Setting Your Service Standard. A Q&A with Christine McHugh

AskNicely Team

In February 2022, hundreds of leaders from service businesses across the world gathered together online to take part in the Global Frontline Experience Summit, an event we are delighted to sponsor and host again after its hugely successful first run in 2020. It was a phenomenal event with a contagious heaping of inspiration, excitement and possibility for anyone working in the customer experience and frontline service space. 

If you missed the summit, brought to you by our Frontline Magic Community don't worry! All of the‍ sessions are available right here, and are just as powerful the second time around.

Christine McHugh knows a lot about coffee. Working as a barista at Starbucks, she learned how to nail every single coffee order, even the double shot iced oat milk vanilla macchiato with an extra pump of vanilla. Christine also knows a whole lot about how to build a company culture that delivers on a service standard day in and day out. As her memoir, From Barista to Boardroom explains, Christine started her career behind the counter at Starbucks, serving coffee to customers. With a 27 year tenure she rose through the ranks from barista, to manager, to director, to Vice President of Customer Service. 

In her final role, Christine led operations for 13,000 stores in North America, managing a 100 person in-house team, as well as a 600 person team at an outsourced customer contact center. The Seattle based former fortune 100 executive has a proven track record of achieving awesome results in a wide range of organizations, including 27 years at Starbucks. 

Host of the Global Frontline Experience Summit, Chirstina Trippi, sat down (over a cup of coffee of course) with Christine McHugh to ask the questions so many working in the customer experience space wanted to know….

Q: What role did you play in the development of the Starbucks service standard - “Make every moment”? 

A: Christine explains that she had a unique opportunity to practice, shape and develop Starbuck’s service standard to “make every moment” using her experience in corporate, but also from her experience on the frontline. 

“It’s interesting because there was a time when I was actually the VP of Customer Service and I had the opportunity to establish and reshape the standard and philosophies, but there’s also the time I had as a barista when I first started working in the store. I think I brought that through in all of my experiences, even when I ended up in corporate” 

When Christine landed her role as VP of Customer Service, the existing service promise didn’t resonate. After talking to customers and the frontline, she realized the existing service promise was too long, unclear and did not resonate with customers or the frontline - two of the most important groups that a service standard affects. After gathering feedback from their customers, Christine and her team understood that the moment of interaction between the customer and the barista was the greatest predictor of them wanting to come back again and again. While the quality of the beverage, cleanliness of the store and short wait times were all important factors, it was that moment, that interaction with their frontline team that mattered most. From there, the service promise of ‘make every moment’ was born. 

To help bring the service promise to life, Christine and her team broke things down into 5 tangible steps that embodied ‘making every moment’. This made it easier for their frontline teams to practically implement and live out their service promise every day. For example, getting to know their customers by name to deliver a more empathetic and genuine service. The teams would brainstorm different scenarios, both positive and challenging to see how they could practice the steps of their service promise, no matter the situation. 

Q: What are your top tips for understanding your customers' expectations so that you can deliver on what matters most to them? 


  1. Ask your customers! Both through large scale data collection, as well as personal conversations. 

Christine explains that one of the best ways to understand your customers is to hear directly from them. While large scale, automated real-time feedback is highly effective, don’t forget to balance it with personal one on one conversations with your customers. Ask them what they enjoyed about their experience, what they'd like to see done differently and everything in between. The more data and insights you have about your customers, the better experiences you can deliver. 

  1. Hang out on the frontline

    It’s hard to get a clear idea of what’s going on from a dashboard at a desk. Christine recommends getting down to the physical locations where frontline teams are working, talking to customers and taking in the experiences that are happening in real life.

  2. Talk to your frontline teams

    Your frontline teams know your customers better than anyone else. So, talk to them! Christine reiterates a quote from David Reiss, founder and CEO of the Mastery Group. He says: “While you’re standing in the corner office trying to spot problems from 50,000 feet, your frontline is seeing them up close. If you can activate your team and turn them into your eyes and ears, you’ll learn more about your business than you ever dreamed possible” — D.R

Q: What are your top tips for empowering the frontline to deliver on your service promise? 


