have been shaped in this way. The one that probably irks me most is the Starbucks ordering process, which was broken down by the folks at Dubberly Design. That article lauds this approach as one that works for “beginners” as well as “aficionados” of Starbucks. I find it diabolical, because Starbucks essentially dehumanizes the conversation between the customer and barista, turning it into a programmatic code. For a company that claims it’s all about the customers’ experiences, it’s disheartening how they make the primary interaction between humans one that could take place between robots.

Designers are taught to shape environments and tools to support their users’ behaviors and desires, but oftentimes this leads to over-specifying in an attempt to “optimize” an experience. This leads to static, stagey, and ultimately unfulfilling engagement, where we realize we are expected to play a role, and cannot just be ourselves. The challenge for experience designers is to specify just enough to support a good interaction between customer and company, but also allow for the emergent and irreplaceable spark that can occur between people.


  1. The scripted/branding aspect of the Starbucks experience is exactly why I avoid it as much as possible. Every time I ordered a medium or small, the barista pushed back and *forced* me to order by the Starbucks branded name (whatever silly replacement names they have). I didn’t realize at the time that what I found so offensive about the experience was just this dehumanizing piece, the fact that a medium had to be a vente (or what-fing-ever). It removed my power to communicate as I wished to communicate.

  2. I disagree. I think the programmatic aspect of the Starbucks ordering process provides a starting point and some structure to what can end up being a pleasant conversation.

    The starbucks that i frequent is one of the few in NYC with a Clover machine, and that has spurred many conversations between the baristas and curious customers.

    they’re also very receptive to questions about the different options, the coffee blends, and so on.

    As with anything else, the situation iswhat you make it. If you choose to treat the ordering process as ‘say your size say your drink say your customization then step aside’ then thats all it will be. Be pleasant and curious and you’ll get conversation. don’t blame starbucks if you’re not doing this.

  3. I’ve tweeted my praise of Howard Schultz, and I spend much more time in Starbucks than I could have ever imagined (given that I much prefer Peets coffee). But I’ve watched baristas at work a lot, particularly in the early hours of the morning when they first open (5am most days, at least where I go), and I’ve noticed the many pages of instructions and checklists that they go through on a daily basis. While much/most/all of those might have little to do with the conversation you are addressing in your post, what I observed, combined with the programmatic nature of so much of our interaction (which has seemed odd, given that we should be best of friends by now), made me wonder about the extent to which working at Starbucks is thoroughly programmed and not all that “human” (though the interaction among them is certainly not like that).

    I hope some (former) Starbucks baristas will read your post and comment on this. I’d ask “my” baristas to do so, but…

  4. I think “allow[ing] for the emergent and irreplaceable spark that can occur between people” (nicely phrased, BTW) is more a challenge for businesses than for designers – a consequence of the considerable emphasis in conventional business thinking on creating systems characterized by ‘industrial’ virtues such as standardization, repeatability, predictability, manageability, economy of scale, etc.

    That is a simplification – of course not all business is like this in every way – but in this case I think the kernel of truth manifests clearly. Design (interaction and otherwise) having strong roots in industrial soil, often ‘inherits’ the above virtues either directly (by aiming to ‘optimize’ using industrial criteria as the measuring stick) or indirectly (by not actively working to realize different kinds of experiences), and then creates experiences within those bounds.

    Given that people mostly don’t like to be placed in the role of robots, businesses that find a way to offer interactions that are rewarding, idiosyncratic, engaging (full of that irreplaceable human spark) – will likely do well in the long run.

    What’s interesting as a question is how to position and tune design to act as a change catalyst; one that enables designers, and the businesses they work in / with / for, to consider a broader range of characteristics as virtuous.

    [Likely all that was implied in your post, but I think it’s worthwhile to look upstream, and in this case the fingerprints of ‘industrial’ perspectives seem clear, and worth calling out.]

  5. My goodness. I’m sorry to be a bit blunt, but I think you’re twisting this ridiculously out of proportion, making a mountain out of a molehill.

