Six Lessons from Starbucks

Can museums learn about becoming extraordinary from a national coffee chain? On a hunt for best practices, the Dennison Railroad Depot Museum was convinced incorporating some of Starbucks’ philosophies into museum operations would create a better experience for visitors. We set out to discover if the best practices of Starbucks could be successfully transferred to museums. The answer is, yes.

coffeeStarbucks knows their job is to serve one customer, one cup of coffee, one experience. Owner Howard Schultz compares his coffee shop managers to museum curators who use the senses to tell a story. Through this belief, a simple coffee shop visit becomes a remarkable experience. Following the Starbucks’ philosophy, the Dennison Railroad Depot kicked off a successful Legendary Service Training Program. We encourage other museums to use this Starbucks Model to untap the potential within their own organizations and staff.

Improve your museum the Starbucks way—one customer at a time

1. Make points of entry personal

When customers walk into Starbucks, a strategy is in place, both seen and unseen. This includes the surrounding sights, sounds, smells and overall experience. At the Dennison Railroad Depot Museum, we reviewed our museum’s first impression to make sure we were not only welcoming, but innovative, and provided a unique experience. Among the changes were improved coffee options in the lobby, remodeled restrooms, including a women’s restroom renovated as a 1940s movie star dressing room, and a “menu” of tour options to provide a choice of visitor experiences. The changes earned rave reviews from visitors.

2. Reinvent the frontline

Starbucks intensely trains baristas to make more personal connections; we were putting our newest, least trained staff out front. Following Starbucks’ model, we transformed our frontline into Experience Coordinators (EC). Now, our most trained staff members are on the frontline. ECs welcome visitors with a pull of the train whistle and present visitors with a dog tag or charm. Each EC also sports a signature item, whether it be a 1940s-era hat, an engineer’s cap or colorful museum buttons, to convey personality. Passion, enthusiasm and expertise are instilled in every customer interaction from the moment visitors enter.

3. Be relevant by thinking like an icon

Starbucks’ Howard Schultz attributes icon status to an ability to take risks and become cultural leaders. To think like an icon, museum staff needed to become more involved in issues that are of importance to our community. Today, staff is strongly encouraged to get out of the building and get involved in the community. The museum director is vice-president of the county Community Improvement Corporation, our operations manager is the newly elected president of the Downtown Association and our event coordinator attends the Business and Community Association meetings. These efforts enable the museum to become a force for positive action, becoming cultural leaders and ensuring relevance in the community.

4. Create stakeholders out of the youth

At the core of Starbucks is coffee. At our World War II Canteen, we serve more than 1.3 million soldiers coffee each year— the reason we are a National Historic Landmark. But we needed to take it a step further to capture the attention of the youth. In addition to free coffee in the lobby for visitors, we have free cookies. After school, we are the place for school kids to visit. We engage our youth through volunteer awards, an annual Patriot Rally, internships and volunteerism. We also take the time to write letters of support for scholarships, college applications and jobs. Our youth have discovered that hanging out at the museum is not only fun, but beneficial. As the next generation of stakeholders, we are helping them discover a welcoming atmosphere in their community museum.

5. Ignite emotional attachments

According to Schultz, people go to Starbucks for coffee and human connection. Following the Starbucks road map, we put these connections at the center of the museum experience. Every interaction from the moment visitors arrive until the time they leave is strategically planned through staff involvement, signage, literature and museum layout. We try to anticipate needs and offer options that help our visitors connect. When needs are met, customers’ perception of value is greater and in our experience, visitors’ commitment to the museum grows.

6. Reject the status quo

Starbucks asserts they are the undisputed coffee authority. We believe our museum network is the undisputed cultural authority for our area. We have worked to build the best educated, best trained, and most experienced museum staff.  Leadership teams oversee all museum operations, charged with never accepting the status quo. We push for a relentless focus on the customer experience. In the end, our museum has built stronger relationships, increased our value and created a better balance between museum operations and community needs.

Howard Schults was right when he said we “have the ability to touch lives and raise the human spirit, infuse it with emotion and meaning while telling our story over and over again.” He may not have realized he was inspiring museums at the time, but we will have to buy him a cup of coffee someday and fill him in.

Wendy Zucal is trustee at large for the Ohio Local History Alliance and director of the Dennison Depot Museums Network, which includes the Dennison Railroad Depot Museum, Historic Schoenbrunn Village, the Uhrichsville Clay Museum and the Law-Reed-Huss Historic Farm. Read the full version of this article at

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