First CoffeeSM is a blog that generally focuses on issues related to CRM, or Customer Relationship Management — and generally not on anything having to do with coffee (go figure). Except today, where David Sims commented on how Starbucks‘ worldwide geographic sprawl has set new standards of customer service for coffeehouses everywhere: On Starbucks, CRM, Coffee Shops and Customer Service, Part I.

Mr. Sims writes that there is a lot of whining from mom & pop coffeehouses — making out Starbucks as the big, bad monster that moves into town and dares to offer coffee consumers better customer service. He notes that Starbucks has thrived in places that long needed a lifting of the local standards, that many mom & pop coffeeshops learned to improve with competition, and that there are places with good quality coffeeshops to begin with (such as New Zealand) where Starbucks has become superfluous.

I’ll agree with him that the world is littered with independent coffeehouse deadwood that could use a good, controlled burn. But I’ll argue that customer service is just gravy in the larger scheme of things. I’ve had some of the worst customer service in the world (at least at first) at Sant’Eustachio il caffè in Rome, and yet it’s one of my favorite cafés the world over. Instead, I’d argue that the quality of the coffee and the welcoming nature of the location itself are the biggest drivers for making people pass over their local mom & pops.

In the Days Before Coffee Perestroika

One of Starbucks greatest gifts to humanity was in raising a general awareness that coffee could be a luxury item, something to be enjoyed for its own sake — and not just a commodity to be endured for its desirable psychochemical effects. Granted, Starbucks could only push the quality formula so far before expansion and the corresponding dilution of quality capped them off. But standards were so low in some places for so long, Starbucks can be viewed as the nectar of the gods. (I’ve always likened Starbucks as the Mikhail Gorbachev of quality coffee’s Perestroika period: instrumental to the revolution, but irrelevant once unable to keep up with the pace of what they put into motion.)

Another standard Starbucks helped establish was that a coffeehouse doesn’t have to be a dirty, decrepit hovel with abused and mismatched furniture, gritty floors, and bathrooms that make highway rest stops seem good enough for surgery. In my own observations, this factor alone seems to particularly resonate with a number of women I know. Could you imagine a self-respecting tea parlor with the standards of many independent coffeehouses? A lot of women just don’t want to scrub themselves down with anti-bacterial wipes before entering and after leaving.

As for customer service, long lines are always a turn-off. Particularly for the set that prefers to have scalding-hot coffee poured directly into their bare hands (skipping the paper cup) to run out the door with … for nursing throughout the day. But if the quality is there, people are always willing to wait in line. (Ever notice the lines outside Tartine Bakery & Café? Or more to the point: the lines outside House of Nanking compared to the empty Chinese restaurants next door to it?)

He’s got the right argument — just the wrong reasoning. But what’s a guy running a CRM blog supposed to say?