Starbucks::Where Norms Collide


by Howell J. Malham Jr.


Norms are funny.

And powerful. Very, very powerful.

They die slow deaths.

They influence our expectations, and keep a choke hold on those expectations once we grow accustomed to behaving in certain ways, in certain social settings. And when we grow accustomed to others behaving in certain ways, in those same situations.

Those expectations become even stronger, indeed ornerier, when something comes along to challenge them.

Like a Starbucks app, for example.

Though the company introduced mobile ordering in 2015, many customers still expect to walk into a Starbucks tomorrow and have their order taken at the counter in real life and in real time.

It’s not the law. It’s just a long-standing norm at Starbucks.

Other Starbucks customers have ditched those expectations, and now opt for their lattes to go via the mobile app.

If you’re one of those customers who expects to walk into a Starbucks, stand in line, and get a grande almond milk latte (kids’ temp) in a timely manner, you have by now discovered it takes longer, much longer than expected even if nobody else is in line; especially if there’s not a dedicated team fulfilling all the orders for all those invisible customers coming in by way of the app.

And that could be a problem, especially if customers have budgeted their time based on previous experiences at Starbucks — that is, in the time before the app.

This isn’t the dawning of an apocalypse.

But it does illustrate how social conflicts can arise — in this case, in the customer experience — when norms are overlooked.

I doubt very seriously that any states will secede as a result of this low-level clash of norms. And I’m quite sure Starbucks, and its stock, will be just fine in the long run as expectations adjust, even as some loyal customers defect, having tired of always coming in second, third, fourth, or fifth to those who order through the app.

However, if business leaders want to effect some sort of change, and do so in a way that inures to the benefit of all customers, not just some, they should start taking norms — and the expectations they influence — a little more seriously.

Once they know what the norms are, and which ones will cause the most trouble and among what groups, they can identify where the conflicts will occur, and how best to avoid them when a new strategy is executed.

It’s just another way to go from good to devastatingly brilliant in no time at all. ::

Howell Malham