One cup, one customer and one team member empowered to make the customer feels completely in control

By Steve Moran

Starbucks as a business model for anything and everything has been done to death . . . and yet this is a compelling story.

A few months ago when I was a panelist at the Alberta Seniors Community & Housing Association, I spent some time chatting with Ali Shivji, an emerging entrepreneur in the world of Canadian senior living. He told a fascinating story of how he spent 6 months as a Starbucks barista in order to be a better senior living executive.

The Big Question

Ali went looking for an answer to this one question:

How do we as an industry and I as a leader take a customer service approach to senior living?

As Ali looked at the industry he knew we were good at dealing with the frailties of aging, focusing on medication, assistance with bathing, dressing and transportation. The thing he found missing was asking questions like:

  • What food do you like?
  • What time do you like to get up and go to bed?
  • How did you live your life day to day at home?
  • What temperature do you want your room to be? 
  • What does fun mean to you?

In contemplation of his big question he asked himself what company today is doing the best job of providing customer service and is also able to scale it across many locations. Starbucks was the clear answer. It was only a short leap to decide that the best way to understand the Starbucks customer service model was to go to work for them as a barista.

He was overqualified and so it took a number of weeks for him to land a position but ultimately he was hired. For six months for 3 or 4 days a week from 5-9AM he served cold and hot drinks, snacks and a great customer experience.

By the time he had worked for 2 months most of the lessons had sunk in, but he continued for another 4 months because it was so satisfying. It was a chance everyday to “make someone’s day”; “it was fun”; “an amazing time”.

The Lessons For Senior Living

At the heart of creating the ultimate customer experience is the ability to motivate team members, to enjoy what they do each day.

  1. Training – Ali got two full weeks of training before he was allowed to serve a single customer on his own.
  2. Task Lists – There was a task list, but there was always a sense of “we are all in this together” to get the job done.  People had primary assignments, but everyone did whatever it took to make everyone else successful.
  3. Systems and Processes – Every single system and process was designed to allow for two things: creativity and consistency of service. This meant that if a customer wanted a little extra something or a little less of something else that was great. If a worker found a way of doing something that worked better for them, and provided a great end result for the customer that was perfect.
  4. Empowerment – The goal of every team member was to make “the perfect cappuccino” and, in order to do that, it was the companies’ obligation to make sure the team member had everything they needed to make that perfect drink. The team member never had to worry about getting the beans, milk or cups. 

If a customer was unhappy the team member was empowered to make it right. Toss the first drink and start over. Offer a different drink . . . whatever it took.

  1. Make The Customers’ Day – The ultimate goal is much more fuzzy than a good cup of cappuccino. It is mostly about making the customers’ day and that comes down to the little bits of conversation that take place between the customer and the team member. Over and over again Ali found that in just a few moments, with just a few snippets of conversation he was able to make a customer’s day.
  2. The Human Spirit – The question is really this: How does a senior living caregiver connect with the human spirit of the resident? How do you create meaningful bonds and relationships? This must be the ultimate goal.

Starbucks has this concept: one cup, one customer and one team member empowered to make the customer feel completely in control. As Ali sees the world of senior living it should be the same:

One senior and one team member empowered to do whatever it takes to make the senior feel as if he or she is having a great day.