Being on first name terms with the local shopkeeper, pub landlord or postman, is, sadly, not all that common in Britain today. The changing face of towns and high streets, as well as the increasingly transient nature of society, has meant that, even with the best will in the world, communities just don’t interact like they did in the ‘good old days.

Yet, despite chain stores cropping up everywhere that look identical to the store in the neighbouring town or village, there remains a clear understanding from a business perspective that a traditional and personal service is still an important sales training lesson to build trust, rapport, and more importantly, repeat sales.

So, how do businesses thrive in a faceless franchising environment, yet offer a personal touch that says ‘we’re your local shop’? Well, it seems that coffee giant Starbucks think they have the answer, because if you’ve entered one of its many UK stores in the past week or so, you will have probably been confronted with an employee asking your name. As they say on their website, “it’s personal. That’s why we put your name on it…”.

You have to applaud the chain for making some kind of an effort to move away from the machine-based, conveyer belt image that so many similar businesses have, but what is this, a cynical ploy to get some free press or is this an actual attempt by the corporation’s leadership to drive cultural change?

Let’s not kid ourselves, the decision to start asking for first names wasn’t the idea of one or two employees at a single store, it was most likely a top down led management decision, and the staff on the front line will have been told to obey. When we talk about cultural change, actually shifting the way people think about a business as well as the way those working in the company operate and view their employer, there needs to be a leadership strategy, with those leading teams being fully briefed on the plan – and this takes time.

If, as it would seem, Starbucks has the objective of standing out on the high street and being the coffee shop that offers the best in terms of personal service, my first question is this: What is the next phase in this leadership challenge?

Perhaps the next step will be to simply embed the principles that have been laid out initially, so for instance, staff will be required to try and remember the names of regular visitors, maybe even give them their own mug when they arrive? At the very least their favourite drink should be recalled. Or, perhaps the next step is to offer something else for free. You will have probably noticed that last week Starbucks decided to give away a free latte to customers, and this was no strange coincidence. The business wants to get as much public and media attention on this new first name terms concept as possible, to see if it will actually have an instantaneous impact on customers coming over the threshold and ultimately impact on the bottom line profits, because that, after all, is what this initiative is all about.

My greatest fear, however, is that the leaders within this incredibly fast-growing business are about to make a grave mistake by underestimating the ease at which people can change the culture of an entire organisation.

All too often we see companies introduce new systems and processes in an effort to change perception, company culture, and in turn drive up sales success. However, these initiatives invariably fail because there is no long term strategy for that sales success, and in particular, there is no commitment to follow through. If you want repeat behaviour from customers and repeat behaviour from staff, one-off change will not get that, we are talking about the culture of Starbucks here, and changing that culture will take time.

If this is a real attempt by Starbucks to change the culture and make it a friendlier place to visit, and less machine-like, then we should be seeing other things happening down the line that are aligned with this objective.

To make it interesting, I’m going to start paying regular visits to Starbucks – follow me on Twitter @peterramsden to find out whether its corporate leaders have embedded a long-term change strategy to shift behaviour and thinking, or whether it was a one-off ‘hit and hope’ effort that will inevitably amount to nothing…

Peter Ramsden
Paramount Learning – Sales Training and Leading Teams