Last weekend I watched with sadness as an incident fueled by racism at a Philadelphia Starbucks spun out of control.
We would all like to think globally diverse and revered institutions like Starbucks are beyond reproach. But I know too well how flawed we are as humans, and how that makes the customer service industry at highest risk for such events.
All of us in crisis management paid close attention to Starbucks’ moves immediately following the media firestorm. Based on the viral video and customer statements, it is apparent that an employee made a terrible judgment call. Not only was it deplorable in its own right, but it also goes against the very hospitable brand experience Starbucks designs and trains its employees to create. It is evident that both the store employees and even the police overreacted to a non-violent incident.
There are a number of filters I use when evaluating an organization’s response to crisis.
These include the following questions of the CEO:
Did they accept responsibility for their organization’s role in the crisis?
- In a manner of speaking, yes. “regretfully, our practices and training led to a bad outcome – the basis for the call to the Philadelphia police department was wrong. Our store manager never intended for these men to be arrested and this should never have escalated like it did.
Did they make a sincere apology?
- The humanity of the statement is evident and the apology to the individuals and the invitation to do so in person is largely unheard of, usually out of fear of admitting liability. That was a risky move but a deeply genuine one.
Did they make amends to the injured parties?
- It is too soon to tell how it will rectify the incident with the affected individuals, but its offer to do so tacitly accepts responsibility and a promise to make it right
Did they articulate the ways they intend to avoid repeating the mistakes in the future?
- “We have immediately begun a thorough investigation of our practices. In addition to our own review, we will work with outside experts and community leaders to understand and adopt best practices.” Followed by, “We also will further train our partners to better know when police assistance is warranted. Additionally, we will host a company-wide meeting next week to share our learnings, discuss some immediate next steps and underscore our long-standing commitment to treating one another with respect and dignity.”
Did they use the experience to contribute to new behavior protocols?
- Just five days after the event, Starbucks announced it will shut down all of it its stores on May 29 to conduct racial-bias education geared towards preventing discrimination. The training will be provided to nearly 175,000 employees across the country, and will become part of the onboarding process for new hires
But what is perhaps most shocking from a crisis management point of view is the first statement from the Starbucks CEO softly implies they have a corporate-level problem within their policies and training. While I will not deny that institutional racism exists, I was not entirely sure that was the case here. But in the days following, we’ve seen them act quickly and acknowledge that they do, in fact, have a problem.
In my opinion, Starbucks must take a deeply difficult and introspective journey to evaluate itself and how its training and policies might leave room for institutional racism to seep in. This not only affects its customers, but its diverse and global workforce, too.
As I conveyed to the Wall Street Journal, Starbucks’ response shows that corporate entities are capable of sensitivity and compassion, something we need more of in our world, and perhaps Starbucks needs more of in its training and store policies.
The question now is, what will the customer service industry – and global business at large – gain from Starbucks’ advances in racial bias discovery, correction, and training?