12 Most Caffeinated Customer Service Lessons from Starbucks

12 Most Caffeinated Customer Service Lessons from Starbucks

Starbucks is one of the most talked-about companies in history. There is practically a whole genre of literature devoted to the company. CEO Howard Schultz has written two books, Pour Your Heart Into It and Onward. There has been a business book called The Starbucks Experience, a social commentary called Starbucked, and even a memoir called How Starbucks Saved My Life. There is no doubt that the company has had a profound impact on culture.

But if you are a regular Starbucks customer, you can understand why. The people, called “partners,” who work for the company are customer service fanatics. When you contrast the demeanor of a Starbucks barista with that of the typical fast food attendant, the distinction is astonishing. Somehow, whether it’s the fact that they get free coffee or that they really do believe in their company, Starbucks employees manage to serve their customers with genuine enthusiasm.

Here are some fantastic lessons in customers service that we can all learn from the wearers of the green apron…

1. Ask questions that help your customers decide

Starbucks employees have a system of efficiently guiding the customer through a transaction. “Do you like coffee or tea?” “Are you looking for something hot or cold?” “Do you prefer something sweeter or something milder?” If you go to Starbucks not having any idea what you want, you’ll leave with a new favorite. We all need to take the same approach to customer service in sales and marketing. Help them decide. In part, they are coming to us because they don’t know what they want. Let’s not just be order-takers — let’s be solution-creators.

2. Know your customers’ names

The Decaf Triple Venti Non-Fat 2 Pump White Chocolate Mocha isn’t just transaction number 843. It’s Joe’s drink. The Iced Grande Soy Vanilla Chai Tea Latte isn’t just for the lady at the bar. It’s for Sally. Starbucks employees know their customers by name. Do we know the names of our customers?

3. Ask your customers about their lives

A name is a good start, but what do we know about the lives or businesses of our customers? Starbucks employees don’t just know Joe’s name. They know that he drives trucks, delivers parts to car dealerships, volunteers as a firefighter, and has a daughter that is a cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins. Starbucks employees don’t just know Sally’s name. They know that she runs her own cleaning business, home schools her 15 year-old daughter, has a son in the local community college, and plays tennis on the weekends. How much do we know about our customers?

4. Take responsibility for customer dissatisfaction

One of the most destructive phrases in business lingo is, “It’s not my fault.” Starbucks employees are trained to own the outcomes of the interactions with customers. As a rule, if a customer is dissatisfied with her experience, the Starbucks employee takes responsibility for not creating a better experience. Do we take responsibility for our customers’ dissatisfaction, or do we actually place the blame on the customers? Remember, to prove a customer wrong is to lose the customer. It’s not about who’s right. It’s about resolving the conflict.

5. Always correct your mistakes

In addition to taking responsibility, Starbucks employees fix their mistakes. If a beverage is made incorrectly, they remake it — no questions asked. If customers have to wait too long, they don’t merely get an apology — they get coupons for free drinks. How quickly do we correct our mistakes? The speed of problem resolution is everything in customer service. We all make mistakes, but it’s all about how promptly and willingly we correct them.

6. Make your customers smile

A smile is a beautiful thing. You can’t make somewhat smile and have them not think fondly of you. Starbucks employees are quick to bring a smile to customers’ faces. Whether it’s through entertaining dialogue or simply pleasant demeanor, Starbucks employees know how to brighten a customer’s day. Life’s too short to spend time with people that don’t cheer you up. How do our customers view the time they spend with us? Do we brighten their day?

7. Give out free samples

Nothing says, “I believe in my product” like free samples. Starbucks is militant about sampling. Especially when there’s a new promotion, you can rarely walk into a store at a time which a sample is not being offered. What are we giving away for free to prove to our customers the value that we bring to the table?

8. Be patient with new customers

Okay, so maybe you’ve worked at your company for years, but you’ve got to remember that it’s your new customer’s first time. Starbucks employees help new customers understand coffee jargon and its own unique lingo. They explain convoluted terminology in laymen’s terms. “The __________ taste like ______________.” “The __________ has ___________ and ____________ in it.” How good are we at explaining our policies and products to new customers? Do you make them feel ignorant or do we nurture them into our family?

