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Mind Your Business: Your Starbucks MBA


I had the occasion to spend a great deal of time working remotely in various Starbucks this week, and in addition to the few thousand extra calories I ingested, I also came away with a crystal-clear understanding of why Starbucks is the gold standard for running a business.

While many a business tome has been penned about the latte-dispensing giant, I'll save you the time and boil it down to the following observations. No matter what kind of business you own, these lessons are worth their weight in…black gold (coffee, that is).

'Kid temperature'
– On a recent Saturday morning trip to Starbucks, my seven-year-old wanted a hot chocolate. Upon ordering, I started to explain that it was for my son, hoping they could up the cold milk to hot chocolate ratio so as to avoid a trip to the local burn unit."Oh, you want it kid temperature," my barista said. Exactly. I wanted it 'kid temperature.'  And, instead of putting me through the torture of making this special request and acting as if I was putting them out, Starbucks employees made it easy for me and acted like they do it all the time — which, apparently, they do. How easy do you make it for your customers to get what they want? Are you rigid in your offerings or do you leave room to be flexible and accommodating?

'Your usual?' – As you might guess, Starbucks has a lot of regular customers. About half of the people that approached the cash register had a standing regular order. What was most amazing was that the cashier remembered what it was almost every time. When's the last time you went into a Burger King and heard a cashier remember what somebody ordered the last time they were there? This phenomenon points to a few smart moves on Starbucks' part. First, by offering benefits and an appealing work environment, they attract better employees. Second, employees work the same schedule each week so they get to know their customers. Do you foster relationships between your employees and your customers? Do you make an effort to attract the best employees — the ones you know will interact well with your customers — or do you hire the cheapest help you can find?

Why Fi? – Starbucks was clearly designed as a place where customers could sit and linger. It's also become a de facto virtual office for much of the telecommuting work force. Yet, while other companies might react to all this free Wi-Fi use by charging a usage fee or putting time limit on usage (Starbucks itself used to charge customers for Internet usage until 2010, when it began offering unlimited free Wi-Fi and there are rumors they are now trying to discourage Wi-Fi users from staying too long, by limiting outlet access.), Starbucks now offers customers free access to The New York Times and free iTunes downloads while you're using its wireless service.  The effect is that people come back, day after day after day. And, while they may only spend $3 or $4 a day, those dollars add up when you start spending five days a week sipping lattes and checking emails. How much value-added service do you give to your customers? Do you give them a reason to come back day after day — even though they may not even need what you're selling? Do you reward your customers for doing business with you?

Potty talk – Pretty much anyone who's suddenly found themselves in urgent need of a public restroom can tell you that Starbucks is more than accommodating when it comes to letting noncustomers use its facilities. I'd probably made half a dozen toddler pit stops in various Starbucks before I ever made a purchase. The company has a way of making people feel welcome in its stores — even when you're not buying anything. Their thinking, I gather, is that associating their brand with a welcoming, comfortable place will pay off in the long run. What do customers think of when they think about your brand ? Was their last experience a good one? And, if not, did you go out of your way to try to fix it?

Warm cookies – On my last afternoon in Starbucks, I decided to splurge and order a chocolate chip cookie. "Do you want me to warm your cookie?" the barista asked. It's such a simple question, but it speaks volumes about the company's culture. It says, "We're willing to put in a little extra effort to make you happy." How often do you send that message to your customers? Maybe you can't offer warm chocolate chip cookies, but I bet you could find one way or other to make them feel just as at home

Jeanette Mulvey is the managing editor of BusinessNewsDaily. She has written about small business for more than 20 years and formerly owned her own e-commerce business. Her column, Mind Your Business, appears on Mondays only on BusinessNewsDaily. You can follow her on Twitter at @jeanettebnd or contact her via e-mail jmulvey@techmedianetwork.com

Jeanette Mulvey

Jeanette has been writing about business for more than 20 years. She has written about every kind of entrepreneur from hardware store owners to fashion designers. Previously she was a manager of internal communications for Home Depot. Her journalism career began in local newspapers. She has a degree in American Studies from Rutgers University. Follow her on Twitter @jeanettebnd.