What Other Companies Can Learn From Starbucks’ New Voice-Ordering Apps

Jan 31, 2017

It sounds a bit silly at first blush: Rather than speak to a barista, order a cup of coffee by speaking into a smartphone or to “Alexa,” the digital voice assistant built into the Amazon Echo speaker. Silly perhaps, but it appears that the Starbucks voice-ordering toy is so popular it is hurting the coffee retailer’s sales. Some customers, it seems, are put off by long lines in stores, which the company attributes to too many people ordering from their phones.

Artificial intelligence meets caffeinated beverages. What could possibly go wrong?

In fact, as Fortune’s John Kell describes, it’s the latest example of a company embracing the newest technology to serve customers in a novel way. Starbucks unveiled two whiz-bang, voice-ordering features Monday. One is the “on-command” My Starbucks barista, a non-Siri voice-activated mobile ordering system that works with the Starbucks iPhone app. The other is a “skill” for Amazon’s Alexa. Both allow users to order and pay for coffee without speaking to a human. Customers then pick up their orders at a nearby store.

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These bleeding-edge applications ultimately might not work out. It may well be that customers like buying their coffee from that nice young man in the knit cap after all.

Successful or not, it proves the increasingly obvious maxim that all companies are technology companies now. It also proves a corollary: If your company serves customers and hasn’t considered a voice-activated app or how it might integrate with Alexa, your company is dangerously behind the times.

Order coffee without speaking to a human.

The Starbucks app is a good listener. It can handle the order: "Double upside-down macchiato half decaf with room and a splash of cream in a grande cup." Leaving aside for the moment whether this constitutes progress or something else entirely, something interesting is going on.

And for what it’s worth, it feels really good to write about coffee this morning, not politics.

Have a charged-up day.

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