Coffee conglomerate goes by the book

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 July, 2009, 12:00am


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The corporate culture at Starbucks begins with the customer interaction seen in its outlets. The American coffee conglomerate aims to bring the same level of communication to executives in its support centres. According to Susan Tohyama, director of partner resources for Starbucks Coffee Asia-Pacific, this is best described by the customer experience that inspired founder Howard Schulz to open the first store in the 1980s.

'[It's] that third place experience, where people are neither at home nor at work, which Howard saw in coffee shops on a visit to Italy,' Ms Tohyama said. 'It's a place to have an experience and connect with each other. That culture is really about the relationships with our partners [employees] being significant and creating a working environment where we respect each other.' This is communicated through guiding principles that direct baristas at its counters and executives in its offices; characterising customer service and attempting to nurture staff development in a way that is commercially engaging. This is helped by corporate tools for training, development and service.

Starbuck's Green Apron Book, the company handbook, gives its 'partners' a framework for behaviour that expresses the company's values, stressing the importance of being knowledgeable, involved, welcoming, considerate and genuine.

'What we didn't want to do is create a set of rules with the book,' Ms Tohyama said. 'We wanted to create guidelines or overarching themes, so a barista has everything he or she needs to know to own that store and deal with what happens to them. The book is not what you would call a traditional book of customer service. It's about the work you are doing with the coffee and sharing knowledge with others.'

The book suggests ways to put things into practice through such things as 'share your coffee knowledge, passion and excitement with partners and customers through coffee tasting'. While this seems ideally suited to the customer service of the baristas, it has translated into the office environment and there are also Green Apron cards that can be used to give credit to colleagues.

'In our support centres, we use the same recognition tools that we have in the stores,' Ms Tohyama said. 'One Green Apron behaviour is 'be considerate', there is a card that has recognition for this. It's a card of recognition, the validation of staff and the recognition that you have done something above and beyond. There's no assessment in the traditional sense. For example, I might give one to someone who helped me answer my phone today because I was too busy.'

Inter-departmental communication is encouraged by coffee tasting, where staff gather to announce updates, look at customer feedback and celebrate successes. There are also coffee socials in which partners are encouraged to connect with each other over cups of coffee in a way that baristas might do with customers. Regular open forums are attended by all support centre partners and usually hosted by senior executives to provide general business updates and on specific topics. It is a forum for partners to voice what's on their minds and connect all levels of the company.

Anyone doing a minimum number of hours is entitled to stock options (in company-owned markets), which is why staff are referred to as partners. The company thereby supports a level of knowledge that turns employees into entrepreneurs who take control of the stores and learn how to drive the business.

'The majority or our store manager positions are filled internally so we develop our partners to move from a barista role into a supervisory role and hopefully into a managerial role,' Ms Tohyama said.

'We provide career opportunities where partners can feel a part of the company and also have their own personal development. We provide them with the education on how to manage business at the store and how to be cost-effective. We also strongly encourage partners to connect with their local community and take the responsibility to be good neighbours.'

Training can last up to several weeks but, whether an executive or store frontline member, employees are brought close to the product that creates the experience.

'An executive does almost the same thing in training as a barista,' Ms Tohyama said. 'Even our senior directors spend part of the training in the stores as that's where the brand lives. So it is critical that everyone understands what lives and breathes in the store every day.'

Home brew

Starbucks' corporate culture emphasises staff interaction at all levels that is comparable to the customer interaction of storefront baristas

Its Green Apron Book serves as a framework for types of behaviour that express corporate values such as being considerate, welcoming, genuine and knowledgeable

Training and career opportunities are offered to encourage personal development and responsibility in the workplace'