The Starbucks Experience: Challenges for customers and partners.

1 - 1 - 20160624_092359 front of the city center starbucks store downtown SeattleRight now is an interesting time for Starbucks. Stores are operating with a minimal staff and expected to do more than ever. It isn’t the happiest time in Starbucks history.

Articles like this are appearing in the news:

There’s no question, Starbucks partners are feeling stressed and defeated by what’s expected of them with the few labor hours that they have to work with. We’ve slowly gotten to this place. The writing was on the wall perhaps even one year ago. I saw problems a year ago when I wrote this:

It’s not a one-sided problem. The problem isn’t just the experience of partners or customers. It is definitely both. And it’s pretty silly to think that there’s not a relationship between the two.

From the perspective of Starbucks partners, any and all of the following could be stressors right now:

  • Inadequate training – new partners feel like they’re thrown to the wolves. This includes too little time to train be able to nail things like making perfect dots and micro-foam for a flat white or latte art. Training includes very little Starbucks culture and legacy.
  • Too little pay: Long-term partners may feel disillusioned that they earn only a little more than a newly-hired partner. Pay doesn’t keep up with the cost of living – rent in some big cities (including Seattle) is outrageously high.
  • Also feeling like they’re paid as if they work at Taco Bell, yet are expected to deliver Nordstrom level customer service.
  • No time to work on coffee education.
  • No time to connect with customers – share coffee passion.
  • No time to coach, develop, train and do administrative tasks.
  • There’s almost no training to field questions of things that happen outside of the store but relate strongly to Starbucks. A common example (which I’ve seen happen) is when customers walk into a store and ask questions about Starbucks products and coffees available in grocery stores that are not available in the actual stores.
  • Feeling like the corporation makes rapid fire changes that are difficult to keep up with. One example of this comes from April of this year: Starbucks, in an apparent-surprise move, moved up the launch date for the return of the S’mores Frappuccino with very little notice to the stores.
  • Feeling like the only thing that matters is number of transactions every 30 minutes.

From the perspective of customers, any and/or all of the following could feel like they’re salient issues right now:

  • The barista sheriff issue: There’s no doubt, there are some partners who see their job at the register as the Barista-Police. This is terrible for the Starbucks experience. Terrible. No, we cannot split your Venti Frappuccino into 2 cups. No, you can’t go from a latte to an iced coffee as a refill, even though you stayed in the store. No, we can’t give you a Trenta water. No, we can’t give you water without a purchase. No, we can’t make you a Peach Vanilla Bean Frappuccino. No, we can’t blend an Evolution Fresh juice in the blender with blueberries. No, we can’t sell a half-pound of a core coffee. “No. We can’t do that,” has become a common phrase at Starbucks. I think for some partners, it gives them a chance to dig their heals in and feel powerful, but at the end of the day, it damages Starbucks brand reputation. The right answer at Starbucks is usually “yes.” The phrase as if Starbucks were a big insurance company like Aetna, “But our policy is…” has become the go-to phrase for many partners everywhere. They see their jobs as Barista-Police. And just as the police sometimes get it wrong, so do many partners. It’s amazing how often I get emails about store experiences.
  • There are something like 80 million transactions a week. Baristas sometimes act as if every person who wants something a little different must be a scammer. That’s hardly the case. The tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of a percent who truly try to scam shouldn’t be allowed to destroy the brand reputation.
  • Feeling like that experience is required to be a customer. Why would you go there if you feel like the baristas expect that you follow a prerequisite of Starbucks education before you order? I’ve heard tons and tons of stories of baristas flipping out over customers using the word “Frappe” to order a Frappuccino. If this is what makes your blood pressure go through the roof, you just don’t have enough to worry about. Just sell the drink!
  • Feeling like everything is an argument at the register.

