I should make it clear that I don’t think Starbucks is unique. The same conversations about how do you create employees can be had in almost any context. All of the skills that make a great Starbucks partner are the same skills that make a great employee in almost any career. And Starbucks suffers from some of the same challenges of any major retailer – some employees love what they do, while others couldn’t care less.
There are only a tiny number of careers where you don’t have to deliver great customer service, have good people skills, and create some magic. And well, let’s be totally honest: many careers require at least a minimal amount of faking it, and some amount of ass-kissing. (Sorry to be blunt.)
People are atrociously flawed. We are all full of shortcomings. (I could easily list a long list of flaws for myself! LOL). That moment in time when an employee encounters a customer is just a tiny snapshot in time. Neither one knows the context often fueling the interaction. One huge fallacy is that there is something mysterious about either partners or Starbucks customers. People are people. People can be baffled, confused, misunderstood in any setting. You’re doing a real disservice once you start pointing fingers on either side of the counter and thinking that the problem is customer or the problem is employees. We all make mistakes and have these moments where we don’t handle a situation with the finesse and skill required at that moment.
It isn’t the flaws that are the problem. It is how we deal with mistakes that matter. On the long list of human flaws is that many people are much too prideful. They don’t want to admit they’re wrong. This also causes escalating tensions. Once in a while, I’ll hear a retail employee say something like, “I’m never going to give in to customers,” and sometimes what that translates into is “I’m much too prideful to do the right thing in this context.” Actually, this pridefulness that says “I’m not going to budge” doesn’t work well for anyone.
A brand is not just a logo. It’s the sum of the interactions between customers and employees, and the emotions that flow from those experiences. It is almost always the challenge of the employee to figure out how to deliver the high-road result. The reason for that is that they are the ones who are expected to maintain the brand experience.
Starbucks positions itself as a premium brand. Like a Nordstrom, Sheraton Hotels, Whole Foods, or Williams Sonoma, Starbucks strives to be a premium brand.
It is true that when we pay a little more for something, we tend to expect a better experience. There’s no doubt that if you’re shopping at Ross Dress For Less, you might expect a different kind of experience than clothes shopping at Nordstrom. And, you’d expect a very different experience if staying at a Motel 6 versus a Sheraton Hotel. I think that many people perceive Starbucks as “expensive,” and it is true that the beverages are designed with a wide profit margin. Whether intuitively or not, when people feeling like they’re paying a little more for something, they expect that it will deliver a little more – a smile, and a great beverage or food item.
And as I cycle back to talking about Starbucks, there are some ways that Starbucks is unique. Starbucks provides some great tools to help partners deliver a great experience. In fact, if you were to adopt some of the ideals and strategies that I mention below, they’d help you in any career. They’re good life skills. Few employers do such a great job of spelling what works in delivering a great experience.
For Starbucks, the magic in delivering great experiences boils down to two things. The first is good hiring decisions. The second is providing the tools and skills to deliver upon the brand promise. Starbucks is good at finding great people, and finding ways to coach them in the right direction! Not everyone is a good fit. I think I heard somewhere that Starbucks now employees 200,000 people. You can’t hire that huge of a number and not have a few hits and misses.
I reiterate: a brand is not just a logo. It is all that happens between customers and employees. It’s those conversations about the brand that happen between friends much later, after the business transaction is long over, and the customer has walked out of the store.
There are a few strategies that Starbucks employs that really help to deliver great experiences consistently. And as I’ve mentioned – these are great life skills. Adopt these strategies, and they’ll help you in any career.
The Five Ways of Being – The Green Apron Behaviors.
Be Welcoming – Offer everyone a sense of belonging. It doesn’t hurt to greet customers immediately. I think being welcoming is an obvious good thing.
Be Genuine – Connect. Respond. Discover – Connect with the customer to figure out how to best deliver what he or she wants. Anticipate what he or she might want or like. It helps when you yourself deliver a genuine side – no need to put on any airs. I would say that partners can personalize the experience. I don’t think customers or partners like it if they feel like they have to deliver an identical script to each customer – that’s not really connecting or personalizing.
