If life worked like a Musical as I’ve so often wished, I’d just spell it out in song like The Music Man did. Trouble with a capital “T” and that rhymes with “C” and that stands for CONNECTION. According to recently appointed Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson in this interview with Fast Company editor Bob Safian, Starbucks is “a consumer brand that is anchored on human connection.” As a former partner at Starbucks, I believe this connection is unwittingly being phased out. Mr. Johnson, with his impassioned tale of swapping out his overdone store tours for a what he refers to as a partner connection tour to achieve an organic understanding of our partners, is talking the talk, but I’m not convinced he’s walking the walk.
I love Starbucks. From the first Starbucks I set foot in over 20 years ago, I felt the magic of charged energy within its walls. You may be quick to point out that naturally a coffee lover is going to feel drawn to a place that smells like coffee, but that would be too simplistic. I’ve smelled my share of good coffee, but magic is much scarcer in supply. As a customer, then recently for a short period of time as a partner, there was no mistaking the magic. I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you what led me there, so I’ll tell you the same thing I told the interviewing Starbucks manager when she said, “It says on your resume that for the past 7 years you’ve been a certified fitness trainer and holistic life coach. So what brings you to Starbucks?” A fair enough question.
“The universe sent me.” She lifted her head from her paperwork to look me in the eye, probably to assess whether I was crazy, bullshitting her, or perhaps both. I expanded on this, telling her of my love for both coffee and the energy of Starbucks, but mainly because the universe had directed me there. After listening intently she said, “Cool”, smiled and wrote something down on her paper. I hadn’t lost her- another sign that Starbucks is as diverse as they claim. Not only are partners free to be any race, color, gender, sexual orientation, age, size, and all the other yada yada yada differences that often serve to exclude rather than to enlighten one another, apparently Starbucks was also open to hiring those whose intuitive abilities are often seen as woowoo. I was hired.
Working at Starbucks, with its frenetic pace and charged energy was somewhat like being in another world. The information overload made my head spin, as did the headset that nearly put me over the edge sensory-wise, requiring me to separate communication from my co-workers and drive-thru conversations while also listening to the customer in front of me. My youthful years behind the counter at Wendy’s hadn’t prepared me for what I was now experiencing. I’d been warned that the first 3 months of learning the ropes would be so intense that I would feel like tearing my hair out. I didn’t last 3 months or pull my hair out, but I was driven to tears more than once. Anybody who has ever worked food service understands there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, but I soon realized that Starbucks was the Broadway production of food service and the amount of information one needed to retain was staggering. While the cleaning tasks were not mentally taxing, they did require constant vigilance, which infringed on time from other tasks. The drive-thru presented an additional level of challenge, as all customer transactions are timed and recorded. Drive-thru service is meant to be speedy, thus the “goal” time, which partners worked fervently to maintain. But even from the inside looking out, Starbucks was nearly everything it claimed to be. The coffee and food was superior and fresh. The store itself was extremely clean, and practices and procedures were followed to a T. Every measure was taken to ensure customer satisfaction, and the amount of returning customers bears testament to this. Given how frequently understaffed we were made it even more impressive that it came together seamlessly every day and worked. How was this possible? As it turns out, I was right about the magic.
The magic of Starbucks is its partners. Give one the job of two and they don’t do it half-assed, instead they rise up to the performance of three. As corporate continues to threaten the customer connection it claims to be its anchor by lifting the partner challenge bar with mobile ordering, constantly adding and changing drinks, foods, and customer incentive programs, all the while reducing labor and believing their system works, the truth is that it only works because the partners of Starbucks are consistently giving twice as much and continually rising higher in their individual aptitude to make up the difference. There are no slackers at Starbucks. Every person I worked with, be it partner, shift supervisor or manager, was a quintessential overachiever whose competitive spirit fueled them for battle. They didn’t stand around bitching about the lack of available hands when needed labor got cut for the day, they just shifted further up into high gear and made it work. They were as inclusion-oriented as they were hardworking. From the first, I was welcomed warmly and treated as a tribe-mate. Though I screwed up, asked countless questions and was shown how-to time after time, thus making more work for those who knew what they were doing, I was treated with patience, reassurance and encouragement. When I was frustrated to tears with my beginner mistakes, a reassuring voice would say, “you’re killing it Lisa. Good job!” I found constant support in a group that I soon realized was not receiving the very support it so freely gave. That pissed me off.
While Kevin Johnson acknowledges in his interview that partners are the connection to the 90 million customers a week walking into Starbucks, I’m inclined to believe that he knows this but he doesn’t quite get it. Because if he did, he would have addressed the well publicized lack of labor complaints of the partners, as well as the recent request for partner paid parental leave. If he honestly believes “that compassion and empathy and the human experience that connects every one of us is more powerful than anything else in this world.” as he says he does, I take that as a sign he wants to get it. Therefore, I offer him this 3 word suggestion: don the apron. Wear the Starbucks apron and work alongside his partners until he gets it. Until he understands the challenge in connecting with a customer while also assuming the tasks of the missing coworker sent home early to keep labor down. Until he works in a space so small that the amount of dodging and weaving in and around each other while keeping with customer satisfaction and time goals becomes almost laughable, to say nothing of the lack of space for a partner break area or even enough room to easily put away each week’s supply orders without overcrowding the back room to the point where it’s difficult to clock in and out. Until he can actually see the partners and their brilliant individuality by becoming one of them. Only then will he truly understand that the human connection that is the lifeblood of Starbucks flows from the magic in its partners.