The Starbucks Way for Libraries (a Manifesto Part II)`

One of my highest read, and most satisfying post for me to write, was the Apple Way for Libraries (a Manifesto?).  In this post I summarize Apple’s customer service, user experience, and products and services and what libraries can learn from them.

In the next two posts I want to look at two other companies that we can learn from Starbucks and Trader Joes.  One of the common threads between all three companies is their approach to integrating customer service philosophies into their staff-training program.  This is an area that libraries typically lack.  We usually don’t incorporate our customer service philosophy or culture into our training programs or employee handbooks and this is a fatal mistake.

If libraries want to truly remain relevant to our communities, one important key is to provide exceptional customer service.  It is that customer service, and high touch philosophy that differentiates us from competition.  Don’t get me wrong, a few libraries do this very well, but by in large, we are not good at this stuff.

Just Say Yes

Much like Apple, Starbucks focuses on creating a powerful retail and user experience for their customers.  Starbucks empowers employees at all levels to resolve issues.  They have their “Just Say Yes” policy.  The policy states that employees are to provide the best customer services even if that means operating outside of company rules.  For example, Starbucks uses the Latte Method”:

  • Listen to the customer
  • Acknowledge their complaint
  • Take action to resolve the problem
  • Thank the customer for bringing the situation to their attention
  • Explain to the customer why the problem occurred

What this means is that any Starbucks employee can replace a drink, remake a drink, provide free product or anything of the sort.  They do this without approval from a manager.  One of the best examples of this is if a customer tries to pay with a check.  Starbucks doesn’t accept checks, so the employees can offer a free sample or small version of the drink to the customer.  In this wonderful customer service example we see a win-win-win for everyone.  The customer gets their drink (and free of charge), Starbucks retains a customer for the small price of 25 or 50 cents. The employee feels empowered and valued in their job.

Libraries could learn a valuable lesson here.  Frontline staff should have the authority to correct, reduce, or waive fines without seeking approval.  This saves the time of the patron, makes the employee feel valued and empowered and improves the patron experience.  The philosophy here is let’s not win the battle and lose a patron.  In many cases, the employee is all ready empowered to do this but they don’t feel empowered.  That’s why a solid training program is such a necessity.


Starbucks also encourages all staff to connect with the customer.  The employees are told to enthusiastically greet the customers and welcome them to the store.  The employees are encouraged to engage in conversation.  They are encouraged to use open-ended questions to elicit conversation.  The employees are empowered to offer up suggestions for customers.  For some reason, libraries in general, try and avoid this.

Whether we think we are protecting the privacy of our patrons or something else, I’m not sure, but it seems rather foolish.  In both public and academic libraries a large portion of our patrons are frequent users, we should make it our job to learn their names and greet them.  This creates a much more positive environment and experience for everyone.  To me, this represents a trust issue between managers and employees.  But the real loser here is our patrons.

Moreover, and the harder one for many of us to swallow, is the advice that all frontline staff should feel empowered to make suggestions to patrons.  Let’s face it, many of our circulation clerks know our patrons reading habits more than the librarians do.  Is there really any harm in them telling Ms. Jones “hey, I just read this and I think you might like it?” or even better, “I saved this for you because I thought you might enjoy it”.  If Starbucks trusts their minimum wage employees to make recommendations based on the products that professionals have selected, why can’t we follow suit?  Do we really distrust and dislike our frontline staff more than Starbucks?

The last lesson I want to discuss from Starbucks deals with smiles.  Starbucks train their employees to smile at customers.  Yes, that wonderful smile that can brighten up your day and create a powerful experience.  Heck, there is even a song about Starbucks Smile.

I once heard that Starbucks fires 250 employees a year for not smiling enough.  On the one hand, this seems very harsh and controlling, on the other hand Starbucks seems on to something.  We all know that frontline staffer who is always grumpy.  Patrons even try to avoid them.  This is a major problem for administration.  It turns off patrons and turns heavy users into advocates against the library.  It also decreases morale among the staff.  Managers need to be courageous enough to deal with these problems instead of allowing them to fester and infect the staff and patrons.

The best part of Starbucks training program is its self selection process.  Starbucks knows that if an employee is going to quit its within 90 days or after more than 3 years.  Those that can’t hack it leave quickly; those who can make it, love their job and stay for a long time.

Creating a positive user experience has been growing in popularity in libraries for a while now.  However, in most cases it refers to digital or technological experiences.  This is good, but it is not nearly enough.  We need to focus on creating a positive user experience in all aspects.  Starbucks, like Apple and Trader Joes, do this through employee training, adopting a customer service philosophy, and holding everyone accountable to that philosophy.  The Starbucks store can be a total mess, their website can be down, their coffee can be overpriced and too bitter, but I’ll take all of that for the warm greeting, the smile, and the “Tony, do you want your tripio today or a grande Pike”.

In my next installment I’ll take a look at the Trader Joes philosophy and why people drive hours to get to the closest Trader Joes.



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6 responses to “The Starbucks Way for Libraries (a Manifesto Part II)`

  1. Michele Arms

    After reading this, I think the staff at my library could easily get a job at Starbucks! My only issue is with “the employees are encouraged to engage in conversation.” I have a couple staff members who would gladly do nothing but engage our patrons in conversation. There is a fine art to engaging the patron AND paying attention to what’s also going on around you and behaving accordingly.

  2. Michele,

    Great point. When I’ve been presented with unique staff strengths I’ve tried to move them into positions that build upon and utilize those strengths. Perhaps they could be moved into outreach/community engagement? In any event, those are certainly good problems to have 🙂

  3. I believe the key to good customer service is to make each employee feel as if they are part of a family, each person is an important part of the organization, this way they take ownership of their actions. It is important for management to stress this point, and to teach the employee to work out a suitable solution without overstepping their position.
    The example of the smaller “free drink” is a perfect example of empowering the employee to make a good decision without the fear reprimand.
    A great book that I recommend is Setting The Table by Danny Meyer Anybody in the customer service field should read this book.

  4. Pingback: The Trader Joe’s Way for Libraries (a Manifesto Part III) | The Information Activist Librarian

  5. grafedie,

    Setting the Table is a great book, that is an optional content books for my students to read at St. Kate’s. The idea of a family is a great point. Thanks!

  6. Lucy

    I’ve always been aware of how Waterstones run their stores akin to a library (except friendlier and brighter than some libraries). All the staff really know their books and seem to bubble with enthusiasm at the mention of a good book. On a rough day, I like to visit Waterstones and sit in their cafe reading. I see Waterstones as healthy competition.

    Reading your post, I’ve just realised that my library has the Starbucks approach towards the public and library members: letting people pay for photocopies at a later date (trust system), keeping books for regulars, recommending books, regulars drop by with small treats, we know our regulars by name and if a regular becomes ill, they come to us for sympathy.

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