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Evan Schuman: Starbucks and the art of persuasion

Evan Schuman | Jan. 15, 2014
The coffee chain was smart enough to push mobile by not initially pushing mobile. It's an approach that can work for your business too, internally and externally.

What Starbucks has figured out is the power of going slow when trying to move people into uncomfortable tech arenas. It pushed the non-threatening plastic, with great success. Once it had sold millions, then, and only then, did it make any aggressive push for mobile. Yes, Starbucks' ultimate goal was to get its customers to load the mobile app, but it moved far more dollars to its counters by taking it slow. The drip-drip of the best coffeemakers also works well for making converts comfortable.

And you want your customers to be comfortable with what you're getting them to do. Your employees too. Everyone is more comfortable with evolution than revolution.

Starbucks' mobile app is itself an example of the evolutionary, go-slow approach. It isn't fancy — or frightening. The company didn't adopt NFC or leverage Bluetooth. Instead, it simply takes a picture of the barcode on the back of a Starbucks cards and places that image in the app. Not only does this make the transition another exercise in gradualness, but it is also remarkably inexpensive for IT, since the very same scanning equipment that works on the plastic cards also works on the phones. (Over the years, upgraded scanners have made the system more phone-friendly, but those upgrades are the same sort of equipment that other retailers have deployed.)

What are the implications for your own technology transitions? Many. Repeatedly, companies push new technology on its employees and customers by touting the benefits, but rarely do they factor in the change in behavior the move entails. When Wal-Mart pushed RFID on its suppliers, demanding that they place an RFID chip in every product shipped, it was caught off guard by nearly universal resistance. It was true that the chip would ultimately benefit both parties, but that would come only after years of labor-intensive changes made at a huge cost.

The rush to get to the ultimate goal has doomed far too many technology rollouts. But speed has the unfortunate side effect of making a risky behavior change seem even scarier. Taking baby steps may mean a rollout takes years longer, but if its acceptance is sharply increased, doesn't that increase its effectiveness? I think it does, especially when the alternative is a simple refusal to budge.

"Consumers, like employees, can only handle one adjacency at a time. No more. I can't learn two things at once," says Todd Ablowitz, a payments consultant who is president of Double Diamond Group. "If you give people too much too soon, they can't handle it. The consumer will give you more if you give them more time, provided you're giving them something that they value."


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