The brew that makes The Starbucks Experience

In our CX Book Review series, we review books about great customer experiences, and the leadership and culture that create them. What books are you looking to read? Would you like us to add them to our list? Let us know!

In 1971, when the first Starbucks came into being, nobody expected much from your typical American coffee store. The act of buying coffee at the corner store was an uninspired ritual between an unenthused customer and apathetic cashier. And thanks to this monotonous transaction, nobody knew there was a way one could actually enjoy a cup of Joe.

So when Howard Shultz, former CEO and Chairman Emeritus, suggested that Starbucks provide an extraordinary coffee experience to the American customer, early critics called it a ‘yuppie fad’.

These critics would learn a valuable lesson: never write off a business driven by a powerful passion for product, people, community, and most importantly, experience.

Today, Starbucks is used interchangeably with coffee, and they’re present all over the world. Their coffee may be expensive, but the experience is priceless.

In his book The Starbucks Experience, Joseph Michelli combines insider stories, anecdotes, insights, and strategy to whip up a heady brew of customer experience lessons that’s both rich and refreshing. Or should I just say: a classic cup of Joe?  

Michelli observes that the Starbucks Experience manifests in two areas: 

  1. In its leadership-driven corporate culture defined by empowerment, entrepreneurship, service, and quality. 
  2. In the aforementioned values getting passed down to the Starbucks partners, which play an essential role in creating unique and personalized experiences. 

But that’s not all. Joseph Michelli wanted to dig deeper, and understand what made the global organisation tick. He wanted to understand how the Starbucks Experience transcended borders, languages, hierarchies, and cultures.

And so, he spent 18 months in the ecosystem exploring the world of Starbucks. He observed employees, he spoke to customers, and he listened to leaders.

He deconstructed the decoction that was his documentation, distilled his derivations to arrive at a delectable five-point dissertation that drives Starbucks’ distinctive culture of delightful customer experiences. 

Principle I: Make it your own

Businesses often find themselves in a spot when it comes to striking a balance between an employee exercising their unique identity at work and blending these individual identities into a uniform experience for customers.

Starbucks has managed to find the balance, providing a structure that enables partners to infuse themselves into the work they do, so that they can wow customers in their own way.

The five core tenets of this structure are: be welcoming, be genuine, be considerate, be knowledgeable, and be involved.

Principle II: Everything matters (because experience matters)

According to Michelli, all poor customer experiences arise from overlooked details. And for that reason, Starbucks ensures that every aspect that touches the coffee—the ambience, the service, and the product itself—reflects the highest standard. 

Even if you put yourself in the customer’s shoes, you might miss out on a few blind spots. Here’s where customer feedback comes in: ask customers what details they noticed about your business, acknowledge their inputs, and act on them.

Principle III: Surprise and delight

Efforts to surprise others are a contagious force: a single moment of wow can result in a tribe of loyal customers for life. Be it brewing coffee, designing software, or even mopping floors, a commitment to surprise and delight transforms the very nature of work.

Remember that customer delight can come from both surprise and predictability. The most effective events are not the ones that are artificial or forced. All you have to do is identify a customer need, step in, and fulfil it. 

Principle IV: Embrace resistance

As Jay Baer suggested in Hug Your Haters, a lot can be gained by including detractors and critics in the early stages of problem-solving.

When Starbucks faced resistance while entering the tea-centric Japanese market, they consolidated all their efforts into educating Japanese coffee drinkers about the difference between canned coffee (that was popular in the region), and aromatic, gourmet varieties (the Starbucks USP). This approach was extremely effective in a culture that valued information.

The learning here is simple: when you allay the concerns of your critics, you earn ardent advocates. 

Principle V: Leave your mark

Joseph Michelli makes a case for businesses to associate success not only with profit goals, but also the positive impact they have on the community. People want to invest in, work for, and do business with socially conscious companies. 

This also has a positive impact on employee morale: it is three times higher in businesses that prioritize community involvement in their goals.

And you know what they say about happy employees and happy customers. 

Not only does the book come with 190 pages of insights, it also has a ‘Reader’s Guide’ section that tells you how to apply The Starbucks Principles in your business. This section is instrumental in helping readers apply what they learned while reading the book. In my opinion, the best part of the book doesn’t lie in the learnings, but rather, in the anecdotes.

It is in these anecdotes that you see how The Starbucks Experience comes to life, and I recommend you read the book just for that reason. I enjoyed reading this book whilst sipping a cup of tea with the cat at my feet, and I hope you do too.

PS: This review was written at the local Starbucks near my place, and I for one, vouch for the Starbucks Experience.