Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at 10:13 am.

Starbucks x Square, Roasted

Fast Company tests Starbucks’ “pay with Square” feature at nearly two-dozen locations and has a pretty lousy experience. No big deal.

Starbucks Square

Fast Company’s Austin Carr writes:

At worst, the service simply did not work. On average, however, the user experience was buggy and awkward, with Starbucks employees seemingly more confused about how Square works than their own customers. Our evidence is anecdotal–and our sample size small–but the results of our tests are telling, especially given the reputations Starbucks and Square have for customer service.

The article is high on drama, but Carr’s right: Starbucks and Square both pride themselves on their customer experience, and put a lot of work into them. (Fast Company itself just named Square the no. 3 “most innovative” company in the world, whatever that means.) So the fact that anyone’s having trouble using their systems must infuriate them.

A few notes:

  • The biggest part of the Starbucks-Square partnership — only mentioned in passing in the Fast Company article — is that Square is now processing all of Starbucks’ U.S. credit- and debit-card payments. How’s that going? The “pay with Square” feature, while the public-facing angle to the partnership, is minor so far, but is the focus of today’s article.
  • I haven’t tried to “pay with Square” at Starbucks yet, but I’ve paid with my iPhone Passbook Starbucks card every time for months now, and it’s always worked great. The staff has always known what to do with it and the payment has always gone through. Perhaps because it’s the same barcode as the Starbucks app and not a separate payment type like the Square code? As the article notes, Starbucks did have to calibrate its barcode readers to handle Square’s QR code, which is a different format than Starbucks uses.
  • This article supports my observation over the years that Starbucks has a particularly hard time in New York City. It’s an inconsistent, often-disappointing experience here, especially relative to what I was used to in Chicago, and what I see basically anywhere else. My guess is that staff turnover — both voluntary and involuntary — is much higher here than elsewhere. And despite the need to handle larger customer volumes, quality is lower? Maybe training employees how to handle Square payments isn’t the single most important thing on the list. (And maybe the system really is confusing or broken.) But it’s a good example of Starbucks’ challenges here.

Big picture: This isn’t really a huge problem for either company. Obviously, it would be better to avoid problems — and articles — like this. And it’s important to fix them. But many big systems integrations have issues, and nobody’s perfect. For Starbucks, perhaps more testing and better training? For Square, perhaps a more thorough certification process? But this is why you do deals like this — to stretch yourself. The long-term rewards, ideally, will far surpass blips like these.

Related: How Starbucks Has Always Been Smart About Mobile