There’s a new way of hitching a date in town. Yes, it involves coffee. No, not in that way. Yes, it is once again Starbucks.
After the Frappucino madness in which teenagers found a new excuse to snuggle up on comfy armchairs sharing more than just a straw, the coffee tycoon introduces a new standard in their customer service, one that begs to raise an eyebrow, or even prompts a cheeky wink.
“Hi there, can I get your name, please?”
A question that, for oblivious Starbucks customers, coming in for their regular cup of coffee, must have felt like a bombshell; most, in a state of shock, automatically replied “Ben?,”only starting to recover when noticing the barista scribbling away on their cup (and not on a piece of paper which subsequently they’d put in their apron pockets). There were others, who had heard about the ground shaking changes Starbucks came up with – or those who had visited the cafes outside the UK – reluctantly gave their initials (called out as a mysterious “Latte for M.D.”) or seemingly played the name-game, just to throw in a sarky “Do you want my number as well?”
This name-game might be new in the UK, but it is a long standing tradition on the old continent; strikingly American, the Starbucks bosses decided “making it personal” is just what the faltering UK market needed. Yet Jane, who used to work at a South Carolina Starbucks, says that the system didn’t really work out in her home country:
“First and foremost, all this stuff about how it works in the States is false. We don’t use it in the States, at least not nation-wide. We tried it for about two weeks at my store while I worked there and it just didn’t pan out. This is in large part because most of our business went through the drive thru, but also because people just don’t seem that enthused about it.
“That being said, they weren’t as offended as some customers here seem to be. The main thing, or difference, I would say is that Americans are perhaps more accustomed to first-name interaction with customer service. This applies to diners as well as over-the-phone customer help lines. It’s seen as friendly rather than intrusive.”
Indeed, there has been mixed responses from the customers, some decidedly refusing to disclose their names to absolute strangers in a public place; especially that all they wanted was a quiet cup of coffee and a bit of privacy. The majority, however, quickly adapted to this new trend and even find a funny side to their names being horribly misspelt. Undoubtedly, some will find this an extension to the role of a community coffee shop Starbucks asserts to be, which is – you have to agree – socialising.
How I met your mother
The role of coffee houses, for centuries now, was to meet with your peers to discuss more or less important matters. Whether a coup or an engagement, countless relationships have been born and broken in these venues. The seemingly innocent 80s’ line “Would you like a cup of coffee?” has well established itself as a match-maker (or a one-night-stand-maker); but now Starbucks is taking it to a whole new level.
“If you work in a place like this you meet a lot of people. You couldn’t care less about most of the customers, they’re a part of the job. But there will always be one or two that you would potentially find very interesting. Especially if you’re single.”
Sarah giggles when she mentions Paul, a regular customer, who until a couple of weeks ago she only knew as doppio espresso.
“Seriously, there is no better way to get to know someone you’ve had your eye on for a while. Now asking someone’s name wouldn’t be awkward or make you look desperate. After all, it’s the requirement of the job!”
So, there you are lonely boys and girls, looking for the love of your life. If you want to get to know many people on name-to-name basis, enrol to Starbucks!
Of course, it’s not as simple as it looks. The company puts a lot of energy into making sure beverage standards and quality are equal across its stores, so the barista training is a timely process and can be very demanding before it becomes rewarding. And before that stage, you have to meet the partner profile requirements in the interview process which ensures that only the people with upbeat enough personality can get in. But, let’s face it, if you were considering the possibility of hitching a date via the counter, then you probably fit the job description.
My name? Scott Pilgrim
It might sound like a plan, and some baristas agree that their customer service became a lot more personalised. Kelly, who trained in a UK to become a supervisor in her home Amsterdam reports:
“We’ve been doing in for about a year now and people love it! Especially because we have name-badges as well, so they respond to that.”
However, the response on the Isles might not be as enthusiastic. Bill, who visits Starbucks a few times a day, had been on first-name terms with most of the baristas before the new standard was introduced. “I think it’s pointless,” he says. “If you’re a regular, they’ll know your name anyway. If not, why bother?”
“I like giving fake names, just to see what it would feel like to be called something different,” says another customer.
No wonder than that many of Starbucks staff are not too happy with their new duty.
“I have the feeling that roughly half of the people who do give their name don’t give their real name, what makes you doubt the whole purpose of it,” says Auke, who also used to work in an Amsterdam Starbucks before transferring to the UK.
“The people who do give their real name, quite often do it because they don’t want to be a pain, but you can just tell they’re not really excited about it. And then there is also the awkwardness of regulars, who have to give their name every single day, because for most staff it is impossible to remember all those names.”
“It was meant to make the Starbucks experience more personal, but I don’t think that people here are really bothered by that, it is probably a cultural thing. So now everyone just plays along, we ask and the majority of people gives, but it all feels a bit like no one is really enjoying it.”
Whether you like it or hate it, the name game is here to stay. There surely will be some who will not conform and will chose to change their coffee provider to avoid the evident invasion into their privacy; there will be some who will embrace it and just have a good time, getting to know their neighbourhood baristas a little bit better. Undoubtedly, some friendships will be born from this new tradition, and, who knows, maybe some deeper relationships also; and that, whether you’re a barista, or a determined soul sitting close to the hand-off point waiting for the arrival of the skinny-latte red-head…