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The $1,750 coffee mug

One coffee enthusiast reminds brands of the importance of a human approach to the customer experience.

by Tim Letscher

I drink coffee—a lot of it.

It was only January 11. The travel mug that my daughter had given me for Christmas was only three weeks into its new life as my go-to morning cup of joe, and it had already cracked under normal use.

No problem, I thought. It’s still new enough that Caribou should still have this mug on its shelves, and three weeks falls within my arbitrarily-assigned grace period for exchanging a gift item. But it wasn’t that clear cut.

The first barista that I approached was non-plussed by the cracked mug, and asked if it was purchased at that location. Since it was a gift, I didn’t know.

“Do you have a gift receipt?”
“Well, no, I’ve been using it just fine for about three weeks.”
“Then your daughter will need to take it back to the store where she bought it and fill out a form.”
“Hmmm, OK, I’ll work with her to figure it out.”

At this point, my daughter didn’t know that her gift to me had cracked, and I rather wanted to keep it that way. Why involve a 12-year-old kid who was excited to give her dad a travel mug that fit his picky request (ceramic, no plastic, not overly branded)? So, I didn’t give up. Because there was another Caribou near my office, I gave it a try.

“Hi, this was a recent gift, and it’s already got these cracks in it.”
“Oh! I’m sorry that happened. Why don’t you grab one off the shelf and we can exchange it.”
“Really? That’s fantastic! While I’m here, may I get a light roast in there and a sausage biscuit?”
“No problem. Hey, since we’re not going to use this, you can keep the top to the cracked mug in case you lose the other one.”

Same company; huge difference in experience. This is another example of how a company’s culture does or does not translate down to the local level.

Why it matters

Like I said, I drink a lot of coffee. I prefer the smaller 4th wave coffee shops when I can find them, but I also split my faithfulness between the Twin Cities’ three more convenient options: Starbucks, Caribou, and Dunn Brothers. I’m fickle and a coffee shop’s atmosphere influences my decisions. It doesn’t take much for me (or anyone else) to drop a place from my list—like making it a hassle to exchange a gift.

What’s a customer worth?

This mug cost $19.99, but what’s the value to have it in my hand?

By rough estimates, I easily spend $1,500 a year on coffee. Gulp. And along with that mug, my wife also bought Caribou gift cards over the holidays for all the teachers and coaches in our kids’ lives — another $250.

$1,750.00 > $19.99

And that’s just one year.

Maybe that first barista was simply following standard practice, but I will make a point of not going into that location again. I can forgive a lot of shortcomings—confusing loyalty programs, dated websites, and so on—but the front line brand experience needs to be spot on.

What did the first barista do wrong? Technically, nothing, if we were all machines. But we’re humans, and we’re still driven by irrational emotions and impulses. I can’t rationally explain why a small slight like this impacts my future patronage. It just does.

By the way, I’m writing this from my new favorite Caribou, and I drove past another coffee shop to get here. If anyone at Caribou HQ reads this, you might want to give the peeps at the Southwest Transit Caribou a gold star and a shout out. Because of their human actions, I’ll continue letting Caribou feed my habit.

This post was originally published by the author on LinkedIn.