The Consultant's Desk

The Consultant's Desk
Poring over the details on your behalf

Friday, March 07, 2008

Case Study: The Sleaze Factory

What does the atmosphere of your business say about your environment? In fact, it's worthwhile to consider what you want it to convey to those who use it. Some businesses want to project a very conservative and professional image. Consider a law office, dental practice, or a traditional university as examples. Others want to provide a comfortable environment, some sparked with a little fun and liveliness, others just a relaxing spot to be while attending to the many things that need attention.

In the past, I've spoken of Starbucks as "the pub." I saw it as the place where a great cross-section of humanity congregates for various types of social activities, as well as drinking coffee. It's a community where all of the occupants can interact with one another or not. It's intent is to project comfort and a home away from home atmosphere. But I saw Starbucks as more on the equivalent of the pub because of the myriad of things that go on there.

Dates are had there, without the need to tidy up the living room. Study sessions are fantastic at Starbucks because of the convenience of the amenities. It's the break-up place and the place to go before or after a special event -- or to celebrate an event. The community entrepreneurs come to one of my regular spots and hawk their wares by way of allowing the "prospects" to play the game and then take home their own package for more fun. The community oddity (there are actually about three or four who are at various grades of) also shows up each day and does whatever it is he does. I call him "Cousin Randy" (given name is artificial for privacy) because we all have one at home. Families come for an evening's treat and to relax. It's a pub.

For a time, I enjoyed my regular haunts and the personalities that populated them. But one in particular started changing last year. It was probably due to the fact that much of the regular crowd graduated, got jobs, and no longer needed Starbucks as a place to study. The new crop began to filter in and develop their habits. The remnants of the previous existence absorbed and accepted and kept ploughing through their own particular endeavors. The comfortable yet serious atmosphere began being pushed aside in deference to men (more than usual) who came -- on the prowl for single women. In addition, the more coarse part of the population grew. Along with their numbers, so grew the amount of vandalism and small children who were out of control. But back to the salivating men.

Some were outrageously obvious about their intent. The unrefined compliments were very thinly veiled. They interrupted reading in order to make mindless conversation. They flirted while ignoring the earplugs worn by their target. Even after the significance of the earplugs was explained, they persisted in raising a conversation with the woman wearing earplugs who was studying for the next class or test. Some boasted about the size of their laptop and then wondered whether anyone else would be intimidated by the size. There was an obvious subliminal message there and being the closest who could comment, I soundly assured the speaker that his size was definitely not the put-off.

On some evenings, the house had three or four of these Romeos plying their way through the sheaves of single women -- make that "young, single" women, knocking anything and everything near them over so that they could collect the email address or phone number that was not to be produced, and ignoring all forms of professionalism as well as common courtesy. And it seemed this was the atmosphere that Starbucks wanted to project because by Thanksgiving and Christmas, the partners roamed among the patrons asking them what they were going to be doing for the holiday. It's an innocent enough question. But when it comes out of the blue or not in context with anything else that's happening, it definitely makes a person wonder why the subject should come up at all (and was the young man asking for a date?). So the lounge lizard activities were being supported by the proprietors.

The lack of professionalism in The Pub grew. The acts of vandalism grew. The unruly children, the shrieking babies and toddlers being allowed to be out of control, the uncivilized acts, grew like rising yeast bread. It was finally obvious that the particular Starbucks had become the haven for the lower middle class that attempted to fool theirselves into believing their behavior was refined. But it was apparent that the class of people were going nowhere except down with the ship.

Distain for others wasn't even thinly veiled. Cutting and insulting observations were vocalized. Certain ones were treated as though their time was not valued and could be frittered away with inpunity. And why not? These were only old people who had too much time on their hands and lots of time to waste while they waited for something better.

This is a toxic environment. It will either consume everyone in it or it will be cleansed. Things came to a head about two weeks ago when one of the prowlers was asked about his business. He coughed a response, trying not to admit that his business is not doing well. But when a mature woman asked him about his business and a brochure, he spat back bile, his brochures were only given to those who could use them and who were likely to do business with him.

Yes, it was a teaching moment. He was told that the person asking the second question was in a position to make him a speaker for their group (potential business contacts). There was a clarifying moment when, after being carefully questioned, he admitted that he had no regard for the person who addressed him. In fact, in his opinion, they were only at Starbucks to waste time. He was told his attitude showed.

Now it may seem that this is turning into a he said/she said. But it isn't. That was an epiphanatic moment. No one else had taken the time to defend their selves or acts. And in addition to stating their capacity and capabilities, the speaker made the trowler aware of just how coarse his behavior had been -- but with tact.

I've been away from Starbucks for about 1.5 weeks since that night. What a difference in atmosphere since then! The sleaze factor has dissipated. Although it does come up in the evening, it isn't as strong a previously observed. In fact, the house has returned to its previous ambiance of serious individuals focused on work and work- or study-related endeavors. Familial chit chat and proper conversations flow. The families still find it a refuge for an evening's macchiato, latte, mocha, frappucino (with extra caramel and whipped cream, please). But the children are well behaved, disciplined, and supervised.

No longer are chairs whipped away from tables because the individual wants it for their own purposes. Asking whether the chair is available, or the space at the table has returned to being the practice. People are treated with respect and mindfulness of the value of other's time is taken into consideration. There is no longer continuous pounding on the only bathroom door and snide comments about how long the person inside the room is taking have abated. An air of civilization has returned. This is healthy. After all, this particular Starbucks is just up the street from Galen Center.

Perhaps management didn't notice that the little things were slipping in, like small rocks and pebbles, to erode what was a very good thing. Since there was a gap in time, there's no telling what happened that pressed the evolution back into the normalcy of a year and a half before. But it is no longer the ghetto Starbucks that it was becoming. And I believe, considering its position next to such a prestigious university, that is exactly the change that management wanted to achieve.

There was news that Starbucks is laying off 600 of its office employees in order to cut costs. It is implementing other strategic competitive moves to emphasize its dedication to serving a great cup of coffee to its patrons and delivering good customer service. Given that good customer service does not include pick-up lines such as "What are you doing this evening?" I'd say this refocus is healthy.

The other thing that happened in that 1.5 week interval was the countrywide training Starbucks did on February 26. The partners were excited for days after and twittered about how it was the first time they had an opportunity to actually sit with their co-workers at the same table and talk with them. They enjoyed learning the essentials of brewing and roasting, serving and combining in order to deliver a good cup of coffee. Somewhere, I heard a supervisor say something about learning how to actually wash the implements rather than merely rinse. All will be part of the training process.

Maybe that was what happened -- a refocus. But the refocus would not have touched the customers to the point of behavioral change. There was more that happened that caused the metamorphosis. And at this point in time, I'm glad to say it's once again the type of Starbucks a professional would want to use for studying, fine tuning a report, getting work done, or just going to The Pub.