9. Allow as much customization as possible

Just about every Starbucks beverage is customizable in some way. Hot or iced? Coffee or tea? A lot of flavor or just a little? It’s up to the customer. Because of that, each customer is able to have “her” drink. It personalizes the experience. How customizable are our products and services? Is it one size fits all or are we flexible? All things being equal, customers always prefer flexibility.

10. Be consistent with product quality

In the past few years, Starbucks has systematized the processes it uses to create drinks. The same drink ordered by two different people (or the same person on two different occasions) will always taste the same. It has standards it uses to ensure product quality. Do we have such standards? Do we use systems to deliver the same, consistent products or services to our customers every time?

11. Learn how to juggle

Rarely will you see a Starbucks employee doing only one thing. Usually, they’re talking two customers at once, will pouring a cup of coffee, resetting a timer, and giving back change. If you just take a moment to step back and watch them, you’ll see what it really means to multi-task. Sure, it’s preferable to only focus on one thing at a time, but it’s unlikely that you’ll be given that luxury when serving customers. How good are we at managing multiple tasks simultaneously for our customers?

12. Make customer satisfaction your team’s common goal

Starbucks employees always put the customer first. They all share a common goal and work together to achieve it. The cooperation of employees is the backbone of the customer experience. How good are we at bringing our team together to serve the customer?

What are your experiences with Starbucks, or other customer-service oriented organizations, that could help us all learn how to better serve our customers?

Featured image courtesy of David Robert Wright  licensed via Creative Commons.

Doug Rice


Douglas E. Rice is a marketer, writer, and researcher who blogs regularly. He is the author of The Curiosity Manifesto, a provocative guide to learning new things and keeping an open mind.

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And I hope that everyone knows what Starbucks partners do for their communities! They volunteer their butts off! They give back to their comminities, they raise money for charities and many of the stores even organize events (silent auctions etc.) for their customers in need. It is a fantastic company to work for! And yes, Howard should be the president!


I love #8!  I am intimidated by ordering at Starbucks because we don't have one anywhere near where I live (GASP!) and I only go while traveling.  Patient employees are priceless!  :)


Great points John. Customer service is so important. Nothing turns me away from a company faster than when the service is poor. Nice to have an example like Starbucks to show how it can be done the right way.


I'm a Starbucks fan, always go once if not twice a day! The Baristas are key to the atmosphere in the shop! Oh, they know me so well. All I have to do is say hi and they are fighting as to which one makes my drink, I get little pictures drawn on my cup. One even has invented a drink just for me.... Key Lime Frap - yum!


Great insights, Doug. Starbucks also offers a place for community. Whether it is a conversation at a table or comfortable chair or logging into their WiFi and seeing suggested books and music, Starbucks creates a space for gathering. Creating that space for customers to come together is important. Thanks! Jon


Great post, Doug. The two of us seem to like our coffee caffeinated! #2, #4 and #6 are my three favorite: Know your customers by name, take responsibility for dissatisfaction and make 'em smile!


I have never had a bad customer service experience at Starbucks.. and I am a daily visitor. In my old life I met with my reps in Starbucks and would camp out, sometimes for hours. No one ever made me feel like I was unwelcome. I've never seen a "Restrooms for customers only sign."  And Howard Schultz should be President.


Great Post, it really helps to keep an eye on all of these points at all times when doing Customer Service. Having that team attitude and really trying to help your client makes such a difference. I think that people underestimate the challenges in working in a fast paced environment like Starbucks, people take their coffee seriously and that smile, and willingness to be helpful and attentive while doing a million things at once is such a valued asset. @javaumtl  is another great coffee house where they get it, and spend their time delighting clients. A lot of times service representatives in other environments lose track of this, and forget its all about the client, its all about the experience - what can they do to make the situation a success? Thanks for writing it all out, great ideas and advice on keeping the right perspective! @douglaserice