How Starbucks dropped the ball with its Wi-Fi

I usually start my day with a visit to my local Starbucks to enjoy a few Americanos while I confirm my plan for the day. I catch up on outstanding email, scan the local newspapers and skim the various online sources for interesting tidbits of information.

You see, Starbucks is my Third Place–it’s my office away from my office and my home away from home. I spend countless hours working, meeting, socializing and daydreaming at Starbucks.

I get the value proposition at the heart of the Starbucks brand experience–Rewarding Everyday Moments. It resonates with me.

I know that this experience is the result of the visionary leadership of Howard Schultz and an organizational culture and business practices that have nurtured this compelling promise of value for customers since the brand’s inception.

It can be found in the superior and customizable nature of the coffee and beverages, the quality of the pastries and sandwiches, the friendly and efficient service provided by the knowledgeable Baristas, and the elegant and comfortable in-store environments where you are most often surrounded by people like you. Well, not exactly like you, but close enough.  We’re all kindred spirits that share a common affinity for Starbucks as our Third Place and relate to how the brand satisfies our functional, emotional and experiential needs.

I’m just not feeling it any more.

My affinity has turned to discontent. And, to be brutally honest, I would have to admit my discontent is quickly becoming anger.

The reason is the inadequate, or often non-existent, Wi-Fi in Starbucks locations in midtown and North Toronto over the last six months. This situation continues unabated even after numerous customer complaints. Why is there a lack of alacrity on the part of Starbucks Canada for fixing this problem? It makes no sense. It doesn’t fit the brand’s promise of a Third Place and Rewarding Everyday Moments? Wi-Fi and the access it provides to the Internet are integral to my ability to work effectively and to the enjoyment of my time at Starbucks. I know this to be true for other customers that share my discontent.

When Starbucks introduced Wi-Fi to its North American stores in July 2010, I, like many loyal patrons, cheered this leading initiative. It seemed such an obvious way to enhance the brand experience for customers in the face of more timid competition.  Most customers soon found it to be an integral and invaluable part of their Starbucks experience.

Its been so successful that every major player in the Canadian Quick Service Restaurant industry, including McDonald’s and Tim Hortons, have now followed suit in providing Wi-Fi at their locations.

Given this competitive response it should be obvious to the leadership team at Starbucks Canada that Wi-Fi is no longer the differentiator it once was for helping to attract and keep customers. It is now simply table stakes throughout the industry. For Starbucks to deliver on its brand promise and be competitive in their industry, having Wi-Fi—a functioning, reliable Wi-Fi—is now a must. Which makes me ask again, why is the Starbuck’s management sluggish in responding to this issue?

This morning I left Starbucks after drinking only one Americano.  I didn’t bother to stay for a second or third. There was no point.  My goal for my visit had been utterly defeated yet again by the inadequate Wi-Fi. It was not exactly the Rewarding Everyday Moment I’d come to expect from this brand.

So what will I do tomorrow? I guess I do have other options. There is a Second Cup, a Timothy’s and a Tim Hortons all within walking distance in my neighbourhood and a McDonald’s is just a short drive away.  All of them have Wi-Fi. Alternatively, I might start the day in my home office enjoying a delicious Americano, made by my Saeco Espresso machine, work, listen to morning radio, and skip the Starbucks experience altogether.

At the moment my affinity for Starbucks is damaged. It’s not enough for Starbucks to just earn my loyalty. They need to make every effort to sustain my loyalty by consistently delivering on their brand promise. And, in that, they have failed.

Starbucks and I can start dating again. But, for that to happen, it will have to resolve its WI-Fi issues, and then conceive a customer recovery strategy that includes a communications plan to inform disaffected customers about this resolution.

I’m just one customer, but I hope someone at Starbucks Canada is listening.

About ashleykonson

STRATEGY CONSULTING | EXECUTIVE COACHING | CORPORATE TRAINING | KEYNOTE SPEAKING | Ashley Konson is the Managing Partner of Global Brand Leaders Inc., a new kind of brand consulting company dedicated to making brands and their teams leaders across the globe. He is a Brand Leader, Business Consultant and Award-Winning Educator, and a recognized thought leader and fervent advocate of the premise that strong brands and businesses achieve and sustain their market positions because they are strong Inside out™.
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13 Responses to How Starbucks dropped the ball with its Wi-Fi

  1. I remember you mentioning in class that once before you called Starbucks to talk about the store atmosphere. You got a call back from the head office and they asked for your suggestions. Maybe they will value your insight once again. Feedback is always invaluable.

  2. Vinayak Rao says:

    Ashley, great article.

    This proves that when a technology feature (wi-fi in this case) becomes strongly associated with your brand experience, you have to re-evaluate its relevance more often, given how short technology product life cycles have become. Free Wi-fi access used to be a customer privilege, but is definitely turning into a basic requirement today.

