Jane Bradley: First-name terms at Starbucks is just not our cup of tea

CHAIN staff are asking customers to introduce themselves as part of a US-style personalised service growing in the UK, says Jane Bradley

CHAIN staff are asking customers to introduce themselves as part of a US-style personalised service growing in the UK, says Jane Bradley

Hi, my name’s Tom, can I take your name?” This question, or one very like it, was chorused thousands of times at Starbucks’s branches all over the country this week as an initiative to personalise consumers’s coffee-buying experience made its way into UK stores.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

From now on, when the person behind the counter takes your order, they will also ask you to introduce yourself. And when your coffee is ready, they will shout out not the usual “skinny decaf cap with wings”, but your actual name – or whatever the closest approximation to it is when Chinese-whispered across a busy coffee shop.

A simple change, but one which the company – which launched the move with a high- profile TV ad campaign and a morning of free lattes – believes will personalise its service in what its ads describe as a world full of numbers.

Starbucks is claiming the change in customer service will take us back to basics – to a time when your local coffee shop knew your name.

But this Americanised – and personalised – method of customer service is not something which is traditionally well received in Britain, where shoppers generally prefer a more anonymous experience.

“Have you noticed how everything seems a little impersonal nowadays?”, the advert asks. “We’ve all become user names, reference numbers and IP addresses.

“From now on, we won’t refer to you as a ‘latte’ or a ‘mocha’, but instead as your folks intended: by your name.”

And it is not just Starbucks who have taken up the mantle for using customers’s names.

In American clothing store Anthropologie, which last year opened its only UK branch outside of London in Edinburgh’s George Street, shoppers are asked to give their first name as they enter the changing room – which is then written up on the door of their cubicle.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Often, while the customer is trying on clothes, a cheerful sales assistant will knock on the door. “How are you getting on in there, Jane? Need any other sizes?”

But while those across the pond feel affronted if they are not met at the door of a high street clothes shop by a sales assistant wearing an earpiece, a toothy smile and the phrase “Hi, my name’s X, how are you today?” – British consumers find it somewhat daunting.

“I don’t want someone to come and check on me personally by name while I’m trying on clothes,” said one shopper. “They’re not my friend who I’ve come shopping with – they’re someone I’ve never met before. It’s a bit intrusive and might put me off going back to a shop.”

But why, when we are happy to be called by name at our hairdresser’s, the doctor’s surgery or by our local coffee shop owner, do we have such a problem with big chains claiming to care about us as individuals?

“Customer service is not about addressing people by name or instructing them to have a nice day,” said Marieke Dwarshuis of Consumer Focus Scotland. “It is about engaging with each individual customer, treating them with respect, giving them the answers they need and making sure that they are happy before moving on to help the next person. If you can get that right then people will come back and, before long, using their name won’t seem so odd.”

Leigh Sparks, professor of retail studies at Stirling University, said the success of the Starbucks scheme would depend on whether UK service sector employees could create a feeling of sincerity around the service.

“There is the ‘have a nice day’ culture in America and some of it clearly is rote and is the script they’ve been told to learn and nothing more,” he said. “But other times, people can say the same thing and because of how they put it across, it does sound sincere.”

He pointed to the Build a Bear Workshop, where children can create their own teddy by taking it around a number of different “stations” where the toy is stuffed, or elements such as a voice box added.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“If you look at what the staff have to say at the different stations, it is clearly scripted, but if you get someone who can really engage with children, it makes a huge difference,” he said. “The same is true in any company where they are trying to personalise the service.”

But he warned that chain companies cannot recreate the personal service previously provided by local businesses. “Whether it can ever be done to the same degree is questionable,” he said. “Local tea shops and corner shops thrived on the fact that they knew their customer and the local area. But businesses cannot rely on that alone. If they are not providing what the customer wants, they will go elsewhere, it won’t make any difference how friendly the person is.”

Across the Atlantic, the practice is endemic. In fact, it is not uncommon for a diner to introduce himself to his waiter – and expect to know his name as well as they chat throughout the meal.

Joe Chernov, vice-president of content marketing at US marketing firm Eloqua, claimed that the personalised consumer culture in the US has quickly become part of daily society.

“As a consumer, I found it jarring the first time Starbucks asked for my name, but ‘cultural habituation’ happens fairly quickly, and within weeks the behaviour becomes routine.”

Chernov claimed that the desire for personal service in shops and cafes was a backlash to the “homogenisation” of US cities.

Sarah Cordey, spokeswoman for the Scottish Retail Consortium, said: “Different types of people when they are shopping want different things from their customer service, so individual retailers try to tailor it to the client who is coming through their doors.”

Related topics: