Starbucks Coffee Co. is so committed to developing a culture of “legendary service” that it even hired a cultural anthropologist, Barbara Perry, to help strengthen its foundations for customer care.
The company bases its culture on training and motivating employees, known as “partners.” It entrusts its human resources department as the “guardian” of the culture built on “passion” for service.
But how can Starbucks ensure that its employee-centered culture extends outside the United States to other countries, each with their own national norms and behaviors? And how can it foster attention to service in 17,000 stores-plus worldwide, including many that are franchises and not company-owned?
Those were among the challenges discussed by Isabel Montes, Starbucks’ human resources manager for Latin America, at the HR Connections meeting Jan. 10.
“Everyone is human, regardless of country,” Montes said. “Everyone wants respect and dignity.”
Starbucks understands culture as anthropologists do. It’s a set of behaviors, which are learned and internalized over time. The Seattle-based company stresses five key behaviors for its partners: To be knowledgeable (especially about the coffee), genuine, considerate, welcoming and involved (as in accountable for their performance and the outcome at stores).
“You have to own the experience” for customers and peers, said Montes.
That employee-centered approach translates into Starbucks giving health insurance to its staff, even to part-timers. And it means offering company stock options to employees too, Montes said.
That’s truly “putting your money where your mouth is,” said Lorena Keough, a partner in Miami with executive search firm Diversified Search. Not all companies follow up on their words that workers come first.
How does Starbucks recruit to find staff that will exhibit passion for service?, asked Olivier Bouclier, associate dean at the University of Miami School of Business Administration.
There’s no centralized hiring. Each store manager recruits separately. That means each store manager must be well-trained, so that they know “what success looks like,” said Montes.
And what is the voluntary turnover rate for store employees?, asked Martin Fischetti, chief HR officer at the Cisneros Group of Companies.
Starbucks has turnover around 40-45 percent, considered low by retail standards. Some retailers turn over more than 100 percent of their store employees yearly, she told the HR group.
Employee breaks in the store?
Still, issues arise over employee behavior even at Starbucks.
In one case, a store manager asked Montes if it was appropriate for employees to take their break within the store. Some customers might feel uncomfortable sitting next to employees the manager said.
But Starbucks decided there was no problem. Employees are “partners” and customers too, so they can share with other customers inside the store, she said.
“We are in the people business, and our partners are central and the most important part of our company,” said Montes.
How do you keep the culture strong over time and under new leadership?, asked Francia Baez Guzman, who runs global learning and development at financial services giant Visa Inc.
The entrepreneur behind Starbucks, Howard Shultz, left his CEO post in 2000, and the corporation foundered. He returned in 2008 to revive operations, later writing a book on the experience, “Onward: How Starbucks fought for its life without losing its soul.”
HR has a key role to play in building culture, said Montes. Managers rewards partners on-the-spot with “cards” presented publicly. And when needed, there are “tough conversations” with partners on norms.
As in all cultures, Montes said, story-telling is amply used to reinforce behavior.
HR Connections is one of six event series organized by media company WorldCity to bring together executives on international business topics. The HR series is sponsored by the University of Miami School of Business Administration and retained executive search firm Diversified Search.
The next HR meeting is set for March 14 and will feature Quincy Quintana, HR director for Olympus Latin America.