North Star: Commentary and Response

20170413_103301 - North Star AgendaStarbucks North Star is slowly beginning to creep into the news. Starbucks launched North Star about one month ago, implementing a nationwide program to improve both customer and partner experiences. (Starbucks calls their employees, ‘partners.’) It’s a framework to talk about and develop meaningful connections.

The tenets of North Star are that the Starbucks experience revolves around the following:

  • Recognize Me
  • Include Me
  • Appreciate Me
  • Support Me
  • Delight Me

The reactions to North Star have been all over map. published a couple of articles touching upon it: Starbucks is quietly changing the business as furious baristas slam the ‘cult that pays $9 per hour.’ Also: They’d rather us be machines: Starbucks baristas reveal the worst parts of working there.

So what is really going on?

First off, I think it’s important to recognize that the North Star initiative is very results focused. It’s clear that Starbucks wants to re-create those kind of customer-partner relationships and connections that have been the ‘secret sauce’ of the brand for decades. Starbucks has always prided itself on the special relationships that happen inside stores: Any retailer can throw a little milk, espresso, and mocha sauce into a cup and call it beverage, but for Starbucks, historically they’ve always served a little human connection with every drink.

The Starbucks mission is to “Inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time.’

That’s a lofty goal.

North Star is about the end result: Better connection. What it doesn’t do is really prescribe the tools that will make that happen. There’s nothing in it that says for 5 minutes every day, there will be a meeting between the shift supervisor and baristas to check in on how customer experiences are going. It doesn’t say ‘Here’s a workbook of common examples that you can work through: Here’s what you do when the customer is furious that Nitro Cold Brew doesn’t come in a Venti size. Here’s what you do when someone wants a refill of Iced Passion Tea‘ And most importantly, there’s nothing in North Star that automatically puts more partners on the floor to allow for more time for customer connection. It doesn’t say, ‘Have no fear if you take a while to talk a customer but straws and sugars don’t get restocked..’

What does North Star do? Therein lies the problem. For some partners, it doesn’t feel authentic. It feels forced. And it really isn’t changing their day-to-day work experiences. It feels like a top down directive.

Is the problem the partners themselves? Do they just want to be angry all the time and they can’t take it with a grain of salt each time a customer doesn’t know what or how they want to order?

I’ve heard all kinds of reasons about why the “Starbucks Experience” seems to be gone from many stores. I’ve heard everything from ‘I’ll get in trouble if I give that free refill,’ to ‘There’s no time’ to many more reasons. I’ve heard the blame even being put on the Millennial generation, that they’re ‘entitled’ and only want perfect customers who don’t purchase Frappuccinos or too complicated Frappuccinos.

I don’t think any one generation has a monopoly on saltiness and negativity at work: Trust me, I’ve met some harsh Generation X-ers and Baby Boomers, all wearing the green apron. It can’t help to blame any one generation. I won’t even entertain that idea.

About 2 years ago, I wrote an article called 10 Ways Starbucks Could Improve. I’ve heard loose gossip that that influenced North Star, but I don’t know that for a fact. I still think that many of the points in that article hold true today. But when it comes to Starbucks turning into a Taco Bell or McDonald’s experience, I really think just 3 things have gone awry.

  1. Too many partners are operating from fear: The partner interacting with the customer doesn’t have permission to make the experience great. I will get in trouble if I don’t charge for that extra shot. I will get in trouble if I take a minute to talk to a regular. I’ll get in trouble if I don’t find someway to charge extra for something, even if the register doesn’t have a charge for it (‘heavy lemonade’ examples.) Operating from fear creates the “barista sheriff” syndrome that is common in many stores. The barista’s job is to hand out citations: No you can’t have that drink because I can’t figure out how to charge for it. No you can’t have a refill. No you can’t have a Venti ice water.
  2. Prioritizing numbers over people: The emphasis has been, for years and years, on how many customers per half hour, not how the experience felt to either the customer or the partner. There’s no allowance for extra labor to allow more than 20 seconds at the register with a customer. How much can you really connect in 20 seconds?
  3. A culture of “us” versus “them” has seeped into Starbucks: I’ve watched it happen many times. A customer orders a drink. A few words are spoken. No smiles are exchanged. The next customer standing in line is a partner from another store: Suddenly the register barista is all smiles. Once in a while, I see a free drink happen, even when it should be just a discounted beverage. It’s us versus them. The partner aligns himself with other partners because they know the hell it is when customers try to order complicated Frappuccinos that they don’t know the recipe for.  An “us” versus “them” mentality creates angry partners, as battle lines get drawn.