  3. Tianpei says:

    Wifi problem also exists in downtown Starbucks. I have seen customers making complaints to staff at Starbucks, not only on the fact that they don’t have adequate Wifi, but also that they didn’t post any notice on the door. Customers who have already purchased their drinks then get an unpleasant surprise, after which they feel cheated.
    As you mentioned in the blog, Wifi is now a “must,” not a luxury. It is something closely associated with the Starbucks brand – as an average customer, Starbucks = coffee + Wifi + outlet to me.
    And yes, it is interesting that Tim Hortons introduced their Wifi just when Starbucks started having problems.

  4. Great article – always helps to be able to reference the brand promise, as depicted in Schultz’s Onward. Another Starbucks oversight that has become increasingly common at my local SB (downtown Toronto) is high employee turnover. This leads to me having to repeat my drink order on a near-daily basis (even though it never changes). In the past, I was welcomed at Starbucks by a friendly barista who knew my name and drink order and had started it before I even arrived at the counter. Now, it has reached a point that I actually look at who is working the register to decide whether or not I will order a drink that day (i.e. if it is a new barista or one who hasn’t memorized my order I will not buy a coffee). In both instances (WiFi and Turnover), poor decision making at the corporate level has negatively impacted sales. Hopefully they will get the hint….

  5. tony says:

    i agree , its the same here in bc. since starbucks dropped Bell in favour of all stream, poor connectivity and abysmal download speeds, and starbucks customer support werent too interested in my complaints and all stream didnt even reply !!

  6. Abner Mofokeng says:

    Any new developments regarding this matter Ashley? Have you spoken to SB? have they responded?

    Do you still go to SB?

    • ashleykonson says:

      Hello Abner, Starbucks way very slow to respond, and only did so after I tweeted them directly. The company still seems to have a problem in a number of stores but not the one I’m responding to you from today. I’ve heard from many others that this seems to be a problem in +- 20 downtown stores where the Internet is very slow. It’s a piyt, and it has caused me on a number of occasions to visit competitor’s stores for coffee and a place to work/write. I believe they’re working on a fix, but it has been very slow.

      • Abner Mofokeng says:

        Thanks Ashley.

      • I’m amazed you got that out of them. I’ve been complaining about one specific location’s wifi for just under 3 years now. Took two years for the district manager to finally respond and just under a year for the regional manager to respond once I started escalating up to their levels and neither one seemed interested in dealing with the issue. Neither one has emailed me back after first contact. I’ve escalated once again about a month ago but I think they’re ignoring me.

        The problem though I feel is not Starbucks but AT&T as they’re the provider. I have the same issues at local McDonalds, Panena Bread and a few local shops. AT&T is the provider for those locations, either directly or via a rebrand like wanderwifi. This morning at a local McDonalds I received a tracert of well over 2100ms when I ran to an underused server of mine. For reference anything over 100ms is excessive.

        What also bothered me about the whole situation is even with a link to the mapped location on their website as well as the location’s street address, Starbucks still couldn’t find the location in their database.

        It’s a sad way to run a railroad.

  7. GG says:

    Starbucks in Willow Glen area of San Jose starts out at an unimpresive 1.3 mb and after 4 pm seems to be purposely throttled down to about 100 kb, nearly useless. My suspicion is that this is by design to clear out the lower profit after-office crowd. The decrease in speed is consistent and seems to have more to do with a schedule than number of patrons. So now I drive 4 miles to Coffee Society in the Pruneyard shopping center in Campbell to enjoy much better coffee (seriously) and consistent 3.5 mb speed, even though they have 5x the customers. This morning I bought a coffee, a bran muffin, sandwich, apple juice, an apple and a refill at Coffee Society and zero at Starbucks. Coffee Society is open from about 6:00 am to 11:00 pm. Starbucks will never maintain its brand image as long as they offer sub-par WiFi and treat their after-office customers as second class and pretend we haven’t figured this ploy out. So I’m out.

  8. Peter Hopkins says:

    I thought I was the only one bitching about this issue.

    It looks like what we REALLY need is another butt kicking recession to pass through. Every time the economy gets going, business leaders start taking their customers for granted and treat them accordingly. Starbucks is but one example. But when a hard recession comes around and the money tree shrivels up and dies, it usually weeds out those businesses that refuse to relearn the value of customer service. Those that do relearn are the ones that survive. It’s really a shame that we always have to go through this crappy service nonsense everytime the economy improves. Nevertheless, according to the Condrateif cycle, a recession is due next year or the year after, so in three years Starbucks wifi will be working super or the company will no longer be a going concern. The ball is on Starbucks side.

  9. I agree . I have also noticed replacement of comfortable sofas with hard wooden chairs. This seems like an attempt to reduce visit times but in the process are losing their original brand and core customer base.

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