Being like this major coffeehouse chain could change everything

Woman drinking a starbucks - an illustration fof a story about how the coffeehouse retrained its staff

Today Conrad looks at Starbucks – and how an action this coffeehouse chain took one day radically changed its fortunes. How can we apply this thinking to our everyday lives to retrain ourselves or retrain staff? Let’s find out.

It’s funny to think that there was a time when Starbucks was losing its grip. But it’s true.

Back in 2008, the coffeehouse chain and coffee company (a coffee company in that they source and roast their own beans) had plans to shut 100 outlets in the US. It was, according to the New York Times, in danger of becoming yet “another big food chain” . In other words, it was fading into the background. It was no longer the go-to place for people of all ages looking to take a breather and a hit of caffeine.

So the company decided to stop everything.

At 5.30pm on Feb 26, Starbucks closed all of its stores to begin retraining staff. They took much-needed time and concentrated on getting the espresso shots right, the milk right. The attention was back on this simplest of things – stuff you’d imagine their experienced baristas were taught in week one. But as Starbucks turned customers away from the door, inside they made sure they got back their core purpose.

The move wasn’t universally received with respect and admiration, either. As the till stood silent for the three hours of staff retraining, outside there was an air of snark from some – especially those who made “superior” coffees.

Surely three hours was not enough to retrain staff?

Well, it was. Starbucks reversed its financial fortunes, and is opening a coffeehouse a day in China at the moment – oh and taking on Italy now. Their coffee company arm is setting up its own bean roasting facility in the spiritual home of the espresso – no small feat.

And now I’m going to tell you how thinking like this coffeehouse chain could help you as well. You too could take the important step to retain yourself (and retrain staff if you have any). It could make the difference between success and failure.

Forget tortoise and hare – learn when to stop to retrain yourself and/or retrain staff

We’re all familiar with the tale of the tortoise and the hair. The story goes that the hare and the tortoise agree to a race. The hare is naturally touted to be faster and is full of confidence. The tortoise takes part in the race regardless of the athletic inequality between the two animals. With the race underway, the hare stops and takes a nap. But he re-awakens too late – the tortoise has plodded past him during his slumber and wins the race.

And that’s a fine story if you want to back an underdog. Its a fine story to cling to if you want to live as an underdog for the rest of your life, too. But as we have seen time and again is that this is now how it plays out in real life.

Indeed, you have to think fast and be fast to get ahead. Often you have to go at a rate of knots. Plodding along has never won anything for anyone except a carriage clock at the end of fifty boring years in a dead-end job.

And I hear businesses don’t even give out carriage clocks anymore.

A coffee company like Starbucks knows you have to think fast and move fast to continually enforce a rock solid brand and remain ahead of the competition. Being sluggish simply doesn’t work

The problem is – once you realise these underdog stories are only holding you back – there is one other thing you have to take into account. Sometimes you have to stop between sprints.

You have to pause and re-calibrate from time to time. You have to stop and regain focus so you can take on another sprint. If you are your own boss then you have to regularly retrain yourself. If you have a team working for you, you may have to retrain staff too.

And that moment you decide to stop is scary. It feels counter intuitive. It feels like you’re going to lose business during that time out.

It’s scary for a major coffeehouse chain, and it’s scary for you.

And it’s equally valuable for both.

How to think like a coffehouse chain and get that Starbucks factor into your business

Fact of the matter is that we all need to do what Starbucks did from time to time. Pause, recalibrate, retrain, build and move ahead. For them it was retraining staff to pour the perfect espresso, to get the milk just right. It was about making the customer experience as perfect as they could. For the rest of us it can be a range of other issues. We might not even thought about them in the day-to-day bustle.

Let’s say, for example, you have an internet marketing company. You have five sites which are all doing okay.

Thing is, the initial traffic has slowed a little on each one and your buzz for the job has also slowed. Your only solution is to fire up another new website to try and get traffic in. But you’re worried – the days are long enough. You might end up working 24-7.

That, my friends, is called inefficiency. And there’s no medal for it.

It might well be time to think like a certain coffeehouse chain and take a step back, re-calibrate and retrain yourself or retain your staff.

Not convinced? Let me run you through the benefits.