Talking about the customer experience is incredibly unpopular and is usually met with attacks in the comments about how awful customers are. To a degree, I don’t really care. If you’re so caught up in being right, and the customer is wrong and you’re ego is fixed on this, customer service might now be the right career choice for you. But the harsh reality is that nearly all careers have some customer base of some kind that you’ve got to please if you want to create a great brand reputation. Not everything can or should work out exactly how the customer wants it. Nonetheless, there’s room for improvement.

Starbucks operates at the scale of some banks and oil companies. It’s a real challenge to grow big and maintain a small, relevant, connected feeling.

In many ways, Starbucks operates with wider swings of highs and lows: There are some stores where the store managers and district managers take it personally to ensure that the customer experience is at its best.

However the partner experience needs works. It’s both. The partner experience. The customer experience. It is both that need help.

I anger a lot of people with these kinds of articles. They just don’t want to hear it. There are people who only want me to be a cheerleader for Starbucks. I’m sorry that I’m saying things you don’t like. It’s not good for the company to ignore feedback. It’s hardly authentic to be a cheerleader in every single article. You can tell I don’t work for Starbucks! If they owned this website, I’d never be able to write articles like this.

I don’t know the methodology behind this statistic, but if you believe this website, the Starbucks experience in terms of customer satisfaction is about the same as the Taco Bell experience. I’d love to know if there’s a website out there that is the equivalent of this one – TacoBellMelody? LOL Lately what Starbucks is being known for is being huge, big, and acting like a cold billion dollar corporation. It’s been in the news that on Starbucks cards, they’re banking money like a bank.

One day recently, I was at a Starbucks in downtown Seattle and the customer ahead of me attempted to redeem an expired birthday reward. I watched. The register barista told the customer the reward was expired. The customer said she was out of town on her birthday. The register barista then wished her a happy belated birthday and gave her a free drink anyways. And the customer walked away so happy. This is the kind of experience that should be happening everywhere. I had a conversation with someone above the store level who confirmed what I was thinking: That was a great experience and should be the kind of customer experience that everyone is having.

I welcome the opportunity to sit down and talk to someone at the SSC about the declining partner experience and the declining customer experience. Both are real. Both are important. It’s not just one or the other.

I’m going to take a very short break from writing new articles here. I will have something new in the middle of July. As an aside, Starbucks has announced that there will be a small price increase in July.

I do still love a great French press of coffee. I’m still ever-thankful for my own great experiences at Starbucks, both at stores in the retail core of downtown Seattle and amazing stores in district 450, such as Tustin and Lincoln, Tustin and Meats, The Orange Circle store, Tustin and Chapman Starbucks stores. There are a number of Orange County Starbucks stores that rock. (I mention these 2 areas because they are the 2 areas I know the best: the retail core of Seattle and areas in Orange, California or nearby there.) I’m still going to go to Starbucks. I enjoy the coffee and a great Flat White now and then. I miss the Chicken Santa Fe Panini, but there are some food items that I like. One of the reasons that it’s tough for me to write this kind of article is because my own experiences are generally superb. But I hear so many things from other customers.

During this short break, I hope you’ll take a moment and catch up with some older, ever-popular StarbucksMelody articles:

Again, I don’t want to discount my own great experiences. Let me say thank you to every single partner who is sticking it out right now with the best attitude, even when it feels like a poor Starbucks experience right now for partners. And let me thank every partner who truly believes in making customers walk away from the registers “enthusiastically satisfied.”


Edit on July 4, 2016:  Given that there are 180,000 partners, I think  it’s possible that there are a few partners who would have preferred a career in law enforcement. However, I 110% agree in the analysis that a lot of the digging heals in and saying “no” to things that could easily be a “yes” comes from a culture that Starbucks created. Starbucks itself is responsible: Baristas feel like they have to be firm because otherwise they’ll be reprimanded by someone above them.





Related Posts


  • Deb G

    I completely agree with everything you have said here! As a customer of over 20 years, as well as a former partner, it has saddened me to see the state of customer service and level of training received by partners as it is today. Incorrect drinks and snotty, indifferent attitude toward me at the register and in other encounters with store partners have sadly become the norm for me when I go into a local store. I have even resorted to walking into my closest store and then leaving again to drive to another store when I see who is currently working, because I already know I’ll get a substandard drink and/or crappy attitude from the person(s) I see there at the time. Yikes! In earlier years, this was absolutely NEVER an issue.

