Not All Starbucks Partners Move “Onward” With CEO Howard Schultz
Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz, as he leads his company into new territories and seeks to further embed it in established ones, summarizes his forward-moving spirit in one word: Onward. Some of his employees, though, don’t share his enthusiasm, or at least his sense of direction.
At a Starbucks drive-thru store in Scottsdale, Ariz., near the Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard intersection, the baristas do what they’re paid and expected to do. They greet you with a customary “Thank you for choosing Starbucks” or “Welcome to Starbucks” greeting, accept your order via a much complained about intercom system, take your money, and then deliver your drink or food. And, as time and circumstances allow, they might talk with guests about the day’s news, personal lives, pets, and anything else you might hear said to someone in a semi-hurry.
But once Howard Schultz published his book, Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul, in 2011, he revealed a bar that he’s set admirably high inside his company, a bar that he’s invited every Starbucks employee, or partner, to reach and exceed.
He talks about love in the book. And the Beatles. And Bono. And post-Katrina New Orleans. He shares details about what inspired him to love more: to love the Starbucks brand, the coffee and its culture, and, most importantly, the people that he’s connected to day by day.
“WHAT IF WE CARED ALL OF THE TIME THE WAY WE CARE SOME OF THE TIME? WHAT IF WE CARED WHEN IT WAS INCONVENIENT AS MUCH AS WE CARE WHEN IT’S CONVENIENT? WOULD YOUR COMMUNITY BE A BETTER PLACE?… WE THINK SO, TOO.”
These lines, recorded in the book, also aired on national television on Nov. 1, 2008, during a commercial break fromNBC’s Saturday Night Live. The ad, in the name of Starbucks, was designed to get people to vote in the upcoming presidential election. But the wording clearly suggests community action beyond what’s done in the voting booths. Starbucks wanted to inspire some soul.
In spite of what Howard claims, though, even if the company as a whole hasn’t lost its soul, some of the company’s stores and partners have, including the Starbucks near Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard and some of its partners.
In Need of Soul
On a white grease board in the Scottsdale and Shea store’s back room, which is really more of a hallway lined with shelves that leads to a back corner where the manager does her behind-the-scenes work, and where baristas go to clock in and out for shifts, reads the slogan “Go Big or Go Home” written boldly in red dry-erase marker. The slogan is in the context of selling as many pounds of Starbucks Christmas Blend coffee as possible.
Some baristas embrace the challenge, in like manner as the store’s manager and district manager, with the competitive edge of a hockey player facing a guarded net. Others, though, offer the beans with only mechanical enthusiasm, more as participating spectators than inspired players. But the baristas who have the competitive juice really go for it. One partner, a shift supervisor, “goes big” in a way similar to this:
“Hello, welcome to Starbucks. What can I get started for you?”
“Hi, I’ll have a Venti green tea, please.”
“Sure, and would you like a pound of our Christmas Blend to take home with you? It’s on sale today.”
“No, thanks. I don’t drink coffee.”
“Oh, okay. But maybe you have some friends or family who’d want some?”
“No, thanks, just the tea.”
Another partner, a middle-aged barista who entertains fellow partners and guests with a boisterous joy mixed with subdued bitterness, chooses an approach that goes beyond legitimate retail sales and enters the realm of commercial panhandling:
“Hello, welcome to Starbucks. What can we get started for you?”
“I’ll have a Tall coffee, please.”
“Okay, one Tall coffee. Anything else for you?”
“No, that’s it.”
“Okay, but I need your help with something. I need to sell 13 pounds of this coffee; it’s the Christmas Blend and it’s on sale today. I need to sell at least 13 pounds before I go home or else I won’t sell enough. Do you want to buy one or two pounds?”
Another version of that story, whether true or not – usually not – can be heard in nearly every major metropolitan area at gas stations along fringe streets or downtown blocks:
“Hey, man, can you help me out? My wife and baby are in the car and we ran out of gas. I just need a few bucks for gas to get us home. Can you help me out? This is not a scam, I swear.”
Impressive and amusing, yes. But is this really the love that inspired Howard Schultz to the renewed vigor which saved the company’s life?
According to Starbucks’ philosophy as described in Onward and other company literature, such as The Green Apron Book, a sort of Barista Bible that every partner receives once hired, sales should come naturally via genuine human connection. Each partner must treat each Starbucks guest as an individual and must seek to understand each person’s particular tastes, to connect the dots, respectfully, between what a person wants and what Starbucks offers.
But the philosophy practiced in many stores, including the Scottsdale and Shea store, is not always of sales happening via human connection but of human connection happening via sales. Guests, oftentimes, are treated like biological ATMs and sales targets, viewed more as potential obstacles — because, if they’re not buying enough coffee then they’re in the way — than as truly welcomed guests.
It’s difficult to determine where the disconnect begins, exactly. What process occurs that changes the Beatles-inspired “all you need is love” philosophy to a trite “go big or go home,” locker-room-jock-and-sports-bra philosophy?
To be clear, though, not every barista at Scottsdale and Shea has a chilled heart toward Onward passion. And those who do aren’t completely at fault. One equation that multiple Starbucks managers fail to understand is High Demands * Insufficient Staffing = Low Morale.
Low morale corrodes love. Corrosion spreads easily. Do the math.
Until district and store managers become more concerned with the metamath that’s written in Onward than with the math of sales tally sheets, bean counts, percentages and store rankings, opportunities for inspiring the action that Howard Schultz calls for will continue to be missed.
Training might help.
On Feb. 26, 2008, all Starbucks stores in the U.S. and around the world closed their doors for a few hours to train Starbucks baristas in the art of Espresso Excellence. A similar act in the context of Human Excellence might be just as warranted, where partners learn more about the communities in which they live and the heart it takes to make them better. There, also, baristas and managers might encounter a familiar slogan, one that sums up the responsibility of respecting human life and, as the Starbucks Mission Statement says, “nourishing the human spirit” – Go Big or Go Home.