The Starbucks Experience | Challenges and Opportunities in Philadelphia

starbucks experience

As you might expect from someone who has worked with and written a couple of books about Starbucks (The Starbucks Experience and Leading the Starbucks Way), I have had my share of media asking me to opine on what happened in that Philadelphia Starbucks when 911 was called and the police placed two black men in handcuffs and led them out?

My short answer is that any response at this time will be too simplistic and likely will fail to address a myriad of social/customer experience factors at play. Personally. I’ll await a root cause analysis before I become too passionate in my condemnation of anyone. If anything, the way the two men were treated speaks to the dangers of pre-judging others.

To date, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson has issued a statement promising a deep dive assessment of the breakdowns that led to the police action in the store. In his initial written response, Kevin describes the treatment of those men as “reprehensible” and goes on to outline three components of Starbucks initial response:

First, to once again express our deepest apologies to the two men who were arrested with a goal of doing whatever we can to make things right.  Second, to let you know of our plans to investigate the pertinent facts and make any necessary changes to our practices that would help prevent such an occurrence from ever happening again.  And third, to reassure you that Starbucks stands firmly against discrimination or racial profiling.

The Complexity of the Situation

I am advocating a thoughtful and thorough response given the complex social factors captured (in part) by the viral video. These factors likely will include:

  • Challenges in setting basic service policies that apply across a sprawling retail brand
  • Unconscious (if not conscious) bias
  • Reliance on human judgment in customer service
  • Changing social times


As a customer experience consultant, I ‘ve come to learn that it’s extremely difficult to craft robust policies when it comes to use of bathrooms, loitering, or guest removal. Extreme cases are easy to define. For example, it’s easy to set limits on aggressive guests seeking to harm others or people sleeping in your business. However, how do you handle a guest who complains that the customer sitting next to them is playing a streaming video too loud through their headphones? Or what should you do when a guest complains about the smell of another customer. Also, should you lock all bathrooms across an entire brand or give store managers discretion to lock bathrooms in areas where graffiti or criminal activity are prevalent in their bathrooms?

Personally, I am not a fan of requiring anyone to make a purchase in order to use a restroom or to sit at your business for that matter. I tend to view people who are not making a purchase today as if they are future customers and trust that they will buy some other time. That said, I also understand the tradeoffs involved in creating shared seating and shared bathroom spaces along with the fact that private businesses may not be required to have publicly accessible bathrooms.

Ultimately, policies can make situations like the one in Philadelphia worse (no bathroom without a purchase), but they can’t, in any of themselves, avert situations like the one that occurred in that Starbucks. Effectiveness in human service delivery depends upon the selection and training of team members. Even then, the sheer number of interactions occurring every day across a brand like Starbucks produces innumerable service breakdowns and continual opportunities to learn from those shortcomings.

I vividly remember a Starbucks incident in 2001, right after the World Trade Center collapse, where baristas charged first responders at Ground Zero for bottled water. The leadership at the time viewed the breakdown to be a training issue, made appropriate apologies, and personally hand-delivered a check to offset the expenses incurred by first responding agencies.

Overall Training

Years ago, Starbucks baristas were trained using a tool called “connect, discover, and respond.” In essence, it was a card game that posed café situations where guests presented with a variety of needs (some easily managed, others far more complex). Baristas would role-play how they would handle these diverse situations such that they could manage the broad needs of all customers in a store while attempting to treat each individual in keeping with 5 Ways of Being:

Be Welcoming

Be Concerned

Be Knowledgeable

Be Genuine

Be Involved

My hunch is training programs like “connect, discover, respond” will be enhanced at Starbucks and may be complemented with education on unconscious and conscious bias. A few months ago I wrote a blog about the impact of unconscious or implicit bias in customer service delivery (specifically on how beliefs about female patients lurk below the surface of awareness such that healthcare providers treat women with a different level of care than men).

A New World

The horrific incident captured at Starbucks speaks to the critical importance of investing in customer experience enhancement today!

Stripped of any racial overtones, there would have been a time in history when this situation may have been characterized as two men enter a business ask to use a restroom and are told they must make a purchase to gain access. They do not make a purchase. Instead, they sit at a table in the business, they are asked to leave, and they decline. The business calls the police, the men are escorted out in handcuffs, and virtually no one knows.

Thanks to the omnipresent video camera, however, this single event has led to a boycott Starbucks movement, community protestors gaining access to that store, and a media free-for-all.

How are customer service policies, employee selection, and service training helping you avert a similar outcome?

To learn more about how you can effectively select and train service talent to manage the complexity of human service delivery, please contact us so you and I can spend some time together discussing your needs.


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Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies.

Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli

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