Starbucks Store Closings for Training: Déjà vu and You

As I was writing my blog last week, the news was shifting quickly on the Starbucks debacle in Philadelphia. In fact, when I put the finishing touches on that post, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson had simply issued an apology and made a promise do a thorough investigation into the situation.

Predictions Made and Predictions Overlooked

As you’ll recall from my last post (based on the limited information available at the time), I offered an opinion concerning the importance of customer service skill development (e.g., roleplaying) and predicted implicit bias training somewhere in Starbucks future. While I am far from perfect in my predictions, I was glad to see the company taking action in accord with that prediction for training on “unconscious bias.”

What I failed to predict (but should have expected – based on my past work with the brand including The Starbucks Experience and Leading the Starbucks Way), was Starbucks’ swift and aggressive action to deploy training. 

Looking Back to 2008

One need only to have looked back to 2008 to have foreshadowed the events of this week. In fact, back in 2009, I wrote the following as an excerpt in a free downloadable eBook about Starbucks leadership principles…

Starbucks leadership did something virtually unheard of in modern day American business. They shut down operations to get service and quality right. For those of you, who live via the green and white Starbucks siren logo, fear not. The company’s shutdown was for only three and ½ hours but nonetheless, it was a bold move that garnered much media attention. One evening, Starbucks closed all of its U.S. stores and held comprehensive training sessions that focused on two things…. the coffee and the coffeehouse experience.

Given that Starbucks, like all other businesses, thrive on product, passion and people…Starbucks attempted to re-infuse passion for product excellence and customer experience through their evening compulsory training session. If you had attended Starbucks’ store closing training session, you would have seen a massive business attempting to operate as if it were a small company. Further, you would have observed complex operational processes reduced down to their most elemental level. Staff were trained or retrained on the look, smell, and even sounds involved in making a perfect espresso shot.  The concept of producing an uplifting moment while serving coffee was emphasized through the 5 core “ways of being” identified by leadership, namely:

Be Welcoming, Be Involved, Be Genuine, Be Knowledgeable, Be Considerate

Moreover, you would have been reminded of the Starbucks experience; the emotional, sensory and stage elements that lift a cup of coffee into an extraordinary service environment. I applaud the CEO Howard Schultz’ genius for passing on three and ½ hours of U.S. store income, to return to the core messages that led to the greatness of his company. 

While media talked about the novelty of this approach, many critics saw it as nothing more than an effort to gain free publicity by a wounded corporate giant. If the critics are right, Starbucks will see continued slowdown. If Howard’s intentions are as I suspect – you will see this as the beginning of a re-emphasis on customer experience and lessened preoccupation with short-term stock prices.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

That was 2008!

The events in Philadelphia in 2018 highlight a varied and substantial customer experience challenge faced by a different CEO; however, Starbucks once again announced that all U.S. locations will be shut down on May 29th for mandatory unconscious bias training. Around the time of the latest closing announcement CEO Kevin Johnson shared the following in a CNN interview:

…spending these three days on the ground, and sitting across from these young men, and really trying to understand how this could happen in today’s society, in a Starbucks, in a Starbucks, where our mission is around the Human experience, and creating a warm and welcoming environment for everyone…it’s an emotional learning experience. I take it personally…I’m affected by it, and I’m going to fix it.

What About You

Whether you love or hate Starbucks, view the mandatory training as PR spin or a substantive step in a process of needed change, I challenge you to look first at your own business and pose questions I tendered a decade ago – which I believe to be as relevant as ever…Specifically:

…how far are you willing to go to make sure that your staff fully delivers on the core elements of your ultimate customer experience? Would you have had the courage of your convictions to shut down all income generating operations for a period of time, to go back to the basics in your staff training?  Before you get to that point, what could you be doing right now to engage staff in a mini re-introduction of business basics that may be inconsistently present in your workplace?

2008, 2018, 2028…the story will always be the same. Brands that consistently drive a genuine experience, and are welcoming and considerate (for every customer they are privileged to serve) will thrive! Those that fail will perish!

I genuinely welcome the opportunity to explore how to assist you to make your customer experience and business sustainable. Your journey can start as easily as a call to 727-289-1571 or an email to

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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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