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.