By now, everyone who isn't canning goods in a bomb shelter waiting for the zombie apocalypse has heard of the latest Starbucks controversy. If you missed the latest coffee "brewhaha" on April 12, a Starbucks manager in Philadelphia called the police on two young black men who were waiting in the store for their friend and wanted to use the bathroom. For this misguided action, Starbucks was justly criticized by the law and the media.

This is not the first time Starbucks has made a controversial mistake and it won't be the last. That's the nature of being a public business. Sometimes you get things really wrong--and everyone knows about it.

However, this article is not to lambast Starbucks yet again for how it reacted, nor is it to defend Starbucks for how it acted. Rather this article is to show how Starbucks can serve as a model of how to run toward problems and not away from them.

In his national bestselling book The Starbucks Experience, Joesph Michelli explained that unlike other companies, Starbucks has a policy of "embracing resistance." Instead of ignoring issues, Starbucks provides a model for other organizations to handle problems by reacting early to criticism, actively listening to critics, and fixing the problem.

Reacting early to criticism

A problem with many companies is they ignore criticism, hoping it will go away. Of course, we live in the internet age where nothing goes away. So it's better to address the criticism early.

When Starbucks management heard of the incident at the Philadelphia store on April 12, they acted quickly. On the morning of April 14, Starbucks issued an official apology where it apologized to the two young men and its customers, and also said it would review policies and work with the community.

While some might argue its response time was too slow, it was actually just right. Taking 36 hours to respond might seem like forever in this Internet age when we want our answers in microseconds, but people and companies don't operate at computer speeds. Starbucks did the right thing to investigate, gather the facts, and issue an accurate statement rather than make a quick statement.

Actively listening to critics

Many companies hope that the official "mea culpa" is the end of any controversy. However, Starbucks' policy is to actively listen to its critics, whether they be dissatisfied customers, unhappy employees, or concerned community members. It treats criticism as a learning opportunity that will better the company.

Starbucks wrote a letter to its staff (who it calls partners), where it said it would listen to its critics. After reiterating its apology, Starbucks made it known that it would investigate its practices, work with outside experts, and seek the counsel of community leaders.

Fixing the problem

Some organizations put window dressing to a problem. Maybe they will refund someone's money, or make a quick settlement. Less often does a company change policies. Starbucks' mantra is when something goes wrong: admit the error, fix the problem, and stay on course.

So after listening to its critics and learning from them, Starbucks developed a number of solutions. One simple fix was to institute a policy to let anyone use their bathrooms. The second was to address the issue of race by closing all its stores on May 29 to educate employees about racial bias.

Don't get me wrong. There is no perfect solution to handling a controversy. Every step of the way, Starbucks was criticized for how it handled the problem, from how long it took to respond to its solution of closing stores for racial bias awareness training. And I'm not saying its solution is the best one. However, its system for handling criticism and controversy is a good model for any organization.

Starbucks doesn't always get it right the first time, or the second time, but it tries to get it right, and that's all you can ask of any person or business.

Published on: Jun 15, 2018
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