A Starbucks worker says the chain needs to start listening to baristas if it wants to survive.
According to an open letter written by Jaime Prater, Starbucks’ employees are “buckling under the weight of expectation and tasks” as they juggle an increasing number of responsibilities due to the rise of mobile ordering.
Prater, who has worked in Starbucks stores for 10 years, says there is a divide between in-store workers and corporate employees that remains unaddressed and is causing major issues for the company.
“Store Partners feel frustrated and then voice their concerns, much to the chagrin of corporate level brass, further articulating the vast disconnect between what it’s like to work in a store in any given city or area, and sitting in an office building,” Prater writes.
In 2016, Prater created a Coworker.org petition that said a “lack of labour is killing morale” at the chain. According to Prater, Starbucks took note of the petition and made adjustments, including raising wages and introducing a new dress code. However, earlier in July, Coworker.org revisited the issue and found
89% of the 184 employees surveyed said staffing was still a problem at their locations over the past three months.
Corporate leaders’ lack of understanding about in-store issues — such as the struggles that come with adjusting to the rise of mobile order and pay — hurts sales at the chain, according to Prater.
“A neighbourhood cafe store (no drive-thru window) is now dealing with the impact of a different business model being introduced within an existing one, which is leading to slow death of the coffee house experience,” he writes. “What was once an atmosphere that was relaxing for customers has turned into a battle ground of ‘who’s order do we make first?’ or, ‘We don’t have enough time.'”
Starbucks says it is working to address the issues. In July, Starbucks, which refers to its employees as “partners,” appointed its first chief partner officer, Lucy Helm, in an effort to better engage with workers.
“Our 330,000 partners (employees) are at the core of every decision we make as a business, and our success depends on listening carefully to them. That includes the partner here who we have continued to engage with to address his concerns and who I will now reach out to directly,” Helm told Business Insider in an email. “Any partner is welcome to contact me directly.”
Starbucks also told Business Insider that the chain is addressing staffing concerns, adding labour to about 15% of stores in the last eight months and looking to add more in the months ahead.
“We work hard to ensure we are doing right by our partners, including engaging directly with them to gain their feedback rather than relying on limited surveys and media stories,” said Jaime Riley, a Starbucks spokesperson, who said the chain uses discussions, live open forums, and Workplace by Facebook to directly connect to workers.
“All that said, that doesn’t mean partners don’t feel rushed by the press of business,” Riley continued. “Serving customers in retail is difficult work, and we’re fortunate to have the best people in the business. Where we fall short, we’ll work to improve.”
Ultimately, what Prater and other Starbucks employees who have spoken with Business Insider say they want is for Starbucks leadership to acknowledge their challenges and provide concrete solutions, instead of simply lip service.
“I believe that Starbucks is unlike any other corporation in that it authentically seeks to always do better, to be better,” Prater writes. “Too often large conglomerates are painted as the enemy, looking to use and mis-use the little guy, and sometimes that’s been the case. It’s not the case with Starbucks. “
Here’s Prater’s letter in full:
Here we are again. There’s a cyclical pattern happening and it rotates and comes back around, almost the same time every year.
This song isn’t a new one. Store Partners feel frustrated and then voice their concerns, much to the chagrin of corporate level brass, further articulating the vast disconnect between what it’s like to work in a store in any given city or area, and sitting in an office building.
It’s this disconnect that has consistently left Starbucks store partners at odds with their corporate and regional decision makers. From a difference to what maternity (and paternity) leave looks like between corporate and store level employees, to the mounting tasks stacking on top of a burnt out workforce, the divide only grows.
Starbucks Corporate ISN’T Listening Close Enough
That’s right. Despite the petitions, the media coverage, and the social media storm, the communication between store level partners and higher-ups widens. Recently it was reported that a CPO (Chief Partner Officer) was named in Lucy Helm. Hoping to better understand (and facilitate) why the partner experience differs from corporate statistics.
The idea of a Chief Partner Officer is a wonderful thing, no doubt. Starbucks nearly stands alone as a company in terms of trying to understand and work with their workforce. As someone who spoke up in 2016, the care I received was and continues to be beyond impressive. After everything died down, new wages were announced, a dramatic change in dress code, and a bonus. I had surmised and hoped that we were headed in the right direction. Maybe we were.
What I see happening now is a workforce buckling under the weight of expectation and tasks. Mobile Order and Pay has fundamentally changed the game at Starbucks. A neighbourhood cafe store (no drive-thru window) is now dealing with the impact of a different business model being introduced within an existing one, which is leading to slow death of the coffee house experience. Cafe stores are now becoming either physical drive-thrus or walk-up drive-thrus. What was once an atmosphere that was relaxing for customers has turned into a battle ground of ‘who’s order do we make first?’ or, ‘We don’t have enough time.’
There are stores that don’t feel the frustrations that many partners talk about, where Playbook (a deployment model) runs perfectly, in sync with Clean, Safe & Ready (a store cleanliness model), and there’s enough labour for everything to run smoothly. There are stores and partners who glide through expectation and change with ease. It must be noted. The frustrations that many partners feel day to day aren’t necessarily shared by all partners in all areas and stores of the company. It’s important not to lump everyone in together. Further, these conversations aren’t always about better pay, or more people. If you speak to some partners, that might be the first few words out of their mouth. The wage discussion cannot be dismissed either. The most successful coffee chain in the world cannot afford to pay its workforce enough to pay rent with the money they make. With tips disappearing from weekly earnings, earnings that partners depend on for food and gas, partners feel it from week to week.
