Starbucks, Congratulations … Give Credit to Kelli

The Changing Face of Today's Customer

With great fanfare, Starbucks announced they’re staffing a store exclusively with employees fluent in American Sign Language, (ASL). Congratulations.

Here’s my question: What took so long? After all, a Starbucks manager created a fantastic bridge to the hearing-impaired community … 18 year ago.

Enjoy the following case study of a truly visionary manager, Kelli Caires. I originally wrote about Kelli, in 2001, in my book: The Changing Face of Today’s Customer: Strategies for Attracting and Retaining a Diverse Customer and Employee Base.

Here’s the account of Kelli, back then. I wonder what she’s doing now?

Visionary Management, Visionary Customer Care
Kelli Caires, one of the thousands of store managers in the Starbucks organization, sets an example that is one we can all strive to attain. Her approach to creating a great customer experience and a sense of community exemplifies the cultural sensitivity that is so greatly needed in this era of indifference.

Kelli Caires is the Store Manager of a Starbucks located in Orange County, California.

This case really begins when Kelli and one of her staff, a partner named John, noticed a group of hearing-impaired customers visiting the store on a regular basis. Kelli states: “At first, we didn’t notice the pattern, but we realized a large group of about 40 customers was coming monthly, on Friday evenings. I knew that John was able to use sign language, so he and I approached the group to find out more about them.”

With John’s assistance as an interpreter, Kelli welcomed the group and asked them for suggestions for improving their Starbucks experience. Based on the group’s feedback Kelli put into motion a series of steps reflecting cultural and linguistic sensitivity rarely found in multinational organizations, much less neighborhood stores.

In addition to making sure John was scheduled on the evenings they arrived, Kelli and her team the following strategies to bridge the communication gaps:

Bridge #1: As a first step, she provided a pad of paper and a pen for every non-signing partner. This enabled them, via writing, to communicate with the hearing-impaired customers.

Bridge #2: Next, they transferred the menu that was posted on the wall onto laminated menus at each register. The real brilliance came when they connected erasable marking pens to the menus. “This was a whole lot easier than expecting these customers to clarify what they wanted to order by pointing to the large menu way up on the wall, they simply circled items on the menu with the pens”, says Kelli.

Bridge #3 To further refine their process, Kelli and her team decided to alter one of their long-standing operating procedures. Typically, when customers order a beverage at Starbucks, the order taker writes the customer’s name, in black ink, on the cup itself. Then, when the order is ready, another employee calls out the customer’s name to let them know the order is ready. For the hearing-impaired customers, Kelli’s team simply used a red pen on the cup. When one of the drinks with red ink was ready, John (the ASL-fluent employee) would step up and use sign language to call the customers to the counter.

Bridge #4  Even with these arrangements in place, Kelli took one more step.  She told me: “I was getting frustrated, as were some of the employees, by our inability to communicate directly with our customers.  So I decided to learn some basic sign language.”  Then, in a stroke of incredible good timing and luck, a person who represented a subsidiary of Goodwill Industries approached Kelli and offered to teach sign language to her and her staff, free of charge.  Kelli accepted, then worked out an even better scenario.  She invited customers to attend, as well. Here is Kelli’s explanation: “I thought that some of the hearing-able customers, those who came on the Fridays when our hearing-impaired customers gathered, might want to learn sign language as well.  So, I designated Tuesday evenings (the slowest night of the week) as lesson nights.”  Brilliant! Before long, the lobby of her Starbucks was overflowing with people attending the Tuesday night lessons. Better yet, many people walking through the shopping mall saw the activity and came in to see what was going on.  So, what had been the slowest night of the week, turned into a beehive of activity!   

Other-Centered = Connected
The result? In less than four months, what was once a group of 40 hearing-impaired customers has grown to an event that attracts between 300 and 600 hearing-impaired customers each month! And, as Kelli’s District Manager, Kimberly Shelton, states:

” Visiting Kelli’s store on those Fridays is an amazing sight. There is a virtual sea of people, yet it is relatively silent … everyone is signing.”

So, in place of the buzz of conversation, there is a tremendous movement of hands; Satisfied customers having a great time.

For virtually no cost, Kelli and her team of partners built bridges of great customer service and cultural sensitivity.

I’m thrilled Starbucks is finally adding to the foundation Kelli built

* Excerpted from
The Changing Face of Today’s Customer:
Strategies for Attracting and Retaining a Diverse Customer and Employee Base
in Your Local Market
By Doug Lipp