You often need to step back

A coffeehouse chain and coffee company like Starbucks is massive, but even they realised they had to get back to brass tacks. They had to let things slide a little – three hours closure for 7,100 stores at 5.30pm would seem worrisome to even the most steely-minded CEO. Especially when you consider workers were pouring out of their businesses and looking for a hard-earned latte at about this time.

But it gave Starbucks a chance to step back. They had re-appointed Howard Schultz: a pivotal figure in the company who’d returned after an eight-year break. He was saying all the right things – such as re-capturing the “soul of the past” – but that meant nothing if nobody took a step back. Why? Because you have to create a vacuum in which you can form a plan, get on board with the plan and then move forward. As he said at the time, it was more than just an initiative to retrain staff. The implications were wider, more holistic.

As I always say: you can’t fix a bike while you’re riding it.

It’s a good rest

A coffeehouse chain like Starbucks rarely gets a chance to get a breather – work in a coffee shop is hard and it’s tiring. And the problem with being tired is you tend to follow whatever blueprint you have laid out. Critical thinking goes out the window. That’s why shoving a new initiative under the noses of employees in an email or a ten-minute meeting hardly ever works. How can you get mentally freshened up and assimilate new facts if you’re still flailing about on the hamster wheel? Answer: you can’t.

Nobody can multi-task. It’s a myth. You just end up doing two tasks badly. You certainly can’t retain yourself. And the idea of retraining your staff? Forget it.

Better to give everyone a chance to relax whilst going over new directions.

That goes for you. If you’re busy ploughing through tasks – even if you work for yourself – you simply cannot take on board new information unless it pertains exactly to the task in hand.

Training provides a good atmosphere

Maybe I’m a bit of an anomaly, but I used to like training sessions. It created an unusual set of circumstances, and so a time to bond with co-workers under different circumstances.

In that sense – without any special mission statement – retraining staff is never just about retraining staff. And when it comes to you, it is never just about retraining yourself either.

I’m sure that was true for the baristas at the Starbucks coffeehouse chain. It must’ve been strange to be turning customers from the door, to be seeing a specially prepared video from the CEO Howard Schultz, and be re-learning the job from scratch together.

I imagine several huddled around the newspaper reports from the major media outlets the next day, too.

If you have staff, this is an opportunity to relate to them differently. If you work on your own it’s a chance to look at your work from an entirely new angle: retraining now is different from when you were training for your job when you started out. You have experience, you have a set of skills you didn’t have before.

And here’s the key: looking at things from this new angle reminds you why you’re doing this work the first place. Bringing a fresh perspective helps you to reconnect to your values and principles.

It helps you look forward

This is the crux of it. You have taken a breather, reconnected with anyone you might work with and got back to the core values of what you do. The next step is to look forward.

Stepping back provides good positions for critical thinking. It allows people to see what the real problems are (Starbucks got rid of smelly sandwiches to allows the smell of coffee to prevail). Often what we think is the problem (co-workers, clients that simply DON’T UNDERSTAND etc) is often not the case. We’re busy wrapped up the the day-to-day and don’t appreciate what we can do to improve.

Stepping back also gives us a chance, whilst planning ahead, to realise what we might be forgetting. Ideas that have fallen by the wayside. Just as coffehouse chain baristas were retrained to discern the smell and look of a good espresso shot, so must we also remember fundamental things that get left behind.

With these two steps taken into account, it is time to do the actual retraining – whether that is yourself, your staff or both.. To spend the time allocated re-learning the skills we might have left atrophy or learn new ones to push us up a notch.

Then we can decide exactly how to implement those steps. You can actually run tester sessions during this period to see what works – customers Starbucks turned away got free coffee samples during the training.

Summary – if you want to change then think like a coffeehouse chain

Business is about calculated risk at the end of the day – nobody ever stood up and said that the secret to success was treading water.

Ensure you take time to step back and think about why you do what you do, and how you do it. Look at mistakes you’re making and gaps in your skills. Ensure that you then either retrain yourself and/or retrain your staff in order to meet these gaps.

And remember – bigger brands have gone and done this before. You are certainly not alone.

Further reading – Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life without Losing Its Soul by Howard Schultz is available on Amazon