    I will probably always be a customer, but it’s getting harder and harder to stay loyal when I am met with such issues. It doesn’t FEEL good to go there anymore. Avoidance of a place because of how badly I’m treated, and/or poor quality product for my $$ are the beginning of the end of customer loyalty for me. Rather than being isolated lately, it has unfortunately become the rule.

    I used to be a high tipper on every visit. Sorry, but no more. That tip button on my app does not get pushed any more unless I get one of those now-rare happy visits, where it actually felt good to go there and I enjoyed the drink presented to me. If partners wonder where their tips have gone, I have a news flash for them—it’s not because of the app, it’s because of some of their bad attitudes and sloppily-made drinks. Sorry, but there, I said it. When I have one of those now rare, happy experiences that used to be the norm, I jump on the tip button and thank that person or staff for being so great!

    I truly hope that the higher-ups in Starbucks get the message soon. When things started to slide a few years ago I joked that Starbucks was becoming McDonalds. Never did I dream that would actually become the case. They’d better wake up, or their loyal customer base is going to slide badly. It’s a long drop to the bottom when you treat your customer and employees like cr*p. It’s still pumping along apparently for now, but the rumblings and bad experiences that are related here and elsewhere spell out the predictable end to this. Customers will leave, employees will leave, and a new upstart will come in offering what Starbucks USED to do. Then it will be buh-bye Starbucks.

  • Birdy T.

    Thank you, Melody. This article is spot on
    – Barista and Coffee Master (name changed to protect myself from repercussions).

  • C. Partner

    The customer experience is declining because partners aren’t being taken care of. Turnover is up, raises have slowed down by half, and just starting the past 3-4 weeks labor HAS been cut. This isn’t a rumor. There is a lot of doublespeak on the subject but the fact remains that 6 weeks ago an equal number of transactions per day used to earn 4-10% more hours. It’s hard to be a partner and no one who earns a salary outside of the stores gives a crap.

  • Thomas L

    What do you mean #transactions/30min? Are partners “rated” on that?

  • S. Bucks

    The number of transactions per 30 minutes determines how much staff is needed for that half hour. If a store is under an expected amount of transactions, then the supervisor has to cut labor at some point during the day.

  • JB

    Been feeling a lot of what you’ve been saying. Am a nearly six year partner and Store manager, and while there are lots of exciting things apparently always coming down the pipeline, I get tired of promises that don’t help elevate the partner experience so we can elevate the customer experience. Just feels like more work gets slopped on us and less time to do it. I’m an exhausted Store Manager.

  • Tim Simpton

    I’m kind of surprised that so many people are shocked by corporates actions. Yes, SBUX has always said that they care about the partner/customer experience, but like any company, they have a bottom line and have shareholders to answer to. As someone who was a partner for 9 years, I saw the company make drastic changes over the years for leaner practices for greater profitability. I’m wondering if many of these partners on here were not around for 2008 when the company nearly tanked and stock was as low as $8. As a partner, be thankful that the company cares about profitably and that your bean stock, which is freely given to you, is now up to the mid $50’s per share. You benefit when the company has a good quarter and show positive gain quarter-over-quarter and part of that is cutting labor to do so.

  • Melody

    C. Partner – The turnover issue is huge. It’s bad for the company in so many ways and in the long run, it’s more expensive than a free refill of Pike Place Roast now and then to customers who didn’t follow the same store visit guidelines. Partner turnover eliminates culture being carried forward, a knowledge base to be able to field even odd questions, bar expertise, inventory management expertise and a bazillion other things.

  • Chris Westergaard

    So just as a quick aside, Starbucks doesn’t ‘own’ the money they bank in lieu of outstanding Starbucks Cards. That money is considered unclaimed property by the various States, and cannot be kept by Starbucks, but is instead turned over to the States after a legally established amount of time.

