3 things you can learn from Starbucks’ customer culture

Home 3 things you can learn from Starbucks’ customer culture

I’ve been writing quite a few pieces about customer culture on the occasion of my brand new book on that topic: A Diamond in the Rough. One of the most shining (pun intended) examples of a fantastic customer culture has to be Starbucks, so it couldn’t be missing from this series.

I personally see two very important patterns in the Starbucks approach to CX culture: the company is both story-driven as well as relationship-driven.

Yuval Noah Harari once said that “Homo sapiens is a storytelling animal that thinks in stories rather than in numbers or graphs”. Viewed that way, stories aren’t frivolous at all, it’s how we attach meaning to the universe, and how we process it. It’s also how others can make us believe. So imagine the difference in impact between saying “we want to build a community for our customers” and “we are a third place”. Or between “we are committed to ESG” and “we are a good neighbor”. Or between “employee” or “partner”. Starbucks understands that stories and rituals are the best ways to shape a culture and drive a customer obsessed mindset.

On top of that, Starbucks is also one of the most relationship-driven companies out there, going out of its way to value, empower, support, reward and celebrate its partners (employees) so they can pay that forward to both customers and their surrounding social community. Many great companies, like Starbucks, think in terms of people, in relationships, before they think in product or service.

Offer a top employee experience

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz firmly believed that “You can’t expect your employees to exceed the expectations of your customers if you don’t exceed the employees’ expectations of management.” And that’s exactly what the company has been living by since then.

Starbuck’s employees are called “partners” for a reason. It’s not just a gimmick either: they receive a real share in the company through yearly Bean Stock grants and have an actual equity ownership stake in the future success of the business.

It’s also widely known that Starbucks’ comprehensive benefits package – including health insurance, the aforementioned stock options, and tuition reimbursement – goes well beyond the industry average. In fact, according to research, it delivers more valuable benefits than any of the more than 50 other U.S. companies included in the study, inclusive of Fortune 200 and Fortune 500 companies.

Another way the coffee giant focuses on the employee experience is by enhancing their value (for customers and for themselves) through extensive training. In fact, more than 23,000 partners are currently in the process of earning their first-time bachelor’s degree through Starbucks College Achievement Plan (SCAP), a partnership with Arizona State University’s (ASU) online degree program. To date, more than 10,000 partners have graduated and the goal is to help at least 25,000 partners graduate by 2025, with an expected investment of approximately $250 million or more by then.

If you follow my content, you know that I’m a big believer in the employee experience as a driver of a great customer culture and experience. And Starbucks is truly a prime example of that.

Building connections and community

American urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote a whole oeuvre about the importance of informal public gathering places. He coined the term “Third Place” – public spaces like beer gardens, main streets, pubs, cafés, coffeehouses or post offices – and suggested that they are the heart of a community’s social vitality and the foundation of a functioning democracy. Third places are where people spend time between home (‘first’ place) and work (‘second’ place). They are locations where we exchange ideas, have a good time, and build relationships.

Starbucks has always been deeply invested in building a welcoming community of enthusiastic customers. And it has deeply embraced this “third place” philosophy: popularizing it along  the way and encouraging customers to view their cafes as a warm, inviting community hub, fostering a sense of belonging and connection.

One way it accomplishes this is by encouraging genuine connections between baristas and customers. You’ll for instance probably remember the viral story about a Starbucks barista’s effort to learn sign language so she could communicate with a deaf customer. Starbucks employees are always empowered and encouraged to go the extra mile for their customers.

Be a good neighbor and change the world

Companies do not function in a void. They are deeply connected to their social and natural context as well. That’s why Starbucks is committed to being a “good neighbor” by contributing positive change to the communities it serves: from the neighborhoods where its stores are located, to the ones where its coffee is grown.

It for instance supports local initiatives, charities, and events and inspires partners (employees) and customers to get involved in their communities through innovative volunteering programs. This approach is very much in line with its relationship-driven Third Place philosophy, too.

Its Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices – launched in 2004 – are furthermore one of the coffee industry’s first set of ethical sourcing standards. This continuous verification program (so not just a one-time certification system) measures farms against economic, social and environmental criteria. The aim is to make sure that their coffee is both sustainably developed while also protecting the well-being of coffee farmers and workers and their families.

Customer culture is a crucial part of building a fantastic customer experience and Starbucks is one of the pioneers in that area, paying great attention to the power of relationships and stories. So how are you shaping a culture that puts the customer first? Let me know in the comments of my social posts!