    I just read the article re: Starbucks you’ve linked to, and I discovered what appears to be an oh-so-diabolical set of tactics to encourage/subtlely help customers learn a specific ordering language.

    Certainly one could debate the merits of Starbucks ordering language. Personally, I find it annoying. But I also find it to be nearly 100% orthogonal to my conversation with the Starbucks baristas.

    To claim that interactions regarding product nomenclature precludes authentic conversation beyond is, at best, stretching, at worst, disingenuous IMHO. Sure, I’m just one data point, and no, I don’t go to Starbucks all that often (maybe 5-6 times a year), but I can recall off the top of my head a number of friendly and certainly unscripted conversations relating to travel, music, San Francisco… and not coffee, much less the ordering of it.

    Also, I take issue with your over-the-top griping about IVR. Sometimes, as one of those comic strip artists once penned, “We have met the enemy and the enemy is us.” Sure, many IVR systems are poorly designed. Many organizations poorly train or poorly staff their customer service departments. But — speaking as someone who had the misfortune of a summer job doing customer service — I can share with you the flip side: customers who are ignorant, lazy and rude.

    Perhaps if more people took the ten seconds to search on the web for information or read the Getting Started guide for their expensive new product, they wouldn’t have to take up valuable and expensive time from real people, who could then spend their valuable time actually helping people with issues that admittedly *aren’t* effectively tackled with ten seconds of Googling. And frankly, I’d rather get a higher cashback bonus from my credit card vs subsidizing the idiots who pester the customer service folks to read them their current balance.

  6. why are you buying $5 milkshakes – on a daily basis?
    buy a good coffee / espresso system and save your humanity and $1000/year.

  7. So I guess the moral of the story here is to swear more in Starbucks…

  8. Having worked at a few call centers over the years, I found that the majority of callers treat you as subhuman.

    I was insulted on a daily basis, despite all efforts to be polite. Customers shouting and swearing at the smallest of problems was constant. In fact, if you actually got a polite customer, it made your day.

    Call centers do not work, whether run by humans or machines; and companies don’t just install machines to make it efficient, they do it often to protect their staff from that initial barrage of abuse.

    Call centers don’t work. Yet, there is nothing out there to replace them.

  9. The whole scripting thing goes against everything we think of as being desirable, but I don’t think it is necessarily the case. You need to look at it from the point of view of the company and what they’re trying to give you — they want you to have not just a good, but a consistently good experience. They want to be sure that every time you go in to Starbucks you know exactly what to expect. That is so important — imagine the damage it would do to your perception of Starbucks if one time you went in and had an amazing conversation with a member of staff who seemed really interested in you, but the next time you went in another person was totally disinterested and barely said a word. The impact would be profound, and they might lose you as a customer as a result. This way might seem ‘less human’, but it’s actually more human in many ways, because it panders to our need for predictability.

  10. Adrian what you are talking abt is what i like to call ‘people skills’ where you can engage a person for a while. this is extremely important.

    However the scripted response (when u r dissatisfied) in an attempt to minimize damage actually aggravates the feeling and the company ends up suffering more damages.

  11. Peter, you know that I, too, am a devotee of conversation and I agree that scripts are the enemies of great interactions unless the roles they cast us in are fluid, overlapping with our actual identities and not just the prescribed ones of customer/vendor.

    I like Joe’s question about how design/designers can use their tools to design better human interaction frameworks. This does happen, we all know. It’s precisely what we react to in great customer experiences, not just the human on the other side of the interaction, but the harmony of someone genuinely giving us what we want.

    Your trope on robot interaction made me think of a question for you: how would you design a Turing test for customer experience (or whatever preferred frame you’d put around or interactions with companies)? Seems to me there might be a useful thought experiment there.

  12. I am all for the Starbucks ordering process. As someone who drinks decaf and will have a very negative reaction to caffeine, the ordering process ensures me that I am getting a safe drink. It’s written on the cup and called out 3 different times before it gets to me.

  13. Dear Mr. Merholz,
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    Did you or did you not jokingly break the word weblog into the phrase we blog in the sidebar of his blog in April or May 1999?
    I would greatly appreciatate if you reply.

    Thank you,

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