How do we understand our customers when we barely understand ourselves?

Published on Dec 7, 2015

by Dr. Duck

What if you were running a busy café, churning through five customers every few minutes as they defined to you their very precise needs?

‘A really, really hot Chai latte.’

‘A long black with a dash of milk.’

‘Soy flat white, large.’

‘Just a latte, please.’

You would be excused for assuming that the key to success is ensuring you get their orders right in a timely fashion. If you could execute their orders faster and more accurately, then surely this would encourage customers to return again and again?

Starbucks had a similar idea but, obviously, on a much larger scale. In a memo that I read recently, and widely circulated around the internet, the CEO, Howard Schultz, reflected on a series of ‘mistakes’ he made regarding his customers.

‘When we went to automatic espresso machines we solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency. At the same time we overlooked the fact that we would remove much of the romance and theatre that was in play with the use of the La Marzocca machines.

‘The need for fresh roasted coffee in every North American city… moved us toward the decision… for flavor locked packaging…  We achieved fresh roasted bagged coffee, but at what cost? The loss of aroma — perhaps the most powerful non-verbal signal we had in our stores’


So, as another blog recently questioned, did process improvement destroy Starbucks?

Immediately, defenders of ‘Lean’ and other process improvement approaches zeroed in on the true failure of Schultz.

‘Another case of product-thinking leaders forgetting the experience-feeling customers.’

‘A humble example of the unintended consequences that can arise when organisations fail to connect process improvement to the voice of the customer.’


Yes, it’s the dreaded customer problem again. Schultz forgot that process improvement is only a genuine improvement if the customer is also happily purchasing.

Of course this is right. Yet how many of us would have predicted that a more efficient coffee machine would have affected the romantic experience of visiting a coffee shop?

Whose instinct would predicted that the fresher flavour in vacuum sealed bags would have the unfortunate by-product of removing the pleasant coffee aroma from the café?

Understanding the customer is hard. It isn’t about simply deploying good process improvement principles and greater vigilance in understanding customers.

For every customer wanting a coffee experience there’s also the backpacker who just wants a clean place to use a restroom. For every customer who loves the romance of the La Marzocca machine, there’s a tradie or corporate employee anxiously checking the time on their phone because they’ve got appointments.

If we were honest and reflected, like Schultz, we’d acknowledge that our own needs are difficult to understand let alone the needs of others.

For example, we may think we have an intrinsic desire to stay fit and healthy, but that weekly fast food and alcohol consumption reveals our hypocritical nature. We purchase novels that we never read, upgrade technology that collects dust, and change our minds about the colour of paint on the wall.

We start new, wonderful careers that never seem to fulfil us and start and stop relationships over seemingly trivial problems. We spend time in therapy or drown our sorrows with friends. On other days we feel on top of the world for no apparent reason.

Our own needs are tricky—often unconscious and paradoxical—and not all that apparent to ourselves let alone others.

How should Schultz have gone about introducing these new changes?

Asking people about their preferences is fraught with problems. A customer may like to think they are complicated and unique, thus deserving of a fine, complex beverage. In reality, the café may simply be in a convenient location.

In contrast, a customer may think they aren’t too influenced by smell and experience and will merely declare their coffee preference is based on some utilitarian cost and convenience.

Measuring satisfaction is also difficult. A customer may say they’re satisfied so not to offend. I occasionally visited a café where the barista was so committed to making me the perfect coffee, he kept insisting I didn’t need to go anywhere else.

‘Just try this one and if it’s no good, tell me and I make it better!’

This would appear to be a fantastic recipe to appeal to the customer as it’s all about getting to the heart of what I wanted.

However, he was so overly enthusiastic I simply felt embarrassed and bullied into providing positive feedback. I wasn’t after a romance. I just wanted my coffee.

We could shake our heads and point the finger at this barista for failing to understand me, the customer.

Perhaps he should have realised I didn’t want all that attention every time I ordered a coffee. He should have worked out that I didn’t want to feel pressured.

Truth is, I’m not really too sure what café I like or what he might have found if he kept peeling the layers away. I’m not really sure I want to have a monogamous relationship with a café anyway.

Upon reflection, like Shultz it might be easier in the long run to invest in an efficient coffee machine rather than the fluctuating and unreliable nature of the customer. At least the little experiment will flush out what your customer wants.

Dr Nicholas Duck is a blogger and founder of Opposite 

by Dr. Duck

My name is Nicholas Duck. I am a Doctor of Psychology with an interest in psychology in the workplace, film and television, the media, and the fields of emotion, unconscious, and motivation psychology. You can contact me at

I am founder and principal consultant at Opposite, a consultancy that takes these applied psychological findings and helps workplaces improve.

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