You may have heard some Internet buzz over the years about secret specialty drinks pop up at Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) but are nowhere on the menu. What a cool factor, if you can get your hands on one -- most of us love the feeling of being a first adopter who's "in the know." However, lots of baristas hate these secret drinks.
Baristas' negative opinion of the drinks has nothing to do with the drinks themselves, which sound delicious as well as clever. With autumn upon us, they could conceivably include seasonal stealth offerings such as Candy Corn, Fall Mashup, and Perfect Pumpkin Frappuccino. Names like Cap'n Crunch and Oreo, not to mention favorite tastes Red Velvet and Cake Batter , sound fun and delicious. What about some of the treats people love, like Samoa Frappuccino, Kit Kat Frappuccino, and -- wait for it, hazelnut addicts -- the Nutella.
A site called Starbucks Secret Menu offers up the skinny on a whole slew of cool beverages like those. However, such revelation sites may actually be tantalizing us with the cool factor while doing baristas a disservice. In August, Buzzfeed named quite a list of Starbucks' secret offerings, but its structure was an Internet quiz asking "How many have you tried ?"
Sadly, these revelations and even quiz challenges may theoretically be good buzz for Starbucks, but not necessarily for baristas. There's a perfectly logical reason why some baristas hate or even despise the secret drinks.
The customer isn't always right
A few of my colleagues and I recently talked about Starbucks' awesome corporate culture. Its employees receive many great benefits that rarely show up in retail, such as health care coverage and a stake in the company called "Bean Stock." Many of Starbucks' initiatives, such as fair trade and artisan coffees, as well as increased environmental efforts, give many employees a sense of working for a company that cares about the world.
When I study companies to consider as investments, I include cultural attributes in my analysis. I loved the idea of secret, basically exclusive drinks at Starbucks. Front-line innovation is an awesome thing, and it illustrates pride in one's work as well as offering customer-pleasing products.
However, one of my colleagues, who did some time as a Starbucks barista, brought up an interesting thing most of us wouldn't suspect: many baristas hate them. Much like any art, they're usually one individual's creation that, of course, is not available in Starbucks' 10,000+ cafes. When baristas don't know the recipes to these specialized creations and turn down customer requests, it's not an "I won't" situation -- it's "I can't."
Meanwhile, customer reactions generate dread of what should be fun. Many customers become irate or even enraged if a barista can't fulfill a "secret drink" order. Examples of customers' extreme expressions of anger would shock most of us.
The downside of creativity
Maybe Starbucks could use the idea as a business builder while making employees happier, if it's handled in some different ways.
Employees who work on extra tasks show engagement, and studies reveal that engagement with one's work boosts happiness and productivity. From the business perspective, employees can find efficient ways to do things, or take it upon themselves to delight customers in creative ways. When they're recognized and rewarded for their talents, it can be as strong or stronger an incentive than huge paychecks. Creating a product of one's own is a pretty engaging activity.
I had a few thoughts off the top of my head on how Starbucks might be able to take the situation and flip it into a positive.
- Make it clear that "secret drinks" are "secret" for a reason; they may not be on the menu. For baristas' happiness and sanity, this would be the most important element.
- Occasionally offer some "secret" drinks in some cafes for a taste test "beta."
- Use chalkboards, social media, and other ways and to reveal the opportunity to taste an exclusive, secret drink; this could be an exciting store-by-store exclusive offering.
- Compile information and feedback from means like social media, trying to identify the most popular or promising ones.
- The most popular secret drinks could be rolled out on a widespread basis, with clever names and barista attribution.
- Take a page from many modern companies and allot some time once a month or so in which baristas are paid to work on concocting secret drinks instead of in the fray.
- Drinks that make it to a test phase or some other goal could yield a monetary bonus incentive.
Testing a way to reduce elements that frustrate or upset workers is a big deal, given the importance of morale. Public-facing jobs can particularly degrade morale even among the most culturally sound companies, particularly jobs that are so frantically fast paced and so close to customers. Turning the negative feelings into a positive initiative turns into a win-win-win situation.
The most important thing is to hope some angry, impatient customers can start exercising respect for baristas who work hard in a stressful job, regardless of what their complaints are. Whether this type of situation is one that Starbucks deems necessary to address, everyone has a choice as to how they treat others, and treating people poorly is a win for no one.