Visit the same Starbucks (SBUX -0.10%) more than a few times and chances are you will build connections with store personnel. That may mean being greeted by name, getting a welcoming smile, or having a barista know the special quirks of your order.
Technology, however, can prevent those bonds from being created. Consumers can use the coffee chain's app to place an order and pay for it, bypassing any human interaction. That's a problem that Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson has wrestled with.
"I've seen firsthand the incredible power of technology and the positive impacts it has had on our world, whether it's empowering people with information, enabling them to stay connected or creating business models," Johnson said in a press release. "But it's not until being here at Starbucks that I started to realize there's another dimension to this."
What is Starbucks doing?
Johnson spent some time over the holiday season working the front lines at one of his chain's cafes. He served customers, watched staff, and saw that some consumers were "falling deeper and deeper into their mobile devices."
That's something the CEO wants to work to avoid. He believes strongly in technology -- having worked in that space for over three decades before coming to Starbucks -- but he also sees its downside.
"Technology has done so much positive for the world, but it has contributed to some unhealthy outcomes as well. When it comes to enhancing human connection and enabling people to be present and feel a part of a community," he said. "I believe technology, if used in responsible and thoughtful ways, can also be the enabler of freeing up people to be more human and better serve humanity."
The CEO does not want his customers and employees to lose their connection. To make sure that doesn't happen, he began talking to employees to see what daily tasks keep them from engaging with customers or leave them stuck working in back rooms, away from where they can engage with guests. He plans to explore ways to use technology in ways that build, rather than replace, customer interaction.
"Investments in the Starbucks partner experience is what creates that special customer experience, and that, in turn, drives our business success," Johnson said. "I want to ensure we stay true to that approach. So we will pursue world-class technology, not just for the sake of technology, but in service of humanity and in support of our mission to inspire and nurture the human spirit one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time."
Using tech to free people up
The CEO does not entirely know what that will look like, but he has tasked thousands of employees to try out new ideas. That has happened at the company's Tryer Center, a mock store that serves as a lab for testing ideas.
"There were lots of different hacks and wonderful ideas," said Tryer Center Director Janice Waszak. "Many of the ideas revolved around cleaning. We spend a lot of time in Tryer thinking about value-added work, and non-value-added work and how we can invent ways to free them from the latter. Cleaning is a great example of a non-value-added thing we ask partners to do, and a great place where some automation or technology could help solve some things."
In theory, if workers spend less time performing tasks that don't involve engaging with customers, they will have more time to interact. That may seem like a small thing, but it's a very important way to build a connection between the brand and its patrons.
"If you can't create a customer experience in your brick-and-mortar store, an experience that goes beyond convenience, you're just another node in the supply chain," Johnson said. "And that in-store experience must then be extended to a digital mobile relationship."
That's not a simple problem to solve. Technology can be isolating, and it helps people avoid human interaction. Johnson and Starbucks, however, deserve credit for realizing that part of its brand appeal comes from its connection with customers. Finding ways to continue, or even enhance, that in a world with ever-increasing technology will help the restaurant chain remain relevant and important to its customers for decades to come.