Published in 2007, The Starbucks Experience by Joseph Michelli is the essential guide describing what the Starbucks Experience really is and can be, at its best.  It should be required reading for new partners, and anyone who really loves Starbucks, and even those who have disdain for the company!

The book outlines five guiding principles that make the Starbucks experience come to life, and then each section is full of examples demonstrating the vitality of the guiding principle and what it means in practice at the store-level and at the corporate level too. The examples in the book continually highlight when the Starbucks Experience is operating at its best.  The five principles are (1) Make it your own, (2) Everything matters (3) Surprise and delight (4) Embrace resistance (5) Leave your mark.

Though if there is one over-riding theme to the book, it is empowerment.  The book is filled with examples of partners empowered to make great choices to either make the customer’s day with surprise and delight, use humor in the course of transaction, and find great solutions for challenges and resistance. Sometimes the humor is the very small things like a very gentle and playful tug of war at the register with a credit card, remembering drinks and names, and sometimes there are very big things like sitting down and connecting with a regular customer who has just lost her husband and needed that time with a barista.  The book is filled with great discussions of Starbucks’ passion for doing the right thing for the farmer, and a great discussion of C.A.F.E. practices as well.

In the introduction section, the book quotes an Ontario, Canada barista as saying, “we are empowered to make each customer’s visit count.  Every now and then, a customer will return within a few minutes of ordering, and order again.  Following a quick, hopefully well-placed comment, it comes out that the customer has spilled his drink before fully enjoying it.  Sometimes he is obviously ‘marked’ by the experience, and we offer assistance.  That is when I let the customer reorder the same drink; then tell them that it’s on us, since we don’t expect payment for the one that got away.  The customer is always surprised and tries to pay anyway, to no avail.  What makes me proud to work for this company is that I can take liberties to make things right.” (emphasis added).

I have often thought the Green Apron book behaviors simply describe great life skills that can adopted for almost every single business person in making their own career better and more emotionally rewarding.  The framework is be welcoming, be genuine, be considerate, be knowledgeable, and be involved.  One great example of this framework, in action, came from the story of the baristas who were aware that their store had a group of regulars who were librarians.  The local library near their Starbucks was going through a relocation, and the baristas took coffee to the new library and helped introduce the librarians to the new Starbucks now closest to the re-located local library.  The only way that kind of connection can occur between barista and customer is if the baristas are listening to the customers, knowledgeable about what’s happening in the community right near their store, and even welcoming the customers to a new store.

By the way, I particularly liked the story of the coffee-bean-covered pig at the Pike Place store, called “Pork and Beans.”  I have seen the pig many times sitting high above the door, and always wondered how it got there.  I never knew how much work was involved in placing the pig above the door, given that a shelf above the door could not be constructed with the permission of the Pike Place Market Historical Commission. That story speaks to a store partner’s strong will to find a solution to a big pig in a very small store.

The best quote about the relationships between customers and baristas come from former vice president of Marketing, Brad Stevens, who says, “By creating consistently intimate stores, we have become the living room of the neighborhood.  We are not content to be liked.  We want to be loved.  We are not looking for romantic love or the love a mother has for a child.  We are looking for that rare situation where people say, ‘Oh, I love that company.’ …” (emphasis added).

Melody’s commentary:

Three tumultuous years have passed by since this book was published.  The Starbucks experience has truly been tested and pushed to the edge of its limits.  One current challenge now is that labor is so thin that it is very hard for baristas to have much time to connect with customers.  I absolutely believe that the Starbucks experience still exists, but as Starbucks has worked through really painful challenges like store closures in 2008, and thin labor practices in the stores, this has taken its toll on baristas who probably feel less empowerment now than ever before.  I definitely think that many of the examples of things that baristas did in the book to really make customers feel special and warm and cherished by the corporation, now in the year 2010, might be seen as rogue unprofitable behavior by certain store managers or district managers in a deep recession of 2008 to present.  (Certainly, we’re not in quite as deep of recession now as we were just a couple of years earlier).  I know that the Starbucks experience can still come to life, and that many baristas are still feeling motivated to bring legendary experiences to the stores, but the hurdles are higher than just three years ago.

In addition to the tighter labor scenario now, a noxious hurdle is the much larger importance that online connections play now than they did just a few years ago.  Negativity among baristas can spread like a contagion, and online reading dis-heartening and upsetting experiences counter to the culture of Starbucks can have a poisonous effect on the brand.  In other words, there are far more ways that upset baristas can connect and vent together online than ever before.  There is nothing inherently wrong with being able to vent, but the problem is that others can get sucked into the negative energy and actually spread it too.  It can get a little skewed out of whack online.  Customers reading about these negative experiences often don’t have the right tools to understand that they might be reading about very limited fluke incidences. Customers then walk away from the online content thinking that this is representative of all barista behavior, or indicative of how baristas really see their relationships with customers.  This often couldn’t be further from the truth, but this is how negative online content affects word of mouth customer conversation.

There is nothing that can be done about this damaging online content. Starbucks doesn’t control it, and can’t.  The only thing that Starbucks can do is fight the few “Negative Nancy’s” with a healthy dose of empowerment and “just say yes”.  Starbucks partners have to be given all the right support and structure to lead by example.  No one can be afraid for their job for being legendary.

Of course I am optimistic about the Starbucks experience returning to the exact same level of vitality that it had just a few years ago. Recessions don’t last forever.  As the corporation becomes increasingly profitable again, and returns the right tools back to the stores to empower baristas, things will go back to a more generally inspiring “third place” experience that Starbucks built its name on (aside of course from the bold coffee).