Soulful Sips: Starbucks’ Journey from Product-Centric to People-Centric

Shah Mohammed
4 min readDec 1, 2023
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Despite being founded in 1971, Starbucks initially catered to a niche market of coffee connoisseurs, primarily operating as a retailer of high-quality coffee beans with only a handful of stores by the mid-1980s. It was renowned for its commitment to sourcing and selling premium coffee beans, attracting passionate coffee lovers. However, the transformation of Starbucks into the global coffeehouse giant we know today occurred when Howard Schultz took over in the mid-1980s.

Upon acquiring Starbucks, Schultz redefined its identity, turning it into an espresso bar that not only sold coffee but also provided a space for customers to sit and enjoy their beverages. Schultz placed a significant emphasis on delivering high-quality drinks, maintaining cleanliness, and ensuring quick service. Quality emerged as the pivotal parameter under Schultz’s leadership.

To further fuel Starbucks’ rapid growth, Schultz made crucial hires, and one standout addition was Howard Behar, a retail expert with 25 years of experience. Behar’s arrival marked a turning point. One of the critical opinions Howard made was that Starbucks was too much product-oriented.

According to Behar, it was the people crafting the coffee who held the key to success. He passionately asserted that individuals directly influenced the quality of products and services, and ultimately, they would determine Starbucks’ long-term success. He said that products are inert and have no emotions. People are important. Behar asked Schultz to focus on hiring great people, celebrating their passions and skills, and giving them the freedom to do their jobs right.

Howard Behar added, “Starbucks should not be about filling bellies. It should be about filling souls.”

That pivotal advice from Howard Behar brought about a fundamental shift in Starbucks’ approach. Behar recognized that, in the pursuit of coffee excellence, the company had sometimes unintentionally become product-oriented, potentially overlooking crucial customer preferences. To rectify this, he introduced the innovative “snapshot” program, conducting surprise visits to each store to evaluate and enhance customer service.

Under Behar’s guidance, employees were trained to go above and beyond, taking heroic measures to fulfill customer requests. The mantra became “just say yes” to customer demands, emphasizing a proactive and accommodating attitude. Behar encouraged Starbucks staff to be more accessible, catering to a diverse range of customer needs. Whether it was grinding coffee beans from another store or implementing a “Starbuck” certificate for dissatisfied customers, the focus was on exceeding expectations.

A key aspect of Behar’s philosophy was summed up in his statement: “As long as it is moral, legal, and ethical, we should do whatever it takes to please the customer.” This customer-centric ethos not only transformed the way Starbucks operated but also fostered a culture where customer satisfaction was paramount. Behar’s influence went beyond policies; it became a mindset that resonated throughout the company.

The “just say yes” culture not only addressed customer preferences but also contributed to Starbucks’ reputation for exceptional customer service. By acknowledging and responding to individual needs, Starbucks differentiated itself from competitors and strengthened its connection with a broad customer base. Behar’s customer-centric initiatives became a cornerstone of Starbucks’ success, showcasing the profound impact that a shift in focus from products to people can have on a business.

In business, it’s not uncommon for companies to inadvertently become overly product-oriented, a trend that can significantly impact their overall success. The fixation on the tangible aspects of a product, such as its features, quality, or specifications, might sometimes overshadow the broader and more influential dimension — customer experience.

When an organization leans excessively towards a product-centric approach, it risks neglecting the human element that is fundamental to customer satisfaction. Products, being inert entities, lack the ability to forge meaningful connections with consumers. It’s the people behind the products, their passion, dedication, and the experiences they create, that truly resonate with customers on a profound level.

In the case of Starbucks before Howard Behar’s pivotal intervention, the company was inadvertently caught in the web of a product-oriented mindset, focusing primarily on the quality of coffee beans and the beverages themselves. While quality is undoubtedly essential, it was the shift towards recognizing the role of people — employees and customers alike — that marked a transformative journey for Starbucks.

Companies that unknowingly fall into the trap of being product-centric often encounter challenges in adapting to changing consumer preferences and evolving market dynamics. A myopic focus on the product alone might lead to missed opportunities for innovation, differentiation, and customer engagement.

By recognizing the unintended product-oriented stance and realigning priorities to encompass the human aspect, businesses can enhance customer satisfaction, loyalty, and brand advocacy. Howard Behar’s wisdom at Starbucks serves as a valuable lesson — a reminder that successful businesses are those that not only deliver exceptional products but also cultivate an environment where people, both employees and customers, feel valued, heard, and connected. The subtle shift from viewing customers as mere consumers to acknowledging them as individuals with unique needs and desires can be a game-changer in the competitive landscape. It’s a lesson that reverberates across industries, urging companies to refocus on the human elements that breathe life into their products and services.