FinanceME recently ran a piece on customer retention and how smaller brands (which make up the majority of businesses in Dubai) can compete with large conglomerates.
Since writing that piece I’ve tried to be aware of what makes me return to, or avoid businesses, as a consumer.
Instead of trying so hard to ‘set themselves apart’ by what seems like an ongoing desire to 'innovate' and create and 'authentic experience' brands could just focus on streamlining their current practices to give the best service possible. There are so many small, simple things that companies can do that will keep customers coming back that do not involve expensive campaigns or promotions, yet the mind set seems to be that simple and effective are somehow not sufficient.
To illustrate, I’ll use the examples of my experiences in Caribou, Costa, and Starbucks here in Dubai. All three of these establishments are global, of a comparable size, and offer similar enough products and services for a fair comparison. As a disclaimer, this post represents my experience and opinions alone; obviously this will not apply to consumers across across the board. Ultimately, there is one brand that I prefer and my reason for it surprised me, but these companies were compared across a number of criteria:
There isn’t much in the way of differentiation between the brands here; the menu is plastered to the back wall, and the cashier can be found behind high counters over which you’re supposed to yell your order, doubly so in my case since I’m only 5’3”. If someone is a first-time customer they’ll be better off just asking for a simple coffee and being done with it, rather than trying to navigate the available beverages on a board six feet away. Granted, franchises are generally kept in a half-nelson by Head Office over interior design and what can and cannot be changed, which is factored in as well.
Starbucks comes out on top here, even if all their venues do tend to be quite dark. Their counters are slightly lower and their menu is printed and kept to hand; it doesn’t have to be requested. Customers can actually speak to the person serving them on a face-to-face level.
Costa and Caribou both have much higher counter tops that feel a lot more cluttered, and the staff are positioned in a way that means you have to talk up to them–making interaction something I generally try and get over with as quickly as possible, regardless of how friendly they may be. Menus have to be requested, and they may or may not be available.
Why my fixation on the menus? If I’ve walked into one of these places and I’m not quite sure what I want, I’d like to be able to look at the available product selection. More importantly, I’d like to do this out of the way of the people who know what they want. I could stand at the counter and read off the menu on the wall, but the design of these places means I’ll be doing that in front of the cashier, holding up people who are ready to order. This feels about as safe as standing between a hippo and water.
This is a tough one–on more than one occasion I have placed my order and had the staff at Starbucks and Caribou both ask me if I would like to try something completely different. I would love to meet the people who sat their staff down and told them they have to do this.
Any new product is promoted on boards and posters around the entrance and counter, as well as laminated cards propped up on the counter (contributing to the aforementioned clutter). Also, I can read. Therefore, if I have requested something specific why would I be persuaded to purchase your pumpkin-spice-cinnamon monstrosity? I just came for a latte.
Starbucks was a pretty serious contender for this one, but Caribou takes the cake. A staff member has come around the counter, and started pointing at and naming each food item, trying to make helpful suggestions. I was just weighing up if a muffin constituted a need or a want. If I cannot decide whether or not to purchase baked goods without assistance, my problems are more serious than I originally thought. This is not an isolated incident either, so I will concede that it’s possible I just exude helplessness.
Costa staff doesn’t do this at all. They take your order at face value and that’s what you get. No backsies.
Costa has knocked this one out of the park with its simplicity. They have a loyalty card and every time a coffee is purchased, the card gets a stamp. After customers collect nine stamps, the 10th coffee is free. Costa does not throw a bunch of disclaimers about the size or type of beverage to which it applies. You’ve bought nine, number 10 is free–job done. These are particularly handy to keep in cases of not having cash/leaving your debit card at home/having a little too much month at the end of your money.
The staff also made a point of telling their customers about and they had the cards to hand.
Caribou took a simple concept, and tried to get creative with it, which backfired. They have a card that has to be topped up much like a nol card, which can then be used for drinks or food. I could not really get behind it as a concept and when I tried to use the last of my credit for a purchase, I could not use my debit card to pay the balance; I was only allowed to use cash. I’m not going to bother with a repeat performance there since the service offers no value.
The only way I found out about Caribou's loyalty card was a colleague walked in one morning saying he'd just got one. The next time I was at Caribou, I asked about and the counter staff had to look for them before they explained it to me and gave me one.
Starbucks has no loyalty programme that I know of, but will happily be corrected.
Customer support/social media:
I’ve saved this for last because of the emphasis marketing gurus keep placing on social media and ‘how a brand can be destroyed’ by one post going viral. I’ve had social media encounters with both Costa and Caribou; Starbucks doesn’t seem too bothered about responding to queries.
Caribou’s social media team is fantastic. They responded quickly, I got the phone call I was promised, and the manager of the branch with which I had the complaint met me on the premises to hear me out, which I did not expect. It was more effort for him, since I only had to go down to my lobby, but I appreciated it nonetheless.
Costa is on the other spectrum of all of this. I am still waiting for a phone call that their customer care team promised me on 26 December. I messaged them in February to say it had been two months and I still hadn’t received a call, which they have ignored.
Taking all these factors into account, I’ve come to the conclusion that Costa is my first choice, which is surprising because there was a period I swore blind I would not return to them. This vehemence was owing to issues with their staff being quite rude, and the subsequent lack of interest or follow up from their social media team.
Their service in-store has improved immeasurably and I like the simplicity of their loyalty programme. As a consumer that is all I want: a decent product selection, nice people and the chance to save money/get something free, which Costa has started delivering in spades. If they stop, I’ll rethink my position, give their social media team a miss and find a phone number if the complaint warrants it.
I realise I’ve used an F&B example and the requirements to be met to remain a customer would differ from an insurance broker or an airline, for example. However, it was interesting to look at a behaviour pattern that was pure habit (just get coffee from the outlet in my building out of convenience) versus a conscious choice (walk the extra few hundred metres to the outlet that provides a better overall experience). It made me wonder just what else we do out of habit, as consumers, of which we may not even be aware.