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Friday Roast - can we stop fawning over Starbucks' so-called digital experience?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed September 9, 2016
Usually it's Starbucks doing the coffee roasting. Not this Friday. Time for an overdue questioning of the Starbucks "digital experience." Beware the fugly-channel, a terrifying perversion of the omni-channel.

Starbucks - digital roast
Starbucks gets a never-ending stream of kudos for its mobile app and supposed digital savvy. But if Starbucks is a "digital experience," please give me some analog.

My diginomica crewmates have lauded Starbucks; Den even praised the subject of my digital misery, the Starbucks mobile app (Stuart did critique their rewards program changes). Plenty of others heap kudos. CEO Howard Schultz pats himself on the back:

By anticipating and beginning to invest many years ahead of the mobile technology curve, Starbucks today is defining customer-facing and apartment-facing mobile and retail experiences of the future.

I can't take issue with Starbuck's digital  sales numbers. But over multiple platforms/devices, Starbucks has given me a rough handling. Long, unfulfilling conversations with Starbucks tech support are my normal.

During a recent podcast on digital transformation with the Enterprise Should Suck Less crew, I went off on the omni-channel. My beef: once you hit into a technical glitch, the digital experience gets exposed. Underneath the cream of digital is the smarmy crust of tech support. As I said:

The "omni-channel" - and all the promise to use data to personalize customer experience - in my experience, has been an abject failure. The enterprise hasn't caught up with its own rhetoric... The consumer-facing industries have felt the most pressure to create better experiences. Amazon does a terrific job on the retail experience, but these systems are only as good as you can break them. If you have a delivery error with Amazon, and you're in the call center, I would argue that's not going to be an exceptional experience for you. Even Amazon is vulnerable if the channel they're emphasizing breaks.

In my case, the "Starbucks digital experience" breaks - a lot. Rewind to my first Starbucks service turd: a couple years ago, I got registered on, ordered a new card, and downloaded their celebrated app. Mistake number one: I misplaced the card - only four digits of your card number display on the web site, though there is a workaround to get your entire card number to display, so obscuring your number is actually pointless.

But the big issue was the auto-reload feature. Auto-reload is really helpful if you don't want to find yourself thumbing a complicated password in a jammed up cafe. Here's a love letter I sent Starbucks a couple years ago:

FYI, very unhappy overall with your Android app and reloading.....for months I didn't have auto reload to my app and to be honest, it still doesn't work. I tried reloading manually from my app, said the credit card wasn't registered on the site even though it is. I WAS able to reload from the site, so the credit card is fine, the problem is with your app...

I got the expected "helpful" reply, soaked in the requisite empathy:

I am so sorry to hear about the error you are encountering with your Starbucks app on your device. I can only imagine how frustrating this must be! In many cases, you can fix problems by uninstalling and reinstalling the Starbucks app. Once you reinstall the app and log back into your account, it should function normally again.


Appreciate the nice note, unfortunately I already uninstalled and reinstalled. Last time I called you about this, spent two hours on phone and wasn't able to fix. At least I can reload online now, even if it's for more money than I want. Anyhow keep in mind your phone apps needs some work....doesn't work seamlessly like Uber.


I also invite you to visit This website is a forum where you can share your ideas, tell us what you think of other people's ideas and join the discussion that will help shape Starbucks future.  Many of the ideas shared have already been turned into action.

I didn't visit the forum, only because my "idea" would have been to fix the overrated mobile app. Since then, I've put up with manual reloading my balance. That's way better than the blame-the-customer fantasy fix of uninstalling and re-installing app until your life fades into numb.

Beware the fugly-channel

Recently, I did the bad omni-channel dance with Starbucks again. Beware the "fugly-channel":

When you start out as a digital customer, but wind up as a schmo, seeking service from a well-meaning but neutered call center.

On the Saturday prior to labor day, I went to update my credit card number on Since I have no auto-reload, I attempted to update my card and pay. However, the payment was flagged. I called my bank, who told me the charge was approved. Call Starbucks again - tech support tells me there is a "security lock" on the account.

The security team is off for the weekend (because security is a 9-to-5 occupation in a digital world).  The call center rep tells me he sent a note to security, but I can try to reload the card. Not, however, until Thursday. If that's digital business, give me back my 8 track player.

So yeah, on Thursday when I thumbed my password and reloaded my app, everything was fine. Just for kicks, I decided to test the auto-reload feature. Logged in - it was de-activated, a courtesy due to the supposed payment problem. I tried to re-activate reload, and this has been on my screen for three hours:

Starbucks - digital roast

I've never had a single problem with my Uber app, my Lyft app, or even my EZ-Pass app, which tops up like a charm even though it's run by the Massachusetts state government.

I don't know how widespread the issues I've had are. It didn't take long to find ticked off threads on Reddit like this one. As in:

"It worked great for a year, then stopped working. Nobody seems willing to dig into this. "Just go into a store to reload it." Yeah, that isn't a solution."

Yeah, that's the fugly-channel, the integration between store and mobile nobody wants.

There's a glitch in their process that affects some users. But, I just wish they didn't pass the blame on to the customer.


If you keep trying it when there's an error, it'll freeze you out from being able to reload for awhile. A customer service rep told me that this is a security measure. Wait 48 hours before trying again. In the meantime reload at the register.

Good to know - before you try. In my experience, getting locked out of your Starbucks card is as easy as ordering chai. After you're locked out, you wait. Coffee goes by.

Oh, and a final ugh: when you see a Starbucks in a hotel, don't assume your card/app will work. If the cafe is a private label Starbucks, it won't. I've encountered this on several occasions. Last time, I asked a hotel worker about the problem. They told me the issue was separate, incompatible databases. Digital indeed.

I see that Starbucks is very proud to launch their own Netflix-style "original series" called Upstander. Knock yourself out, but when you get a chance - would you consider fixing your app?


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