  • Skooter McGoo

    I know some don’t like to see the bad but without knowing, how can anything change. I showed a 5 month partner how to ring a custom blend of core beans because those are things that our coffee culture has lost. I don’t have the time to coach about Clover selects in between doing the morning rush for two hours. I loved the story of a french press but those times are no more. I can remember doing a complete tea passport tasting with a partner and a customer, those were special. Everything is online and BAM you are on the floor doing customer support with everyone yelling things they need from you. Thanks for sharing your experiences, good to know some stores get to carry on the culture. Mine will just keep doing 12 orders at a time for all the buildings around us, just wish tips would get to $1/hr.

  • Dean H.

    I completely agree, but want to add that, within the stores I worked (from Seattle to rural Georgia), there was a growing sense of disconnect between the SSC and the happenings in-store, which did not help morale. It became far too easy to feel robotic rather than human; that numbers were all that mattered. I see this as an opportunity for Starbucks to do something like what Chick-fil-A does, where all corporate workers are (or at least were) require(d) to spend a minimum of one day each year on the floor in a store. It not only builds camaraderie and goodwill between corporate and retail, but also creates opportunities for communication and operational improvement.

    Also, about the Barista-Sheriff issue: I’ve often been put in situations (not by the customer) where I get reprimanded for making an accommodation for the customer. Two quick-n-easy examples: As a borrowed partner in one Downtown Seattle store, I got in trouble for giving a customer an Iced Venti water (the shift supervisor said I could only give Iced Talls); in Georgia, I got in trouble for letting a customer add a drink at the drive-through window. I agree the Barista-Sheriff mentality is not cool at all, but in my experience, it comes out of fear from store or district management; not necessarily the barista him or herself (though, let’s be real: we all know THAT person, bless his or her heart…).

    I hope to see Starbucks change course, because I genuinely care about the company. Its partners are the core of the brand, and if they’re not happy, customers will follow suit. As you said, it’s an issue on both fronts; it’s a relationship that needs to be strengthened before it breaks.

  • Melody

    @Dean H – I SO appreciate what you wrote. And I don’t think that most partners get hired hoping they’ll enforce a bunch of rules and act like police officers. (Well, with 180K partners, there surely could be a small percentage that wish they were state patrol and not baristas). It IS the current culture that has caused this to happen: The crisis is definitely on both sides of the table. But you are right: partners are now in fear. They can’t make the moment right for fear of reprimand from those above them. This is a problem Starbucks created. I don’t mean it to sound like Starbucks is intentionally hiring those who have a great wish for law enforcement.

  • Yuki in Canada

    Cannot agree more Melody. One barista was nice enough to *attempt to give me a black tea lemonade refill because I was being environmentally friendly by reusing my cup and his SS gave him an earful in front of all the customers in line!!! Then she gave me a dirty look thinking I wanted to scam the company or something. That experience was horrible and I felt so bad for the nice barista….

  • Char Gallo

    Great article and it is true all that is happening. I’ve been with the company coming up on 17 years and have seen so many changes. This current one really hurts on many levels. As manager I take pride in my partners experience and doing what’s right, but in times like this they have made it so hard. As for the barista police yes it is out there and I have seen it sadly. The message I give my partners and I hope it helps them make the right decision for the customer is , “We always just say Yes unless it is illegal , immoral or unethical we say no. ” I explain that legally we are committed to follow health code standards that could prevent us from saying yes, but be open to make a alternative suggestion for the customer to make it right. I truly hope that there will be some sort of making right for the baristas and the managers soon.

  • Karen

    You’ve hit a chord that is resounding with both baristas and customers alike. I know my store experience has changed a lot lately. Baristas are for the most part just taking my order and moving me along. My drink is frequently made incorrectly and I don’t order anything out of the ordinary. I frequently drink decaf, but only occasionally is that what I receive, and that’s a serious problem. Stores are beginning to look unclean. Something is definitely in need of a fix at Starbucks and I think that needs to happen at the corporate office first. Thanks for your honest post. Hopefully your voice will be heard at the corporate office.

