The Starbucks Experience: 5 principles for turning ordinary into extraordinary

Jospeh A Michelli, McGraw-Hill, New York

About 5:30 am in the waiting area of Liverpool airport, I was feeling dog-tired.  There was nearly an hour to kill before my flight and a Starbuck’s sign caught my eye.  I had never been to Starbucks before but I had in my mind an idea that that coffee was supposed to be good, certainly better than the usual airport fare.  I bought my espresso and was genuinely surprised by the local server asking if I wanted a glass of water with it.  I accepted, and sat down.  I was thinking, “Is that normal for Starbucks, or did this just happen to be an unusually friendly and insightful Scouser?”  Whatever, I was pleased; my expectations had been exceeded.

This really is the essence of the book.  Starbucks aims to turn an ordinary event (buying a cup of coffee) into an extraordinary experience for the customer.  This permits Starbucks to charge higher prices, and to ensure the customer comes back.  A ‘win-win’ situation.

This book was recommended to me by my old CEO at Nations Healthcare Ltd, a young, independent healthcare company trying to break into the NHS.  The idea was that what Starbucks could do for coffee-drinkers, we could do for patients.

It was a neat idea.  The NHS is ordinary, it’s OK, it’s mediocre1.  It could be great if the experience of the patient was taken seriously, i.e. enacted as opposed to espoused.  Starbucks takes the customer experience seriously, that is, it plans it, expends resources on it and ensures its implementation from the bottom of the organisation to the top.  Anyone who works in a service industry and genuinely wants to enhance the consumers’ experience should learn from this book.

Bear in mind the author and organisation are Americans, so for a British reader the style can be a bit cloying.  However, the central message is valid and certainly applicable to healthcare.

Here’s some brief thoughts I picked out from the 5 principles that can easily be applied to healthcare: 

Principle 1:  make it your own:

  • Be welcoming: hospitals are scary places, show hospitality!
  • Be genuine: connect, discover, respond
  • Be considerate:  mindful of the needs of others
  • Be knowledgeable:  love what you do and share that knowledge with others
  • Be involved: in your workplace, department, hospital, community 

Principle 2:  Everything matters:  small details can make all the difference, there really is no way to hide poor quality, ask patients what details they notice about us 

Principle 3:  Surprise and delight:  under-promise and over-deliver (how often the NHS gets it the opposite way round!  For example, think of how we send out appointments, then phone to say they’ve been cancelled).  Don’t be content with ‘satisfactory’ look for ‘delighted’.  Efforts to surprise and delight are contagious.  Patients can even be delighted by the way we make things right 

Principle 4:  Embrace resistance: don’t mind criticism.  If it is untrue, disregard it; if unfair, keep from irritation; if it is ignorant, smile; if it is justified, learn from it 

Principle 5:  Leave your mark:  “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” – Anne Frank

1          Health Consumer Powerhouse (2007).  Euro Health Consumer Index 2007, available at [accessed 14/02/08].  (The UK NHS ranks 17th out of 29 countries in Europe).


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