Don’t Blame Starbucks, It’s On All Of Us

You’ve likely heard the news about a Starbucks in Philadelphia where two African-American men were arrested for not leaving the store. They were denied access to the bathroom and asked to leave because they had not purchased anything. I’ve been guilty of doing that same thing, but luckily no one has called the police to have me removed.

I applaud Starbucks’ swift and robust response to the situation. CEO Kevin Johnson took responsibility for the problem and issued a clear apology:

The circumstances surrounding the incident and the outcome in our store on Thursday were reprehensible, they were wrong. And for that, I personally apologize to the two gentlemen who visited our store

Johnson further demonstrated his personal responsibility by flying to Philadelphia to meet with the two men. The company also announced that the store manager who called the police has been removed from the store, and that company will close all of its 8,000 US stores on May 29 for mandatory racial-bias training.

My Take: Starbucks has done a good job following our C.A.R.E.S. model, which defines how companies should response to a customer issue:

  • Communication (clearly communicate the process and set expectations)
  • Accountability (take responsibility for fixing the problem or getting an answer)
  • Responsiveness (don’t make the customer wait for your communication or a solution)
  • Empathy (acknowledge the impact that the situation has on the customer)
  • Solution (at the end of the day, make sure to solve the issue or answer the question)

With its actions, Starbucks has made it clear to all of its employees and customers that this type of behavior is not consistent with the company’s values and will not be tolerated.

I do believe that this is a racial bias problem. No one has ever called the police when I was waiting in a Starbucks without buying something, because I haven’t fit an employees’ pre-conceived model of what a trouble maker looks like.

So this made me think… are African Americans more or less likely than other ethnic groups to frequent Starbucks? 

As it turns out, we have the data to answer this question (see the chart below). I looked at our Q1 2018 benchmark of 10,000 U.S. consumers and found that only 10% of Starbucks’ customers are African-American. And less than one-quarter of African-Americans had recently interacted with Starbucks, which is the lowest of any ethnic group.

Starbucks Popularity Across Ethnic Groups

While I applaud Starbucks on its response, I can’t blame it for the situation. Unless there is something that I haven’t seen, there’s no evidence that Starbucks created a work environment that encouraged or fostered this type of behavior. The company just hired people who have innate biases. And you can’t blame Starbucks for that, because we all have biases.

This is a broader societal issue.

We can’t eliminate biases, as they are part of human beings’ underlying operating system. Our biases help us cope with the world by making faster, albeit sometimes flawed, decisions. For instance, we pre-identify some people as being trouble makers so that we can protect ourselves without having to be in constant fear around all people.

This may sound like correcting this problem is a hopeless cause, but it’s not. Over time, with education and leadership from people like Kevin Johnson, we can hopefully refine peoples biases so that they don’t broadly associate bad human traits with certain ethnic groups.

The Year of Humanity. Embrace Diversity. Extend Compassion. Express Appreciation.It won’t be easy, but together we can make a difference! I invite you to join Temkin Group in making 2018, The Year of Humanity. We’re focused on reinforcing three biases:

  • Embrace Diversity
  • Extend Compassion
  • Express Appreciation

The bottom line: Let’s all have a bias towards improving humanity.

Written by 

I am a customer experience transformist, helping large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. I am also a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Simply put, I am passionate about spotting emerging best practices and helping companies master them. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. My “title” is Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that helps organizations become more customer-centric. Our goal is simple: accelerate the path to delighting customers. I am also the co-founder and Emeritus Chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of CX professionals.

4 thoughts on “Don’t Blame Starbucks, It’s On All Of Us”

  1. While I agree with most of your points I work in NYC and I travel through Penn Station every day. I see countless men and woman being asked to purchase something or leave the store. I have never seen this kind of reaction and unlike you I believe if you enter a store to use the Bathroom without purchasing something a quick exit afterwards will keep you out of trouble. As far as who purchases Starbucks and I don’t anymore, its expensive and I’m not surprised about the data you showed above.

    1. I agree with you. Asking two African-American men (or any people) to leave a Starbucks if they are not buying something is not inherently wrong if it is a normal practice in the store.

      A company has every right to ask people to leave their stores if they are not customers. The question I have is to what degree is that policy being equally applied across different groups of people? If the company expels non-customers without regard to their group (ethnicity, gender, religion, etc.), then it seems fair to me. Once the policy is applied differently across different groups of people, then it is no longer fair. My unstated assumption is that these African-American men were not treated in the same manner as would, for instance, two Caucasian females. I think that Starbucks’ reaction to the situation bolsters that assumption.

      1. Indeed. The people on the video further bolstered that assumption. It would’ve been clearly called out as fake had people been treated otherwise. It’s time we start challenging the idea of our own biases and taking courageous steps to make decisions based on fact.

  2. Thank you for this post. It’s an issue every organization has. It’s quite easy to shine a spotlight on Starbucks because they made the news, but how many times does a person get ignored in a clothing store because they don’t “look like” they could afford the goods? How many times does someone get told that they don’t belong in the way employees are acting?

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