The Nudgelet
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The Nudgelet

What do Starbucks Baristas and Picky Eaters Have In Common?

By Akalya Srikumar, UG 22

The year 2000 saw a change in Starbucks management. Their then CEO, Schultz stepped from the all-powerful position. Within a few years, revenues tumbled and customers began to express a loss of faith in the brand. The senior executives ignored the looming signal of poor customer satisfaction. Starbucks no longer had the quality that justified 4 dollars for one cup of coffee. To regain their investors and partners, the management frantically expanded without addressing the actual problem.

Schultz strapped his suit back in 2008 and then he created some magic. He realized that gaining customer trust and loyalty or losing it significantly hinges on the baristas. He also realized that for most Baristas, Starbucks happens to be their first professional work environment.

The management then set out to regain the lost ‘spark’ of their Baristas that led to lower customer satisfaction. In trying to do so, the management stumbled upon a key finding that would lead to Starbucks’s rise as the go-to Coffee house in the World. In 2005, a Pennsylvania University study conducted analyzed the performance levels and self-discipline among other factors of 164 eight graders. They found that the students who demonstrated high willpower scored significantly higher scores and got admitted into selective colleges than their low willpower counterparts. Self-discipline was a better predictor of academic performance than the actual intellectual capacity of the students.

The easiest way to increase willpower was to make it into a habit. A habit that would be automatic and will not require conscious effort from the employees. Trying to find the various factors that contributed to willpower, the management now came across another study conducted by the Professors of Case reserve University.

At Case, a control group was divided into two groups, with each one of them being offered a different snack to munch on while waiting for the ‘experiment’ to begin. One of them was offered oven-baked fresh cookies while the other was given a plate of unappealing radish. You can imagine the misery of the latter group in having not only missed out on the cookies but now being forced to eat a radish. Both groups were then tasked with solving a puzzle. In reality, it was an impossible puzzle, but there was a significant difference in the approaches adopted by the two groups.

The radish group, frustrated with the puzzle, gave up on the puzzle on an average of 19 minutes before the cookie group. The cookie group was calm and relaxed and tried solving the puzzle without losing their chill. The results of this study were a breakthrough.

Willpower is not a skill, it’s a reserve that can be depleted and replenished. At the end of a long taxing day, it is quite hard to maintain the specific dietary habits, which explains why it is so easy to succumb to temptation later during the day, as the willpower reserve has been constantly used up throughout the day. This study, coupled with the findings from another study conducted by Professors Oaten and Cheng, gives a wholesome idea on willpower development for Starbucks. Being enrolled in activities that require the cultivation of willpower- hitting the gym or saving money, significantly increased the willpower reserve. This eventually had positive implications on other areas of life, from academic performance to health.

Hence the Starbucks employees were now enrolled in a company-sponsored gym and dietary classes which turned out to be another roadblock. The attendance was pathetic. In hindsight what seems apparent that the employees who cannot muster enough willpower to do their daily job most certainly could not attend gym classes after the long day’s work, bewildered the management.

The last piece of the puzzle and this did solve the problem for Starbucks involved another experimental finding. A British psychologist subjected one-half of her selected control patients who were recovering from orthopaedic replacement surgeries to a simple change in their lifestyle. Recovery was rather a gruesome process, with excruciating pain inflicted in the areas that have undergone surgery. But to speed the recovery process, physical movement was a must. She gave them a log, to write about how they planned on overcoming this pain and completing their daily dose of movement.

She found out that most of those plans contained steps to overcome specific moments where their willpower was most challenged. The patients identified the moment when their pain would be the most and devised countermeasures to prevent it. Starbucks employed this technique. It asked its employees to find their pain points or inflection points and asked them to write down an elaborate scheme of countermeasures. The pain points were anything ranging from an angry customer yelling for having gotten the wrong drink or a long queue of customers waiting at the cash desk. But the solution was rather simple, simply identifying such moments of excruciating pain and preparing for it.

Et Voila! It worked. Willpower became a habit rather than a forced choice. Starbucks ' revenue tripled in the following 3 years and the coffee behemoth a is often considered by their Baristas as one of the best things that have ever happened to them.


Duhigg Charles, “The Power of Habit”, Starbucks and the habit of success, (William Heinemann, Feb 28 2012, London), 112- 132



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