What Happened to Premium Brands’ Premium Service?

I think I can explain why Starbucks, Macy’s, Whole Foods Market, and plenty of other so-called “premium”  or “luxury” brands are struggling. It’s a combination of things when, taken together, are the mass-marketing of higher-end brands. The experience has slipped away. The product mix is not as unique as it once was. The service levels have dropped from what they once were. The atmosphere has become boring, corporate, and bland. And higher-end businesses wonder why customers seek out other alternatives? Please.

Case-in-point: Starbucks. Okay, I admit it. I’ve been a Starbucks customer for many years. And over those many years I’ve observed the same changes you probably have. They serve premium-priced drinks and food, but more and more the experience feels decidedly down-market. Service levels vary greatly – from mildly-friendly, to surly, to aloof, to downright snotty. (Employees DO seem to like to talk to each other though, just not to customers). As a customer too often I feel like an intruder who has interrupted an employee conversation about some reality show or complaining about their jobs or managers or shouting to each other about some element of the store like re-stocking a shelf.) Sometimes they ask the “room for cream?” question, sometimes not. And when they don’t (and even sometimes when they do) the cup is never filled up with that expensive coffee. Plenty of times it’s an inconsistent, disappointing experience.

Starbucks’ cookie-cutter stores (notice I didn’t say coffeehouses) feel sterile. A step up from fast food joints? Perhaps. But certainly not the warm, local coffeehouse feel with a unique (maybe even local) coffee made by a knowledgeable and talented barista. Too often it feels like staff members with little “people-skills” or even just a simple desire to be nice and friendly. And I might even overlook or find humor in that if the person behind the counter was an expert. But what we really see is bunch of people who seem to be going by some standard manual somewhere – instead of knowledge, craftsmanship, and pride.

Yes, I’m beating up on Starbucks a little. Because they are so ubiquitous. And many of us find our way into one on a semi-regular basis; so we have a basis of experience. But it plagues almost all so-called premium brands. The higher-end brand (whether it’s a $4+ cup of coffee or a designer shirt) MUST be accompanied by a service level at least commensurate with its price. Customers cannot be invisible, ignored, sneered at, taken for granted, or made to feel unwelcome. The experience can’t be boring, stale, and lacking in personality. Instead the customer has to feel that the entire place revolves around them and is designed to make their experience everything it could be.

Many of these once-premium brands have now lost their character. They lack uniqueness, personality, and service. Is this the way of all successful brands? To drift downward to become yet another mass-market, big-box store experience? Perhaps. But I like to think that any large brand can feel warm and inviting and, well, premium.

When product uniqueness trickles away (I can get a deeply roasted cup of coffee or a good frappaccino in lots of places now – for less money.) I can buy organic produce in my mainstream grocery store now (also for less money). What I used to get was a unique product and a unique atmosphere. It’s lost for now. And since brands have let the in-store experience drop to nothing more than a simple transaction, then why not just buy online,  somewhere more convenient, or simply less expensive?

If you have a higher-end brand, I have some ideas to help you differentiate your premium products and services and really stand out!

Know your customer intimately

It always starts here! It’s critical to begin with some real deep knowledge of your customer. Know who they are. Know what they like. Know what would motivate them to explore your products/services. How do they (or how would they) use your products and services?

Take action: Initiate a plan to get more familiar with your customers. Ask for their opinions and insights. Invite them to help overhaul the customer experience.

Know what competitors are doing

Be sure to always be looking at your competition also. Your customers sure are! A higher-end customer is always looking for the right mix of product/service, atmosphere, service/helpfulness,

Brainstorm ways that you can set your business apart. Find ways to be unique and interesting and informative.

Take action: Develop a competitor research program. Define who your competitors are. Know what products/services they provide. Know how you differ from them. This can and should be a mix of your own observation and research coupled with customer input.

Create a unique, inviting atmosphere

When you walk into a place, what means high-end to you? Is it the furnishings? The colors? The layout? Think about what type of atmosphere you want to create. If you have a physical location, think about the right layout, colors, lighting, flooring, artwork, shelving. And the product mix is critical. Create an atmosphere that screams high-end.

If you’re an online business, your website can also exude an atmosphere or a feeling. It can’t be just thrown together. It must be informative and have a design that matches the customers’ aesthetic.

Take action: Visit the locations and/or websites of some higher-end brands. Note what makes you feel the brand. Think about what elements you can apply to your own business.

Crank up your employees

Knowledgeable and personable employees are critical. They must be steeped in knowledge about products and services – and how they differ from competitors. It’s not simply about sales. It’s about customer-care. It’s about providing customers the information they seek and the relationship they desire. And it has to start with product and service knowledge. Find employees who want to learn the business and want to work with your customers.

Generally a premium business means a high-touch business, It’s important to know how much attention to give a customer. Sometimes they want a lot of help. Sometimes they simply want to be left alone. You need to be able to tell the difference – and be able to switch from one to the other quickly and gracefully. Let customers drive.

Take action: Look closely at your hiring practices. Is it designed with customers in mind? Is it intended to find just the right people with just the right personalities and attitudes to serve your customers well? Make sure you have a way to surface these individuals. Get good existing employees (who you trust and who know what traits you are looking for) to recommend people. Incentivize the behaviors you want.

Take action (part 2): Train all staff on how to “read” customers – and how to act accordingly.


Making sure your business is competitive can be a hard thing. I know. I can help you design ways to stand apart from the crowd in a unique way. I’d love to chat with you and explore how I can help your business succeed. Feel free to reach out and get in touch. No pressure. Just an informal discussion to explore some ideas. You can reach me at (713) 907-8429 or BCohen@IDiscoverConsulting.com. I hope you are enjoying these blog posts If so, please help spread the word. Tell others about IDiscover Consulting Group and IDiscover Journal. Share these posts. Comment on them. I’d really love to hear your ideas!