  1. Check your policies 

Most frontline workers want to deliver awesome customer experiences. If they’re not delivering - Christine suggests taking a step back and questioning what policies are making it difficult for frontline teams to delight every customer. We’ve all had an experience where a frontline worker has told us “unfortunately, company policy means…”. While the frontline worker often receives the brunt of the frustration, it’s simply not their fault. We need to create policies and solutions that enable frontline workers to help customers reach their desired outcomes, and deliver awesome experiences every time. 

  1. Never skimp of recognition

Recognition rocks. Which is why it’s one of the Seven Habits of Empowered Frontline Teams. When you regularly recognize your frontline teams’ achievements, they feel more valued, appreciated and motivated, which directly impacts the experiences they deliver to customers. Recognition boosts morale, encourages productivity, reinforces positive behavior and decreases employee turnover. 

  1. Be transparent with your frontline employees

Did you know that Starbucks shares the daily sales revenue with every frontline worker in the store that day? It gives frontline teams a direct line of sight between their role delivering customer experience (one cup at a time) and the ultimate business outcome it contributes to. Being transparent with your employees helps build trust, create a sense of accountability and improves relationships between frontline teams and management. 

Now for some questions from the guests of the Summit:

Angela asks: Do you think customers don’t mind paying more for their coffee at Starbucks because of the experience? 

Christine explains that many factors come into play when a customer is deciding where to buy their morning coffee: convenience, price, taste, but increasingly: experience. In a highly competitive and saturated market, differentiating through experience is one of the most effective ways to make your brand stand out. In fact, research from PWC states that  86% of buyers are willing to pay more for a great customer experience, which would suggest the answer to Angela’s question is, yes! 

Karen asks: How can we maintain personal connections with customers as the company scales? 

Christine stresses that it’s very difficult to maintain personal connections with customers at scale without leveraging the frontline. They are the very people responsible for building trust, rapport and genuine connections with people who walk through the door every morning. She says it’s important to listen to the frontline and leverage their unique understanding of the customer. 

From a management perspective, Christine would listen to customer feedback from the call centers on the way to work every morning, to hear in their own words how they felt. Often this was negative feedback, but it would allow her to understand customer frustrations, and how to go about solving them in a human-centered way. Christine would also carve out half an hour each day for impromptu customer conversations, which allowed her to see customers as people, not just numbers on a spreadsheet. 

Finally, Christine recommends personalizing customer experiences in any way you can. For example, Starbucks employees always ask for the customer’s name which they write on the coffee cup. Over time, employees get to know customers by name, a small personal touch with a big impact. 

Abby asks: How can we show recognition to staff?

During Christine’s time at Starbucks, she used three main strategies for getting recognition to the frontline. The first was peer to peer recognition. Employees had access to small celebration cards that they would hand out to fellow employees for doing awesome work. This close-to-home form of recognition proved to be really meaningful for employees, boosting their confidence and connection to their team. The second was a ‘Barista of the Quarter' award, which was decided by both the team and Starbucks, and the customers of the store. Finally, Starbucks celebrated employees through wider company awards, which showcased and celebrated their employees on a national and international stage. 

Want to celebrate employees at scale? You can use a recognition tool to help ensure every employee feels recognized, celebrated and supported in their work every day.

More questions for Christine McHugh? 

Christine has so much knowledge and wisdom to share from her impressive career working in frontline, customer service and high level management. You can hear more from Christine on LinkedIn, her website and by reading her phenomenal book: From Barista to Boardroom. 

Keep an eye on the AskNicely blog for a deep dive into each presentation from the Global Frontline Experience Summit, including presentations from leaders such as Dan Cockerell (Disney), Charles Ray Minton (Marriott) and Cheryl Desantis (SmileDirectClub).

Plus, be sure to join the Frontline Magic Community to gain access to all of the presentations from this year’s summit + be the first to know of new events, frontline news and more.

AskNicely Team
About the author

AskNicely Team

AskNicely Team
About the author

AskNicely Team

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