What’s more important in business, consistency or personality?

Pekoe Sip House: LogoMy wife and I were visiting our local Pekoe Sip House this morning and she got a chai, commenting that she really liked their drinks at this particular café. When she tasted her drink, however, she found that she didn’t like it this time, commenting that “last time they added agave, this time they didn’t. Maybe they just forgot?”
It got me thinking about what differentiates Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX) from these local coffee (and tea) houses, and it’s the very same thing that has made McDonald’s (NYSE: MCD) an international powerhouse: consistency

Travel the world and if you walk into a McDonald’s and order a burger, you know exactly what you’ll get, they have consistency down to a science, to the point where it’s almost like you’ve traveled back to the first McDonald’s in Southern California. Beijing or Moscow, Bahrain or Mumbai, their food looks, tastes and is presented identically. Even if you don’t like the food there, you have to admit that they’ve transformed the notoriously random process of cooking into an assembly line that even Henry Ford could love.
In the world of coffee, it’s Starbucks that has applied the same mantra. They don’t have “baristas” who tend to make stronger or sweeter drinks, they have precisely measured recipes that ensure the latté you drink in Mexico City tastes identical to the one you had two weeks earlier on Chicago’s Miracle Mile or perhaps while walking down Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
If you’re in the world of franchise business, you already live and breathe the necessity for consistency. Maybe a given franchise business has some ability for you to localize or imprint your business in a way that’s slightly different to other franchisees (an example is the lattitude that Mailboxes Etc offers its member companies) but generally what you’re buying is the “cookbook”, the ability to be more than just a standalone business, to be a part of a national or international enterprise.
But there’s a downside with this lockstep march towards consistency too, one that’s also demonstrated when a local business is far better than its franchise alternatives: consistency creates boredom. I mean, if every single time I go into Starbucks I know I’ll get the exact same cup of coffee, worldwide, why not be daring and try something new, something different, something local?
Worse, when everything’s boiled down to a cookbook, that means that competitors can use the same basic cookbook, meet you on consistency, and compete — and perhaps win — on price. That’s when we see consistency inexorably march towards commoditization, and that’s a massive headache (as my co-author Linda Sanford and I wrote about in Let Go To Grow too). It’s outsourcing of a whole new dimension.
So was Pekoe making a mistake when it failed to be consistent with its cup of chai this morning? On the one hand, yes, because it’s an axiom of the restaurant business that “you’re only as good as the last meal you served”. On the other hand, without some sort of variation in what they serve, they’d lose some of their appeal, some of their “hand made” charm. It’s the very fact that they don’t have a cookbook that makes Pekoe an interesting and appealing place for a cup of tea.
What do you think, dear reader? Is consistency the most important characteristic of a successful business, or is personality, variation, experimentation more important?

6 comments on “What’s more important in business, consistency or personality?

  1. Setting a standard is a great thing, but a good meal is a greater thing. I live in China and do drop by McDonald’s and Starbucks when travelling, but I definitely place a higher value on food with personality and a little love cooked in.
    However, you asked which was the most important characteristic of a successful business. I would say it depends completely on what you are trying to achieve with the business; it depends on the goals or unique characteristics of the business. To go global most businesses need the consistency, but that is not to say a personal and experimentation based business could not also be quite successful. They are two different animals.

  2. If your product is a commodity � consistency helps (e.g. coffee, hamburgers). If your product is unique or you occupy a market niche � consistency is a must to fuel long-term growth. In either case � developing that consistency is difficult.
    Far more difficult and far more rewarding is developing a consistency of service. Get this one right, you can grow and earn higher margins than your competitors.

  3. I would say, reproducing like a franchise, is key. Even if you have no intention of making your business into a franchise, treating it as such is an important business strategy. Some of these ideals are what I have gathered from the book, “E-Myth Revisited”, by Michael E. Gerber. As for the boring aspect of exact reproduction; this is why a business has to be innovative and stay on their toes, bringing new things to market continuously to keep their honored customers into their products. Starbucks, for example, does come out with new products all the time, they do plenty of research before the product is launched and once launched, stick to the exact recipe that makes the masses happy.

  4. I think it’s all about creating a balance. They key is to make an emotional connection with your customers, so when these occasional “hiccups” in consistency or quality happen they may be noticed, but are forgiven.
    Your wife knows that people are human, and as such, mistakes will be made. My guess is she would rather have that human touch than a perfect chai every time. Actually, when you know it’s a human behind the counter/phone/computer you’re more likely to have a comfort level that allows you to go back up to the counter and ask for a dash of agave nectar.
    It’s a matter of working around human nature. Humans, in general, don’t know how to politely have mistakes fixed. This has created a business environment where everyone has to be perfect (or at least consistently bad) every time so there are no surprises. If people, in general, could address the problems in their chai (or even their lives) with some grace and compassion and a simple, “Hey, could you fix this please?” I don’t think this question would even exist.

  5. “In the world of coffee, it’s Starbucks that has applied the same mantra. They don’t have “baristas” who tend to make stronger or sweeter drinks, they have precisely measured recipes that ensure the latt� you drink in Mexico City tastes identical to the one you had two weeks earlier on Chicago’s Miracle Mile or perhaps while walking down Bourbon Street in New Orleans.”
    i beg to disagree. i’m a Starbucks junkie and i order Caramel Macchiato 95% of the time. even here in Seattle where i live, “consistency” on the taste of Caramel Macchiato is non-existent. each Starbucks location have a different “taste” for making Caramel Macchiato. some are too sweet. some are too bland. and forget it, once you go to other Starbucks, like Chicago, or even the Philippines, expect another taste. (note: even McDonald’s change their recipe to respond to the cultural needs of the people in that location.)
    don’t get me wrong. this is not too bad. but my point is that it’s not always the taste and consistency of the coffee that makes Starbucks a sweet business. it’s their excellent marketing and innovative ways of responding to change.
    flowing gracefully and responding to change and being consistent with it is key 🙂
    ~C (for Consistency)

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