What I’ve learned from Starbucks

Years ago I learned the significance of the expression, “One Awe-Crap will erase 100 Atta Boys.” Recently, I read the book Onward by Howard Schultz, who was able to articulate that lesson in a more elegant manner.

In 2008 Schultz, then president and chairman of Starbucks, made the unprecedented decision to return as the CEO eight years after he stepped down from daily oversight of the company and became chairman. Concerned that Starbucks had lost its way, Schultz was determined to help it return to its core values and restore not only its financial health, but also its soul. In Onward, he shares the remarkable story of his return and the company’s ongoing transformation under his leadership, revealing how, during one of the most tumultuous economic times in history, Starbucks again achieved profitability and sustainability without sacrificing humanity.

It came down to revisiting the measures of success. Starbucks had gone away from its basic principles about quality and service and began to measure success in terms of how many new stores were opened and how many millions of new customers were being reached instead of realizing it was about one customer and one cup of coffee at a time. They had forgotten that it’s not just about winning, but the right way to win or to be successful, and properly defining what success needs to be.

In the book, Schultz writes: “How could one imperfect cup of coffee, one unqualified manager, or one poorly located store matter when millions of cups of coffee were being served in tens of thousands of stores? We forget that ‘ones’ add up.”

This statement struck home with me. I asked myself, “How could one imperfect printed brochure, one unqualified manager or employee, or one unhappy customer matter when we are dealing with hundreds of customers and producing a wide variety of products involving thousands of printed materials every year?” Then I remembered, the “ones” add up. How many of you have lost a long term customer because of “one thing,” and how it was handled?

The printing and mailing industry is a relationship industry. It is not about a business serving another business; it is about the people in the printing company providing a service to the people in the customer business. It is a continuum of one-on-one relationships to provide the right product at the right time at the right price. Even more important is that the printing and mailing company itself is built on one-on-one relationships. From the time an order is received until the product is delivered to the customer, success depends on hand-offs from one employee to another.

In many of my articles, I have emphasized the importance of creating a vision and hard-wiring a culture that is focused on achieving that vision. One section in Onward makes this point: “Our partners’ (baristas’) attitudes and actions have such great potential to make our customers feel something, Delighted, maybe. Or tickled. Special. Grateful. Connected.” But that is not possible if the baristas do not have a good feeling about the company. So the owner has to create the culture that makes the employees feel special, appreciated, and connected to the vision.

In our business we must focus on getting the “ones” right. Not eliminating that one mistake that could ruin a good relationship. That means that at each hand-off of the product or service, there is the confidence that each step has been handled correctly and that the emerging product or service is going to be right in every way and that the customer will feel “delighted” each and every time.


Debra Thompson is President of TG & Associates, a consulting firm specializing in human resources for the graphics industry. She can be reached toll-free at 877-842-7762 or debra@tgassociates.com. Visit www.tgassociates.com for help in finding, developing and retaining top performers, and the tools to help motivate them for success.