Looks can be deceiving. A customer can walk into store that appears empty, and instead of a line of people, there are ten or more Mobile Orders being prepared for customers who don’t want to wait. Mobile Order and Pay is stealing every last drop of time to devote to in-store customers. At the heart of all of this is the disconnect.
The expectation that a Store Manager can succinctly attend their duties in the 10 hours of administrative time given to them every week further stresses an atmosphere where Partners feel like there’s never enough people on the floor at any given time. Store Managers shouldn’t be factored in to store labour allotment. Give that labour to another partner that can be physically on the floor at all times. Store Managers not only make schedules for three weeks, they hire and train, and re-train, and implement new guidelines, attend weekly or bi-monthly meetings, etc… All of this, expected on 10 hours a week of administration time. It’s not only not working, it’s affecting productivity, and the fear of retaliation keeps many of these managers from speaking their mind freely about what’s working and what isn’t.
The growing demands of Mobile Order and Pay further reveal a climate where partners struggle to attend to every customer need, the needs of the cafe and overall cleanliness in a way that benefits the customer, the store and corporate expectations. With the recent launch of North Star, which is essentially a pivot back to that customer experience, some partners will tell you that it feels like a slow drowning.
The reality is a complicated one. Corporate might view the partner as never being satisfied, always wanting more labour and better pay (which isn’t always the answer or the case). The flip side is, many partners feel the similarly, like what they do is never good enough, never fast enough, their smile not big enough, their ‘thank you’ not heartfelt enough.
Chain of Command
Typically, if a partner has an issue or a concern, and they want to be heard, they are persuaded to speak to their store manager, who then voices that concern to the district manager, and then to a regional manager, and so on, and so forth.
By the time this concern reaches the corporate structure, it’s been watered down, smoothed over and sanitised. The issues that partners deal with in terms of their day to day stresses aren’t being properly reported to corporate because there is a system of fear in place where employees and managers are afraid to deliver bad news, or just be honest with the reality of what’s happening. This fear of honesty from local and regional leadership then creates an environment where the partner doesn’t feel heard. When you don’t feel heard, or listened to, you feel like you don’t matter. I know, personally for Starbucks, that’s not what they want. They want to believe that their partners matter, and their opinions count.
A recent poll conducted by coworker.org outlined that,
“75 per cent of the Starbucks workers polled by Coworker.org said their stores were not staffed to meet the goals of North Star. Eighty-nine per cent of respondents said staffing levels were still a problem in their stores in the past three months, and 62 per cent said their ability to deliver the best customer service possible decreased during that time.”
(taken from The New York Times)
Starbucks Corporate response was this…
“All of our metrics show we are moving in the opposite direction of what the survey claims,” Starbucks spokesman Reggie Borges said.
(taken from The New York Times)
The corporate answer is both telling and tinged with a bit of an inadvertent insult. The divide between what the numbers say, and what actual living, breathing employees are saying is concerning. With the launch of North Star, some partners felt like much of the pressure was on them to right the ship, in terms of failing customer satisfaction. ‘It’s our way, or the highway’ is the feeling that some partners felt. Again, I don’t believe it was the intention of Starbucks Corporate to make their store workforce feel like they were the problem. As with many issues in Starbucks, it was a communication breakdown. As much as store partners are feeling the stress of mounting tasks, amid complicated drink rollouts, Store Managers are saddled with trying to balance their productivity in terms of being a business owner, getting three weeks of schedules made, giving time off and vacations and leave, amid weekly meetings, and conference calls.
What further impacts this are last minute announcements of new promotions, complicated drink events that last a few days, and the list grows.
If Starbucks is going to find unity or common ground with their employees who work in their stores, the playing field has to be leveled. There has to be a sense of fearlessness when it comes to offering feedback as to what’s working and what isn’t. It’s that simple. A Chief Partner Officer, however a good beginning, isn’t the full answer, especially when that partner is culled from the corporate structure. There’s little trust there. Trust is paramount. Partners are more apt to being honest with someone who’s survived the ranks of being a barista or a shift supervisor, then a corporate tribute.
The decline of same store sales, as outlined in the last quarterly earnings report is a symptom of several issues, customer engagement, partner satisfaction, and the ever-changing retail landscape. As a company, Starbucks has to grow the business, and it has to keep up with the demand of shoppers so as to ensure growing profits.
When you call your employees ‘Partners’, there’s a suggestion that you see them as equals, co-workers on a shared journey in a wonderful company unlike any other. For many store partners, baristas, shift supervisors and managers, it’s something they want to believe in and get behind. We want to do well, we want to perform well. All we are asking for is better communication, communication that cuts through the bureaucratic red tape so that we can be heard honestly, without being censored or sanitised. As much as these Partner Open Forums are appreciated, much of the time, they come off like self-congratulatory events, as opposed to workshops where partners feel the freedom to talk about hot button issues (without fear) that effect us every day.
Communication HAS to change. That is the only way forward.
I believe that Starbucks is unlike any other corporation in that it authentically seeks to always do better, to be better. Too often large conglomerates are painted as the enemy, looking to use and mis-use the little guy, and sometimes that’s been the case.
It’s not the case with Starbucks.
Jaime M Prater
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