All of this is a problem of leadership, not the young barista at the register.

You should listen to Simon Sinek talk about leadership and a company culture of fear:

Good management will in turn create good customer experiences:

Trust me, I am a believer in creating great customer moments. I remember a defining moment when I realized that Starbucks has all the right ideals, but somehow things get lost in translation. A customer ahead of me in line was trying to redeem a birthday reward. That reward was expired. The register barista simply explained that those rewards expire quickly, wished the customer a belated birthday, and said “Your drink is on us anyways…” The customer was elated. I emailed a Starbucks EVP and told him what I saw. He said, ‘This is the experience we want all our customers to have…‘ Along the way, something got lost in translation, somewhere in the leadership: A lot of partners wouldn’t feel comfortable giving out the free drink, fearing that they’ll get in trouble.

Get the leadership right and prioritize people over numbers, and the business will take care of itself.

I have to talk about one more thing: I think one thing that has puzzled Starbucks is that some stores already seem to have this down. They’re already functioning at a very high level of customer experiences, partner experiences, drink quality, and more. If some stores already have it down, why don’t all Starbucks stores operate that way?

My guess is that the answer lies in local leadership: I know one of my favorite Starbucks store managers has said to me things like, ‘I am developing young baristas whom one day I hope they can replace me. That’s my goal. Create my replacements.’ Or, ‘I coach in human connection and I’m trying to get rid of the us or them mentality.’ ‘My partners aren’t in fear of coming to work in a wrong color, out-of-dress-code shirt. They know they have to look good and deliver great experiences…But they’re not in fear of dress code write ups.‘ One store manager can make a huge difference.  I can think of a number of stores already delivering these great experiences.

And I’m sure all stores are capable of elevating both the partner and customer experiences: It just takes leadership.

Anecdotally, it seems to me that small stores have a slight advantage in all of this. If you are a store manager, trying to figure out how to get 16 people on the exact same page with your values (as opposed to a store with 30 partners) might be easier than managing a large store. The Starbucks Roastery, which is heralded as being the most elevated Starbucks there is, doesn’t always get it right. I’ve seen and experienced a few unpleasant moments at the Roastery. Overwhelmingly, it’s an amazing location, but as a practical matter, getting 120 store partners to all be rock star baristas, seems a little harder than getting a small store with less than 20 partners all on the same page.

Nonetheless, I am sure every store can be a rock star store.

I’m no expert on any of this. What I do know is that North Star by itself is NOT the answer. A pamphlet taped to the wall of a back office isn’t all that meaningful. It is going to take some real action. And the culture of Starbucks will have to improve: Take care of your partners.

By the way, I don’t know if North Star is really going to change Starbucks customer and partner experiences. It’s too soon to know since it’s so newly implemented. Time will tell.

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  • Scott McGowan

    All things changed in 2008 when Howard returned and the company Mission Statement was changed.
    It used to read,
    Take care of Employees
    Employees will take care of customers
    Customers will take care of revenue
    Revenue will take care of the Stockholders
    20 sec POS connections are still a mandate, numbers are all that is important on the daily in stores. Cut Labor is the second. It’s as though corporate once again doesn’t want to accept ANY responsibility for front line employees (corporate employees benefits is FAR different than the front line people) who have to deal with entitled, spoiled, hateful, ANGRY customers that the company behaviors create. SURPRISE promotions that corporate throws at stores with NO advance knowledge and all they say is we KNOW it’s bad but we KNOW you will rise to the challenge that we are screwing you over with and if you don’t like it, QUIT, there is always more that will work for less than McDonald’s pays. Seattle has been disconnected from the rest of the country for years so that is why there have been 100,000 new “partners” in the last ten. Starbucks was the #2 company to work for in 2007 when I started, sad that the upper management has let that fall so far from a good place.