  • Christine Molling

    I agree with your article Melody. I’ve noticed in the past year the stress on partners in my store I frequent 3-4 times a week. The atmosphere in my store and stores I’ve frequented in OR, CA, WA, and AZ is one of tension for sure. I’ve been a loyal customer of Starbucks since 2001. The specific “sense” of negativity in stores- main stores, seem to have started after or around the big change up in the rewards program. My take is, that Starbucks makes HUGE changes, a wide swing of the pendulum, if you will, instead ones that are less drastic. The rewards program change is a great example. Also, the order and pay ahead on your phone, skip the lines… has backfired more than not. Giving customers an unrealistic offer such as this, creates all the more stress on the partners, as well as frustration from the customers.
    I sure would like to know what is going on, in the corp. level of Starbucks, so much so, as to leave the partners and customers with a bitter taste and noxious smell of “bad” coffee.
    Thank you Melody for being real and not afraid of speaking the truth out in the open.
    P.S. Aetna, by the way, is a wonderful medical insurance provider. Have been with them since 1987.

  • Bernadette

    Thank you, Melody for all of your articles! They are very insightful & so are the comments. Char, you sound like a terrific manager. I can say that the Starbucks that I frequent is run with the same philosophy & it has my unending loyalty as a result. I hope it never changes as it is the little things that bring such pleasure & can smooth out a rough day.

  • B

    It is the managers that a being hired. I have seen an influx of terrible totalitarian management in the past year and it is sending the customer experience down the tubes because it is killing partner morale.

  • Ben Hailu

    Hi these Ben one of the customer I came these morining like every time, but I had very bad servise the employee name is Maggen she assistant manager she get mad one employee when she ask her a question.I don’t went same body with out nothing show me unprofetional unprofetional face it’s happen the 2nd time please correct these mistakethanks. The Starbucks is 3535 Elkhorn Blvd
    North Highlands, CA 95660
    United States

  • Colleen Johnson

    I am so passionate about the Starbucks experience it sincerely is breaking my heart to see the company heading into a mindset that they may not be able to recover from. I have heard partners say they cannot earn their black apron because there is no time. My little storefront may close and relocate to a drive through. I’m sad because it is the only place where I have gotten to know the whole store. You can sit and talk, they care about their coffee and take pride in their store. I would not be able to get a word in at the other sites. Busy, fast, wrong. If you try to look at the case they are rushing you… What can I get.. Not like what would you like, but what do you want.. Hurry. Even my last two trips to the Roastery have been less.. Friendly? … Engaging?.. I would love to talk to corporate also. I have been drinking Starbucks since the late 1980s and wow. I love the coffee, I will search for the experience. I am not giving up. Yet.

  • Tex

    “I anger a lot of people with these kinds of articles. They just don’t want to hear it.”
    Not at all, Melody! Anybody angered by this article has never worked in customer service and thinks the world revolves around them. I agree with every word you said (other than what I quoted)!

    Given the pressures from the management side you mentioned, it really is to their credit that most partners still provide excellent service. I worked in customer service years ago for various businesses and when you’re trying to balance “customer satisfaction” with “metrics” (read: profits for the company) you are often stuck between a rock and a hard place. I worked tech support where we weren’t allowed to even discuss certain products the customers were very likely to use (so the customers just assumed we’re idiots for “not knowing” what they were asking us about). I worked for a credit card issuer where almost every customer request (fee waivers, credit limit increases) was met with a hard no and their concerns were dismissed with a snarky “maybe if you paid your bills on time and didn’t go overlimit and didn’t keep calling us, you could qualify…”

    From my past experiences: the quickest way to lose a customer is to require your front line staff to upsell, and worst yet, hold sales quotas over their heads so they end up being pushy with the sales pitches. You’ll lose customers, and you’ll also have your best people quit in frustration. I no longer get my cars’ oil changed at a place which did this, as a new place opened nearby that just changes the oil and lets me pay and leave without enduring a series of hard sells on additional services (and charges less than the pushy guys did). Starbucks will lose me too if the baristas ever started pushing things at the end of each transaction. If I didn’t order it, I didn’t want it.

