Can Starbucks Recover?

It is indeed ironic that Starbucks finds itself the target of complaints about racism, insensitivity and customer service. For much of its history, Starbucks has been a standard-bearer of progressive corporate leadership on a variety of social, cultural, racial, customer service and corporate social responsibility issues—which only goes to point out that no company can afford to overlook the quality of its ongoing relationships with its customers and, in addition, the power of social media to generate a communications crisis within minutes.

First, let us admit that we’ve previously lauded Starbucks on several occasions for forward-thinking, courageous, and even bold stands on a variety of quality-of-life and social justice issues. From the much-despised Race Together initiative to progressive stands on employee relations, equity in leadership and pay, and establishing and setting a high bar on a range of everyday communications issues (digital and social media marketing), we like Starbucks and think they’ve set an example worthy of many corporations taking note. Nonetheless, we’ve also recently become disenchanted with some changes ushered in by Starbucks, which begin to raise the question we asked in some of our earlier social media posts re: Philadelphia, and even before: Has success spoiled Starbucks and caused it to take too much for granted, when it comes to its customers? And will one day of racial sensitivity and customer service training (designated corporate-wide for May 29) change that scenario? Bottom line, apparently had Starbucks started to believe—like too many banks and investment firms before it—that it’s too big to fail, or even immune to a stumble. The past few weeks should’ve changed that picture substantially.

So where has Starbucks gone wrong? Like many entrepreneurs, we consider ourselves aficionados on this, as we spend a lot of time in Starbucks or running to Starbucks while conducting business. Here are a few problems we’ve noted of late. …

Disappearing Chairs

As we’ve noted in one of our social posts, in the past months, chairs have been noticeably missing from Starbucks changing business model. One of the things that has made Starbucks not only convenient, but indispensable in our informal, shared-workspace economy, is that Starbucks is, generally, an inviting place to conduct business. It’s convenient (practically omnipresent), more invigorating than the average office, and a good place to mix informal mingling with business function. I’ve seen everything from small-group meetings, to tele-conferencing, to actual business social activities held in Starbucks sites.

Losing A Neighborhood Gathering Place

As one journalist recently described it: “Starbucks, a brand that has positioned itself in our national consciousness as not just a restaurant chain or retail operation, but as a ‘third place’ meetup spot for the community.” So, this sudden removal of seats from a growing number of stores (across the Chicago area at least), is something of a slap in the face to loyal customers—business and social users alike–who Starbucks encourages to make repeat visits.

So, perhaps the issue facing Starbucks in the Philadelphia case is about more than race, although its apparent that ugly racism may have strongly influenced the situation. Could it be that Starbucks was already losing touch with the people and the community values that made it a global juggernaut?

Perhaps it was too much to ask that a major corporation combine all the amenities of the local neighborhood café, bookstore, community center and local hotspot. But Starbucks offered an implicit promise to be all that, giving it a special local appeal. And it was diverse, in staff and clientele. But those mom and pop coffee shops and cafes that many of us abandoned for Starbucks are probably now muttering a major “I told you so!”

Can Starbucks pull it all together quickly to stay of damage caused by that shop in Philadelphia and other bad moves. Time will tell. The company has at least announced it’s closing the shop for one day in May to talk about race, and we hope many other customer service issues. Many of us will wait and see, before we make our way to a final exit.

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