  • Melody

    @ScottMcGowan – There were a lot of things that Howard did in 2008 with a plan to improve shareholder value and the store experiences. I have to question some of those things now: I mean spending literally $100 million to buy La Boulange in hindsight just doesn’t seem wise.
    Last year Green Apron cards changed. There’s no current Green Apron book training the way it used to be. Those old Green Apron cards were very, very, very carefully thought out and the result of feedback from customers. The old Green Apron cards were meant to embody, ‘Here’s the right approach…’ – I interviewed a woman who was part of the development of the old versions. A small slice of the culture of the Starbucks changed with the change in Green Apron cards. But the larger issue is leadership, and you’re right 20 seconds isn’t time to do much of anything. It used to be 30 seconds was the standard! And before that longer or less of a standard. How is it possible with MOP that there’s more pressure on the lines when fewer people are standing in lines? I have more questions than answers. I just know that the answer lies in leadership.

  • Kevin E

    You nailed it right on the coffin! Leadership is definitely the issue! I worked for Starbucks for 8 years and the leadership in the company has changed so much. My first manager was someone who all partners looked up to, who showed that he cared by the time I got to my last manager everyone knew that this person was numbers based, didn’t care about the business or helping partners out. I mentioned it to the DM (who has all his friends in ASM and SM positions in his district) and he said that I was overreacting yet the customer experience kept going down. Before we start blaming baristas for Starbucks lack of success we need to visit the top of the pyramid and realize that management in Starbucks sucks. Promotions are based on how much you are liked instead of how well you do your job.

  • Melissa radbill

    As a former SM who was with the company 9 years, I just have one thing to add. One of the reasons I left the company was because of district and regional leadership. I 100% agree with your comment “one store manager can make a huge difference.” But in my experience, the same was not always expected of DMs/RDs. While I strove to create a welcoming store for both partners and customers, I was not always supported by MY leaders. A lot of focus is being put on SMs and their leadership, but I believe that to see a lasting change, those higher up need to change as well.

  • Melody

    @Melissa – One thing for sure, I didn’t mean to make it sound like the blame rests on just store manager shoulders. I think it’s possible that there are some store managers who shouldn’t be SMs, but the leadership direction has to come from DMs and regional directors!

  • Kevin Claussen

    Depending on the intensity of focus on Northstar, I think it may be a mostly an unnecessary initiative. I cannot think of a single bad customer service experience I ever had at a Starbucks. And most of them are either very good interactions or pleasantly (but appropriately) neutral. In short ,when it comes to customer connections from partners – “If it ain’t really broke, don’t fix it.”
    Most people just want their coffee made well and made quickly. In the average non Reserve store, we don’t want partners acting conspicuously overfriendly.
    Reserve Bars and Roastery experiences are a slightly different story. I have had employees walk past me as I sat and sipped my nitro cold brew at the Roaster in Seattle and ask me how I was doing (with a big smile). He was fast about it, but seemed sincere. It was appropriate behavior from a partner in the Roaster and it enhanced my mood.
    Where Starbucks could deepen human connection for partners and customers is in continuing to help both parties participate in value based, meaningful actions, like the new Born this Way campaign. Starbucks is an impressively progressive company. I am loyal to them mostly for their practices and CSR initiatives, so about 60 % values/40% to their products. An elevated brand brings elevated customers who care about being involved in new and creative ways with the human experience, conservationist causes, etc. We all have seen the “donate a dollar” feature at the grocery store debit card machine…that’s a fairly basic version of what Starbucks is doing with Born this Way. But they have added at least two other elements to that basic “donate” button request: celebrity endorsement and colorful Instagram worthy drinks that are ephemeral to a public event (Pride Weekend). This can happen next year and the next…but eventually there will need to be more than short lived photogenic drinks with proceeds to a cause.
    Creating mobile and store digital content that is personalized to the buyers interest in a cause Starbucks supports, and many other things is possible. Starbucks is not the H&M of coffee. and I don’t think they are the Louie Vutton. They want to be the Stella McCartney with a lot of substance to go along with their brand. And this will require serious thought leadership.

    So again, the end result of what Northstar wants to accomplish is a symptom of new ideas that are much bigger picture. Attacking (an already perfectly good level of) customer service head on isn’t necessarily the solution. A customer service refresh? Fine. Do it and move on. But in the future partners and customers will be more engaged and connected as Starbucks incorporates their value system into day to day business and into the lives of customers.

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