Starbucks: Changing the World One Barista at a Time

"Our role as leaders is to celebrate the human connection that we have been able to create as a company, and to make sure people realize the deep level of respect we have for the work they do and how they act. That is the legacy of the company. It's not to get bigger or to make more money."

--Howard Schultz, CEO Starbucks

I met Ashley Peterson, a barista at my local Starbucks, over six years ago during my morning ritual--stopping in for a grande extra hot soy latte on my way to taking my three kids to school, and myself to work. Ashley's big, totally genuine smile was truly comforting in the midst of my morning wrangle. And she looked like she meant it when she looked us in the eyes and said, "Good morning. How is everyone today?"

It wasn't long before Ashley learned all of our names, our favorite drinks and breakfast items. One Fall, my daughter Caroline developed a taste (read: obsession) for Starbucks' pumpkin scones, and then was crushed when Ashley explained that they disappear after Halloween. On our next visit, Ashley handed Caroline a bag with a gingerbread cookie in it, thinking that since she loves pumpkin, she might like this, too. In other words, Ashley just gets it; customer service is second nature to her. Not surprisingly, she was recently promoted and moved to a different Starbucks further uptown. Manhattanites all up and down Broadway have changed their morning migration patterns to get their morning fix from her.

Which is to say, when I began researching companies that are dedicated to creating a human workplace, I immediately thought of Starbucks, i.e. Ashley.

I recently sat down with her to learn more about how she works her magic. And she shared with me three sage bits of advice: Focus on Interactions, not Transactions; Love it, or Let me Know; and Provide Feedback. It Makes People Feel Human. The ideas are a combination of her own smarts, and Starbucks', but the words are hers.

Focus on Interactions, Not Transactions

One of Starbucks' values is treating our customers like family. They want us to get to know them, interact with them, and to connect with them. While we get training on different customer service scenarios, no one can really teach you how to connect...that has to be something that you want to do. I do it because of the atmosphere, because of the neighborhood. I see the kids grow up. One minute the mom is pregnant, and the next year the kid is walking into the store. As a customer, I wouldn't come into a place where I didn't feel welcome or where the people were not trying to get to know me. I love what I do and everyone that works for Starbucks loves what they do. It's a business that's so -- it's different than any other business. We want to actually connect with our customers, we want to better the experience.

Love It or Let me Know

At Starbucks, we are empowered to make the customer experience the best we can. We can say, "Listen, love it or let me know. What can I do to fix it?" I want to teach the baristas around me that customer service is the most important part of our business. Without the customers, we wouldn't be in business. So I really want them to take that seriously. And if that means going above and beyond for the customers, then that's what I want [them] to do. I want everybody that comes into Starbucks to leave happy. I don't want anyone to leave unsatisfied; I don't want anyone to leave upset. I don't want anyone to leave with the thought in their head that they're not coming back.

Provide Feedback: It Makes People Feel Human

I always want to make sure that the baristas feel appreciated, so I always recognize them. To do that, we have green apron cards, where we just write a little note, and let them know what it is that they're doing well. Starbucks wants everyone -- baristas, shifts, assistants or store managers to feel appreciated. You don't have to be a store manager to write these things; baristas write them to each other. So you don't have to be in a certain position to write these things.

In case I haven't been clear, I think the world of this young woman. And so when I heard that Howard Schultz and his wife Sherry were going to be awarded a Public Leadership Award from the Aspen Institute, where I just happened to be for the summer, I made it my business to attend. After Howard and Sherry's inspiring talk on values-based leadership, I was able to hand-deliver this note from Ashley.

Hi Howard,

My name is Ashley Peterson and I've been a partner for 6 years. I recently got a promotion to become a store manager, which I'm really excited about. When I first started at Starbucks, it was just a job for me. Before my Starbucks career, I was on my way to college, but life happened. I was expecting a child, my daughter Mckenzie, who is now five years old. Within a year of being at 81st & Broadway, I knew that Starbucks was for me. With so much I can write, I just want to thank you. Thank you for sharing such a great company with me. Thank you for allowing me to provide for my child. Thank you for the opportunity to work for Starbucks. I will continue to inspire and nurture the human spirit, one person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time.

Ashley Peterson


Here I am, giving Howard Schultz Ashley's letter.

Some of us might feel funny expressing such gratitude to the CEO of a multinational corporation as mighty as Starbucks. But not Ashley, whose first job in the food industry was as a manager at White Castle when she was I5. This girl knows how to work. And Howard Schultz does, too. And he knows how to make the workplace a place for humans like Ashley to thrive. In his words, "We are living in a society where there is a need for human connection and a sense of community. And what we do every day is bring people together."


Me at my local Starbucks in Aspen.

I would be lying if I said I don't miss Ashley since her move uptown. Or that I don't feel a little sad each time I walk by her old store and don't see her beaming smile in the window. But I know this an amazing opportunity for Ashley and for the company. She is excited to use her skills and experience to build a strong culture within her new store. And we will all reap the benefits of the work she'll do, spreading the Starbucks gospel, helping other baristas bring their human to work.