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Set your service standard, and then build buy-in

Susanne Axelsson
October 5, 2021
Set your service standard, and then build buy-in

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As one of the biggest and most well-known brands in the world, Starbucks is on a mission “To inspire and nurture the human spirit - one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” 

The company’s manifesto invites customers to ‘Expect more than coffee…’; while its approach to business is best summed up as “...performance driven, through the lens of humanity…”

This philosophy has paid dividends across 32,000 stores in 76 countries - but what exactly is the ‘more’ in ‘more than coffee’?  

A key player in the success of the Starbucks customer experience to date is Christine McHugh, who started out as a barista and finally left the company many years later as the Vice President of Customer Service and Operations. 

We caught up with Christine about what she’s learnt about ‘piping hot’ customer service...

Leaders set the tone… 

Christine starts our chat with a powerful example of an unsuccessful Starbucks store that made a 180 degree turnaround based on just one thing: a new manager! Her belief is that leaders set the tone - for the team, the store environment and customers. 

“If you take care of your employees, they'll take care of the customers. If employees are happy, customers are happy. And how do you make your employees happy? You make sure they have really great managers…”

A service culture doesn’t simply ‘happen’; it’s created by strong leaders who set the tone for those around them. 

Make it right, by making it simple...

Beyond great leadership, Christine is a huge advocate of keeping things simple…

Research by Gallup shows that only half of all employees know what’s expected of them at work. This could be because of a 10-point mission and vision statement, or because a binder of rules isn’t always applicable on the ground. 


“The service standard you set should be easy to understand, and even easier to follow. At Starbucks, that standard was: Make every moment right. It wasn’t about pumping out lattes, it was about enjoying the mission of human connection over a cup of coffee.” 


Building buy-in


She adds that at the frontline, employees want to make their customers happy, but if business philosophies and procedures are making it hard, then you’re in a lose-lose situation.

“At Starbucks, empowerment - which is central to buy-in - looks like talking about what can be done, not what can’t because interactions that build relationships can’t be mandated…”

She’s always encouraged her teams to do what feels right in the moment because most of the time, empowered employees make a better decision for the customer than if they had been asked to follow a rule book… and if not, it offers coaching opportunities around creating even better experiences in future.

Christine shares how at one Starbucks store, there was a board at the back of the shop featuring staff names and anyone could recognise a colleague by placing a card featuring one of the company’s values (which supported the service standard) under a colleague’s name. It was spontaneous, powerful, peer-to-peer and a great way of building buy-in through positive reinforcement. 

Don’t assume what matters most 

The Starbucks service standard is a direct reflection of what really matters to the customer and its strategy has been shaped around these expectations.

“Doing things any other way is a waste of time for your business, your frontline teams and your customers,” believes Christine.

She adds, “It’s really important to design metrics and priorities through the lens of the customer, based on what you know they value and what they have told you they want… not what you think they think…”

Coaching and feedback in the moment


Christine also talks about the importance of regular coaching from managers which combines more formal metrics with on-the-job learning. 

“Starbucks has taken this to a whole new level by asking customers for feedback on the spot and using that feedback in coaching and recognition conversations. This can be a scary prospect, but more often than not, customers are delighted to be asked to provide input and in most cases, they want their barista to know that they're doing a great job.”

Christine’s final tips for nailing that perfect cuppa (or when it comes to Starbucks, delivering that all important  ‘more…’) ?

  • Use your customer’s name - it’s a powerful way of communicating warmth and belonging.
  • Give them something ‘more’ - even if it’s just an extra napkin for their sugary pastry (listen to the full episode to hear this story…)
  • Make conversation! - if they’re carrying five coffees, ask them if they’re going to an office party. It’s all about noticing them! 
  • Prescribe the ‘what’, but not the ‘how’ - By all means, make greeting a customer mandatory, but not what that greeting should be. Empower and encourage the frontline worker to do this in a way that feels right to them. 
  • Huddles aren’t only for agile software teams - Don’t underestimate the power of a pre-shift huddle to get everyone on the same page! 

Listen to podcast episode: 
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About the Author

Susanne Axelsson
Susanne is the Frontline Community Evangelist as well as the author and researcher for Frontline Magic Handbook. She believes happy customers are born out of great experiences. Great experiences are delivered by motivated frontline people.
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