The Secrets of Starbucks’ Success : 1- Partners, Not Pawns

When most companies discuss the elements of success, the natural actors in the transaction part of the business are the company and the customer. Therefore, many companies pour all of their focus into the company branding, reputation, marketing, and products, essentially handling their side of things as well as possible in order to draw customers and increase revenue. However, in the majority of transactions, this simple two-sided equation doesn’t reflect reality. The third key part of this exchange is the employee of the company, the walking, talking representation of any company’s interests.

Employee happiness has been a growing area of focus in the business world, but it has been slow going in many industries that have struggled to move past the image of part-time hourly wageworkers as transient bodies to stand behind a cash register or answer a phone. In most companies, workers represent the lifeblood of creativity, customer loyalty, high-quality products, and friendly service. A corporate image and purchased products can only go so far to create a relationship between a consumer and a company; employees are the essential glue that holds the whole operation together. While the key role of employees in tech companies and other, more modern and collaborative industries has been recognized and emphasized more universally, retail operations, including the food and beverage industry, are still slow on the uptake of this concept.

Starbucks, on the other hand, has risen to the top of the pack in many ways when it comes to the treatment, training, empowerment, and involvement of employees. As the title of this section suggests, Starbucks doesn’t view their employees as faceless java jockeys, they are partners and collaborative assets that help boost the company’s reputation and popularity with everything they do.

Starbucks sees employees as so much more than simple workers that they’ve eliminated the word entirely. The people who greet you, take your order, and make your delicious Venti house blend are “baristas”, and with good reason. Starbucks baristas are both artists and scientists, carefully creating and customizing tens of millions of increasingly complex coffee creations every year. Not only that, they are the face of the brand, the memorable point of the entire experience of walking into one of their retail locations. People who spend five minutes between walking in and walking out of a Starbucks probably couldn’t tell you what art was on the walls, what music was playing, or whether the store layout was efficient, but they will certainly be able to comment on the service they received and the quality of the coffee in their hand. Baristas are more than their name (which translates to coffee brewers) might suggest. They are highly trained ambassadors of the brand and also have a voice in the way their business is run.

As “partners”, all employees (full-timeand part-time) enjoy health benefits and stock options; they were the first privately owned company to do this for their entire staff all the way back in 1991. Beyond that, their SSC (Starbucks Support Center) may be their corporate headquarters, but it is more of an information hub where regional and local concerns can funnel towards, rather than the point of distribution for all rules, regulations, and ideas to the rest of the retail locations. In other words, there is a great deal of independence in every Starbucks location, which allows managers and employees alike to make decisions that will shape their working environment. Every community and client base is different, which means that every Starbucks should be different. The baristas and managers at these individual locations are empowered to make decisions for themselves, without running them all the way up the flagpole for approval. Starbucks trusts that in the pursuit of their end goals as a company, their intelligent and adaptable workers will make the right choices.

The company also keeps the employees active at higher levels. They have sent countless baristas to their coffee fields in South America and other far-flung places of the world to personally see the process in order to better understand the work and time that goes into developing exceptionally good coffee. They runlarge-scale employee events almost every year to increase excitement about new products, keep employees informed and engaged with long-termgoals of the company, and essentially utilize their massive workforce as beta testers. Starbucks leadership welcomes critiques on new product ideas or launches from those people who know best, the baristas who deal with and learn about customer interests every day on the front lines of the business. As employees rise through the ranks, they are often rotated in and out of the head office, allowing their fresh experience from the field impact and influence the conversations and decisions being made at the corporate headquarters.

Eventually, they are released back into the market, usually at a higher position and pay grade, sharing their new knowledge with other baristas in the shops, perpetuating this open line of communication that keeps every individual in the company connected.

One of the best examples of how much employees affect the decision-makingprocess of Starbucks is in one of the company’s most successful products – the Frappuccino. Blended coffee drinks were becoming popular at Starbuck’s rival stores, but Starbucks management had decided to remain firm in their old- school vision and refused to move into this “trend”. A group of employees in

Southern California came up with the idea of the Frappuccino and pitched it to their supervisor. The idea moved up the chain quickly, was given approval (despite the CEO’s initial refusal) and now brings in $2 billion of Starbuck’s revenue each year.

The success of the company is directly linked to the success and happiness of its workers, not only for the obvious reason of gainful employment, but also because as stock option holders, they truly are partners in the enterprise. Starbucks invests energy, capital, and trust in their workers more than almost any other company out there, because when it comes to selling great coffee, the brew is always better from a happy, knowledgeable, empowered, and passionate barista.


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