would you like a coffee with that wi-fi?

Once upon a time, Wi-Fi was a novelty in coffee shops.  It was an unexpected bonus that we encountered when patronizing certain Starbucks or some other forward-looking establishments.

But what was once a delight if found has become a disappointment if not found, or not working, or not free.  Now any self-respecting coffee shop wouldn’t be caught without free Wi-Fi.

And now hundreds of thousands of people flock to coffeehouses to settle into comfy chairs, sip lattes, and use the Wi-Fi, without questioning whether or not Wi-Fi will be available there (of course it will) and whether or not there will be a charge to use it (of course there won’t.)

So lately I’ve been thinking about how much of the $4 that people typically spend during a trip to a coffee shop is paying for the coffee and how much is paying to use the Wi-Fi.  Meaning, how much of the value derived from a coffee shop visit is from the coffee and how much is from the Wi-Fi? – or for that matter, from the comfy chairs or the music selection or even the electrical outlets needed to recharge a phone or computer (one of which is invariably about to run out of juice)?

What I’m really asking about is the value of the entire customer experience compared to the specific product purchased — and, which aspects of the experience deliver the most value.

These are relevant questions to any company that’s trying to navigate all the new opportunities in retail.  It may seem there are so many new ways to enhance the customer experience – whether through “magic mirrors,” interactive displays, or salespeople who know my entire purchase history and social profile when I walk in the door.

My coffee/Wi-Fi meditation has led to a few conclusions:

  • Companies must deliver on the basics.  In the customer experience, there are need-to-haves and nice-to-haves.  It’s important to know the difference and ensure flawless execution on the essentials.  Case in point:  I was tickled the other day when I discovered the following sign on the door at Macy’s:

Wi-Fi would certainly help in doing research on products and brands, finding items and special offers, and yes, comparing prices.   But then I realized I hadn’t made a purchase at Macy’s that day because they didn’t have the item I was looking for in-stock.  Easy returns, in-stock inventory, and good customer service are basics that are still more highly valued than Wi-Fi.

  • But the basics change, so agility is essential.  What customers value changes quickly and so companies must be able to anticipate — or at least respond – to those changes.  They must be able to institute new policies and pricing strategies and adopt new processes and technologies quickly – and not make the customer suffer for it.  Tablets may seem like a great way to help salespeople deliver better customer service, but not if they struggle to use them expertly.
  • And the basics differ from customer to customer.  So, companies need to be clear on who their target customer is – and to focus on what their target customers value.   To me, good coffee and free Wi-Fi are the basics I expect and value at a coffee shop.  I couldn’t care less that I can use a mobile payment application at Starbucks because I’m not interested in using my smartphone as a wallet (yet).

But one of colleagues says that mobile app is the primary reason he chooses Starbucks over other options and he expects to be able to use it whenever he visits a Starbucks.  Which one of us is the chain’s target customer? I don’t know, but Starbucks should.  And the company should design its customer experience with one of us in mind.

We’ve all heard – I in fact have said – that consumers want more than products, they want experiences.  But in a way, perhaps we shouldn’t delineate the two.  It would be helpful for companies to think of experiences as products and to be as diligent in trying to understand what customers want in their experiences as they are in understanding product requirements and expectations.

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