Be Involved – Connect with one another, with the company, and with the community. Starbucks offers lots of opportunities to get involved. It’s a great altruistic goal. Both customers and partners can log into the Starbucks Community website and look for volunteering projects to get involved with. I just now logged in and looked around a bit. As a totally random example of things you might fine, you’ll notice things like partners in Nashville, Tennessee looking for more volunteers to donate their time at a food bank.
Be Knowledgeable – Love what you do, and share it with others. It always helps to know your job well. I will say that one way Starbucks is unique is that they change more rapidly and more often than many brands. I can see how a partner might feel like they’ve got things down, and then policies and products change. Lots of jobs though require a person to flexible and keep on top of an ever-changing industry.
Be Considerate – Take care of yourself, each other, and the environment. This is self explanatory.
And how do you deal with those tense moments where a customer complains? “My drink isn’t perfect.” (What’s important to each customer will vary so much. Some customers will be more put off by over-filled trashcans than a less than perfect drink. Priorities are different for each customer. Some just want a fast drink.)
The LATTE method of delivering great customer service – again, this would be useful whether you worked at Quiznos, Starbucks, or whatever.
Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred. (Or in the alternative, Escalate to someone above the level of the barista, if necessary – “escalate” isn’t part of the Starbucks training materials (as far as I know), but I thought it made sense here, so I threw it in.)
If someone is really following the LATTE method of delivering great experiences, he or she will be able to handle the overwhelming number of uncomfortable situations.
One thing that helps is to give people the benefit of the doubt. It helps to assume the best of intentions in others. It’s how everyone would hope to be treated, if the shoe was on the other foot. For customers who know the brand well, or partners who are there every day, the experience is not befuddling. But for others – even customers who go often enough to get a gold card (considering that 30 times a year is not a lot) the experience can be confusing. Beverages change. Food changes. Today I watched a woman totally confused at the register (it really looked like it could be her first visit ever to Starbucks) asked the register barista what the difference between an espresso macchiato and a caramel macchiato is. I recall another time recently talking a gold card holder customer who had no idea that you could use a reward for food. Starbucks changes often – both sides of the counter have to work to keep up!
The last thing is simply this: Empower employees to deliver something great. Once in a while I’ve heard partners say that they’ll get yelled at for ‘just saying yes’ or using the ‘right now recovery’ button. If you’re going to set yourself up as a premium brand experience, you have to give employees the ability to deliver on it, where needed. Hopefully Starbucks management is backing up employees when they do whatever is right to deliver a great experience. No employee should ever be admonished for doing the right thing!
You can be in any career, but so few really teach people how to deliver good customer/client experiences. I remember one time being on a frustrating phone call with a civil attorney, and losing my cool. After I got off the phone, I ran and told a good friend at work about my frustrations. And all he could say was (1) good thing that wasn’t a client and (2) nobody comes out of law school a kinder and gentler person than before they entered it. Ain’t that the truth. Law schools sure as heck don’t teach customer service. Lots of lawyers would benefit from adopting the Green Apron Behaviors! For further reading, there’s a great Forbes article about how doctors often don’t get enough people skills training, comparing Starbucks baristas to physicians.
I don’t expect every Starbucks experience to be a dream. And I know that they make plenty of mistakes. The difference is whether you learn from them, and corporate philosophy to guide and coach partners in the right direction – I think this one thing that Starbucks has that not all brands have.
And frankly, I am pretty convinced that there are lots of very passionate Starbucks partners out there working very hard to bring the brand experience to life. I hate to see the partners who are giving 110% not recognized because of one bad experience.
As you can see this article isn’t really just about Starbucks. You can take these lessons and apply them to just about any career.
(I think this has been a downer of an article. I’ll be sure to post something fun and uplifting for tomorrow.)
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