Can Starbucks keep going without a focus on cultivating relationships?There’s a war brewing, and I’ve shied away from using the battle and war rhetoric (and puns, please forgive me), but it seems apt now.

From now on, every marketer, every salesman, every business owner and CEO has a choice.  You will either treat your clients like transactions, like they exist to serve your bottom line, or you consciously strive to cultivate quality relationships with all your clients. The battle lines are drawn.

There will be no middle ground, there is no hiding from this reality

You cannot do business as usual, you will not keep your best customers or the best employee talent if you do.  They will abandon you for relationships, and eventually the money that those relationships bring.  If you stay the course, you are fighting a losing battle.

I’m sitting comfortably in Starbucks right now

The decor feels warm, and the staff is friendly, but I’m very close to finding another place to write.  The reason is simple; other, smaller places care more about relationships.  Starbucks as it grows inherently cares less about relationships and more about the small, short term, transactions.  Case in point: coffee refills.  A small but nagging point,  Starbucks has always charged for refills whereas other coffee houses usually give them for free.  And that’s fine because many people are wiling to pay for the ambiance.

But now Starbucks is deciding to go a step farther

Typically I get a small (12oz) latte with four honey’s which costs $2.73, but afterwards I feel like a little kick of caffeine and get a coffee refill, which is free since I am a “Starbucks Rewards” member.  No longer though.  Starbucks now has a policy that if you didn’t buy a drip coffee, you can no longer get a refill price.  A “tall” (12oz) coffee costs $1.50, and that’s the price they want to charge me.

So, I pay for a more expensive drink and that doesn’t qualify me for the same advantage as a lesser priced beverage? This is absurd.  And honestly it’s not the money that bothers me, it’s what the policy represents.

They care, but they don’t care

The manager was sweet about it, very nice girl named Val, and she even acknowledged that it sounded ridiculous, but Starbucks had given her the authority to hide behind policy and procedure.  I brought up the company’s mission statement about “inspiring and nurturing the human spirit” but she simply shrugged her shoulders, because her company empowered her to not fulfill the mission.  Rather than telling the employees to save and cultivate relationships, Starbucks is encouraging transactional thinking among it’s employee’s, training them to sacrifice the relationship for an increased bottom line and blind rule following.

Will Starbucks miss my business?

No, probably not, but they are closing stores and I think not caring about my business is the core of their problem.  When the economy gets bad and we circle the wagons, we listen to the accountants who see the world in numbers.  When a business gets larger, we have to worry about budgets and plans, and customers become numbers by default if we let them.  Instead we need to listen to our hearts and understand that the lifetime value of a quality customer relationship means far more than temporary cost cutting measures.

There are plenty of shops that recognize this and practice it daily.  I guess I’ll just have to drive a little farther, but the relationship is worth it.