What a Beat Street Coffee Co. & Bistro waiter could teach GM’s CEO

What a Beat Street Coffee Co. & Bistro waiter could teach GM’s CEO

The waiter at San Antonio’s Beat Street Coffee Co. Bistro held the large vintage door for a long time while my mother entered with her walker. The restaurant’s hipster ambiance was just what she needed as a meal break from living with 24 other people aged 80-103 at Chandler Estate Assisted Living. Needless to say, neither Mom nor I looked like the other diners. But this waiter treated us throughout the evening as if we were his target market.

The food at Beat Street is terrific, each menu item offering unusual ingredient combinations. It was the kind of food that attracts the first-timers the restaurant needs for a chance to succeed. Its service, however, is what will build the repeat visitors any restaurant must win to secure its future.

After our second visit Mom asked the waiter if he was the owner. “No,” he responded, “I just act like I am.” Wow, I thought, that attitude is the essence of great customer service.

In most of our purchases, except some over the Internet, people serve us. And whether those people act like owners working to build customer value or hired help working only for their paycheck makes the difference between loyalty-building exchanges, like we had at Beat Street, and transactions that reduce brand equity.

Contrast the Beat Street waiter with my experience a few days later at the Concourse B Starbucks at the San Antonio airport. Starbucks’ promise is a great-tasting drink, when you need it, prepared by people who care about your experience. To deliver on that promise, workers need to be alert, processes-driven, and energetic i.e., they need to care.

Nevertheless, the four workers at this concourse Starbucks definitely had a paycheck, not an ownership, mentality. The supervisor only watched as the baristas worked as slowly as I do when I get out of bed on Saturday mornings. When I arrived, I was fifth and last in line. By the time I got my latte some 8 minutes later, the line was about 25 and growing. Long lines due to slow workers send travelers to Starbucks’ competitors and break Starbucks’ brand promise.

The Beat Street waiter’s sense of ownership embodies the restaurant as an institution and not as a financial asset. The waiter obviously felt a huge commitment to “his” restaurant’s long-term success. He served Mom as if she were his mother.

In corporate America, ownership refers to shareholders, including C-suite leaders who also own stock options. Options’ worth, when they vest, is determined by current stock prices, one reason why Roger L Martin argues the C-suite places near-term stockprices before long-term shareholder value in Fixing the Game: Bubbles, Crashes, and What Capitalism Can Learn from the NFL (Harvard Business Review Press 2011). Announce innovation-killing job cuts, for example, to lift stock prices and options become more valuable, sending a lot of cash to leaders’ personal accounts. The C-Suite’s priority, I would argue, is no different from the airport Starbucks workers. Both sets of workers place their own comfort before long-term institutional success.

The most recent corporate case-in-point is GM’s inexcusable behavior of covering up an ignition component failure for years as the number of people dying or seriously injured rose. The cover-up was a conscious decision made either directly (for those since fired) or indirectly (through the “financial success at all costs” culture the C-Suite had fostered).

The impudent attitude of GM’s CEO Mary Barra in her last Congressional appearance demonstrated her belief that stock price takes priority over customers and long-term brand equity. Pointing to a post GM-bailout agreement that exempts GM from prior liability claims, GM refuses to do what a customer-driven company should do (and BP did do) in response to bad behavior. GM even refuses to press for pardoning of a woman falsely accused and found guilty of vehicular homicide caused by the ignition component failure.

Individuals have been executed for fewer murders than GM’s cover-up created. Yet GM’s corporate lawyer remains in place, getting rich from his stock options. A few lower-level leaders were merely fired. For now, corporations can get away with behavior like this. The financial industry calls it “Pay to play.”

But time will change the environment.

  • Today’s millennium consumers are not yesterday’s mass consumers
  • The market will become more conscious as the Internet creates transparency about corporate behavior previously unimaginable
  • The next social change initiative (post gay marriage’s route to victory) will likely be ending corporations “personhood” right
  • Commoditization is only accelerating

In this environment, creating social value will drive customer loyalty and financial value.

Bring on the change: it can’t happen fast enough. As to GM and Barra’s new defiant attitude, you decide.

More articles by Kay Plantes

Kay Plantes is an MIT-trained economist, business strategy consultant, columnist and author. Business model innovation, strategic leadership and smart economic policies are her professional passions. She resides in San Diego, California but still considers Madison home. She is the author of Beyond Price.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WTN Media, LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.