Starbucks partners with Microsoft to deliver a seamless customer experience

Starbucks partners with Microsoft to deliver a seamless customer experience

Innovations include a new mobile app and intelligent food and beverage sequencing

Richard Humphreys |

Through its partnership with Microsoft, global coffee brand Starbucks is creating seamless customer experiences and enabling its staff to spend more time connecting with customers and crafting the perfect coffee experience.

According to Starbucks CTO Gerri Martin-Flickinger, Starbucks is an experience which is centred around that customer connection in the store, the human connection, one person, one cup, one neighbourhood at a time. “I think that mission is so critical to how technology has to show up for us,” she says in an interview with Microsoft Transform. “Tech has to amplify that human connection, not get in the way of it. It is not about building cool, shiny tech. It’s about building tech that appeals to that connection and craft that is uniquely Starbucks.”

Martin-Flickinger says that one example of this is the technology in place to make a more seamless experience for people who choose convenient mobile ordering. “When you go into our busiest (mobile-connected) stores, you see something called a Digital Order Manager that baristas use to indicate that your drink is ready. If you’re a mobile customer, you’ll get a notification on your phone that your drink is now ready, which is a cool way to help that experience with the barista be much more intentional. And the barista can take that moment to hand you your coffee with that same smile and name recognition that you’ve come to expect from Starbucks.”

It’s a great example of why tech is important for a better cup of coffee – and according to Martin-Flickinger, this is just the start. “One of the things we are so incredibly excited about as an engineering and technology organisation is using data to continuously improve the experience for our customers and partners,” she said. “We have the opportunity in this new age of IoT to actually monitor equipment at an incredibly detailed level of telemetry and recognise when a machine needs preventative maintenance, for example. We can do this without having to bother the teams in the stores, who want to be focused on the customer. Through the internet of things, we are taking that next leap of telemetry from many, many pieces of equipment and ensuring a consistent experience for each customer.”

Given that Starbucks is not a digital native, the company’s journey to connect everything from mobile orders to inventory to service has been impressive. “One of the things that I love to point out is what we call ourselves: we’re called Starbucks Technology. We’re not called Starbucks IT. We want to have a different kind of view of what we do and how we enable the brand,” Martin-Flickinger said.

“We’ve established a five-year technology strategy that’s tightly coupled with our corporate business strategy. It starts to look at those disruptive technology themes that are going to become mainstream over the next two, three, four or five years. How do we start capitalising on those and exploring those? How are we working those into our future thinking? Because with over 28,000 locations spread across 77 countries, it takes thoughtfulness to plan out the logistics behind new, disruptive technology for our stores.”

This two-plus years spent building out Starbucks Technology and building the team has coincided with Starbucks’ growth in mobile. “The user experience of the mobile app is very cool,” Martin-Flickinger said. “But remember that behind that piece of glass on your device, a lot of different technology components are at work making the magic happen. Whether that’s data about the actual store, their store hours or their inventory.

“Think about the fact that, at least in the US, Starbucks stores have a peak in the morning – a pretty specific period of time in the morning when a big percentage of the transactions come through. Think about the load that will put on our systems. A second or two means something to our customers as they get ready to start their day. To have this burst capacity capability, and have it integrated into all back-office systems, was a monumental task.”

Starbucks has also added an array of new technologies, such as the Starbucks Production Controller (SPC), which Martin-Flickinger says is currently in testing. “It does intelligent food and beverage sequencing for customers in line as well as mobile orders. This is something we’ve developed as proprietary tech, because the sequencing of our food has a lot to do with the production capacity in the store and the recipes of the item. For example, if SPC knows that there’s capacity available in the warming ovens but no capacity on the coffee machine, it will sequence intelligently so that customer’s orders are ready holistically – you get a hot coffee and you get hot food.

“Because so much of the experience is the handcrafted products, the intelligence needed to do that well is a bit more sophisticated than you might think if you casually look at the opportunity.”

What’s clear is that the Starbucks partnership with Microsoft has been critical to fuel this transformation. “The partnership with Microsoft has been fabulous on multiple levels,” Martin-Flickinger said. “Of course, we use cloud services, but it goes beyond being a tech supplier. Microsoft has engaged with us to bring in their experts and work directly to ideate on things in the store and across the business.

“They’ve also been proactive in keeping us informed about what they’re doing that’s new and exciting that can help us think about challenges and opportunities differently. Like Microsoft Sphere. I’m excited about that. It’s a great example of partnering to share and grow and think about what’s next together.”

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