  • Ramon A Cardona

    I have to make an observation. In our “advanced” society where people that pay a premium price for anything expect “miracles” as to customer service, the problem is not the corporation per se, but the aura, the ambiance they want to sell, for the sake of the pricing of products or services. Southwest Airlines customers do not expect anything but transportation. American Airlines, just to pick one, as to Business and First Class, promises things diffucult to deliver just to be able to charge $4,000 for a ticket to Frankfort, Germany from any USA airport. When problems arise, as they do, the customer complains. customers of Wa-Wa’s just buy coffee and go away. Starbucks customer, as many have indicated here, have an “ownership” thing and expect things the business cannot do just “becuase I spend $200 a month” at Starbucks. The issue is the culture and that is difficult to resolve. Th e next issue is Wall Street. If Starbucks sells 2.8 billion in a quarte expected to do 2.85 billion, it is a disaster and its “problems” must be resolved, or else. Come on America, it is coffee. I don’t go to Starbucks any more for pricing and for the lady ahead of me that wants a coffee or drink that requires ten syllables to describe.

  • Hillary Marsch

    I am a Starbucks partner, and while I do agree unfortunately I have had a few unsavory experiences at other Starbucks locations, the Starbucks I work at is a yes store and people get what they want and walk away with a smile, every time.. While that’s all great and good, people do abuse us, people do take advantage, but we continue on making that moment right, every single time and I’m proud of that, although I am mentally & physically exhausted most days when leaving work, it really is a labor of love. And I think, personally the hiring should be a little more closely monitored, it’s all starts with us and ends with us, quality people will always do the right thing ❤️

  • Tex

    Since this is the “Barista Police” post I thought I should share my experience today (May 2) here. I went to my local store this afternoon, ordered a drink, finished it, got a refill, finished it, then went back for my 2nd refill which I would carry off to work (where I was heading). There were no issues. The first order and the first refill were handled by two of the regular baristas who have worked there since I started going 3 years ago, know me by name, and always give me a good experience. However my second refill was taken by the new manager (who started about when the Clover X machines came in), and as he took my refill order and served it to me he confronted me with “You can’t order your favorite free drinks anymore” and proceeded to tell me I am limited to quad espressos, but he might be generous and let me add 2 more shots for 6. He claimed he went to the district manager on this.
    OK, ever since (formerly “My”) Starbucks Rewards started, you could order whatever drink you like as long as it fits in a venti cup. I was not ordering those $99 stunt drinks we’ve seen online where people get 100 shots dumped into a mop bucket with bananas and heavy cream. I have always respected the venti cup size rule which I feel is more than reasonable.
    Needless to say this was very disappointing coming from the new manager at my local store, the one nearest my house which gets the bulk of my business (despite them not having anything special like Reserve, Nitro, Fizzio, etc). I have been a Gold member for more than 2 years. I spend a lot at Starbucks — I buy bags of Reserve and single origin beans, I buy expensive drinks (specialty espressos, Clover Reserves, Nitro Cold Brews, and yes the occasional Frapp), I’ve bought drinkware and other gift items. The fact my wife and I often have free drinks to redeem should be clue enough that WE SPEND A LOT OF MONEY THERE. Surely whatever it costs to make my free drinks is nothing compared to how much I spent to earn that reward. Yet here was this manager basically telling me to my face that Starbucks doesn’t want my business? Wow.
    I really feel bad calling out my local store as their long time partners (and their newest ones too) have all given me great service, yet their new manager just ruined it for me and I no longer feel welcome.

Leave a Comment


Join the mailing list to receive a weekly email with new posts: