Postcards

How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Guest Post: Advice to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz

August 4, 2009: 1:11 PM ET

Starbucks (SBUX) is one of our favorite topics on Postcards. We're in the stores everyday. We vigilantly watch CEO Howard Schultz's efforts to slash costs, revive the brand, treat employees respectfully, satisfy investors, and fight incursions by very aggressive McDonald's (MCD) and Dunkin' Donuts. Today's Wall Street Journal has an interesting story about Starbucks' latest efficiency efforts--which could compromise the brand "romance," which Schultz has long said distinguishes Starbucks, and employee (or "partner") morale. Sun Min Kimes, a behind-the-counter barista at a Starbucks in Ashburn, Virginia felt strongly enough about the struggles to write this Guest Post. We hope Howard Schultz reads it.

sunminsbuxby Sun Min Kimes

I started working for Starbucks a couple of years ago, after I returned to the U.S. from Seoul.  I first moved to America 30 years ago, but my husband and I went back to my native country, South Korea, when my daughter--who is a writer-reporter at Fortune--left for college. Upon our return to Ashburn, Virginia, I wanted to get a part-time job, so I drove to the Starbucks near our house and filled out an application.

I was hired after my second interview. When I started the job, I was very nervous about the long lines of customers and complicated terms for everything. Although I came here from Korea many years ago, English is my second language. Sometimes, customers were frustrated if I took too long or made mistakes.  So I made my own homemade notebook of Starbucks recipes and studied it every night.

Eventually, I became comfortable at work. I began to see the same customers every day, and we became friends, even talking about our lives. I met a 45-year-old woman whose teenage son loves sports (like my children did), and a Filipino girl who thought she had to leave the states but received permission to stay.  There's a gentleman whose wife is terminally ill--he comes in, sits down, and reads a book most days. I think being here comforts him.

Over time, I grew more interested in the company. In fact, many of us "partners" feel this way. We track what is happening through various blogs. We know the business has been going through tough times, so I was happy to hear that profits recently improved. However, I wish we could increase earnings without cutting costs.

It is very difficult sometimes when there are only two people on the floor doing everything. I think that Howard Schultz has made a lot of smart decisions, but I have some suggestions for him.

Howard, I think you have done a good job of being transparent, but it would be wonderful if you communicated more with the workers. I would like to get an internal newsletter, with information about what successful locations are doing, new products, and the company's strategy. Additionally, customer service would improve if we received reeducation. I know many of us want the opportunity for advanced training.

I've heard that, in Seattle, you're creating new "stealth coffee shops," called 15th Avenue stores, without the Starbucks brand. Customers will see through this. Instead, why not empower--and incentivize--managers to appeal to their communities by sourcing food, music, and artwork from locals while sustaining our brand?

A few more suggestions: During the morning hours at busy stores, I think many of our customers would appreciate it if a single register were designated for drip coffee. And regarding new products: I just don't think the company is successful in creating excitement. We're told to provide samples, but I rarely see them in stores.

I know that Starbucks has been successful with social media, but I think you should reconsider your resistance to nationwide television advertising.  We need to work harder to create buzz.

Regarding our retail items: I haven't seen sales data, but I question the strategy. The various mugs, stuffed animals, tumblers, etc. look colorful and add to the store's ambiance, but they sit on our shelves forever.  We always end up marking them down. I think we should offer fewer items, and choose them more carefully.

Finally, you should develop a new plan to reward frequent visitors. Recognition is important to them.

These are pretty small ideas, and they are coming from someone who hasn't been at Starbucks for that long. But even in my short time, I've become invested in the company. I love how it fosters diversity by bringing together people from different countries and walks of life.  After I left my native country for the second time, Starbucks gave me a community. I hope you can keep it thriving.

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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