About the only positive development that can be gleaned from the recent incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks store, where two African-American men were arrested after being reported to authorities by an employee, is that it offers a teachable moment for retailers, security companies and their staff.

The two men, entrepreneurs and friends, told media outlets they were at the Starbucks to meet a business associate. As reported widely in the press, one of the men asked to use the washroom and was denied because he hadn’t made a purchase.

When the two took a seat to wait for their friend, they were approached by a Starbucks employee who asked if they needed help. The men say they replied that they were OK, and were waiting for a colleague who was joining them for a meeting. The men sat and chatted when, several minutes later, police entered the store and asked the duo to leave. They apparently refused, citing the fact that they’d done nothing wrong.

They were arrested by police and eventually released without charge. They’ve since settled with Starbucks and the city, the latter agreeing to fund a pilot program for young entrepreneurs.

The incident soon blew up into a public relations firestorm for Starbucks, which has apologized and plans to close 8,000 of its U.S. stores for a day later this month so that employees can undergo racial sensitivity training. Not surprisingly, a boycott-Starbucks movement emerged on social media calling for customers to take their latte-buying dollars elsewhere.

The situation underscores an important point that retail store owners should always keep top of mind: security is a team effort that requires training, reasonable application of policies and common sense to be effective. If not, your organization is susceptible to a Starbucks-esque disaster.

First, let’s see how this interaction could have played out.

In situations where there might be legitimate concerns as to why non-paying customers are in a store, a manager, employee or security guard can simply approach the individuals in question and ask if they need any help—or a cappuccino, perhaps? In this situation, that seems to have happened. In most cases, customers will explain their reason for being in the store—such as waiting on a friend—before placing an order, making a purchase or leaving. Situation resolved.

starbucks cup of coffee
We help retail organizations train employees on situation management techniques

In this case, it seems an overzealous Starbucks employee opted for the nuclear option and called the police even after the men explained their intentions.

If customers are in any way belligerent—and if the store does, indeed, have a policy restricting seating to paying customers—it’s a simple matter of pointing out the policy and then giving the individuals time to leave. If that doesn’t work, it’s all about de-escalating the situation to avoid conflict.

Again, in most cases, a simple explanation of policy will defuse a situation. That’s assuming that the policy is clearly displayed on the front door or prominently behind the counter—and that can be the first part of the problem.

Many retail organizations fail to define and display their policies clearly so that customers and even staff understand how they will be applied. Whether the Philadelphia Starbucks store had a sign declaring that customers must make a purchase before taking a seat is also unclear, although media reports indicate that the store did maintain such a policy.

If that is the policy, it should be displayed prominently and in writing. That also begs the question as to whether such a policy makes sense from a brand perspective. For an organization such as Starbucks that prides itself on maintaining an open-door, laissez-faire atmosphere for people to spend time and converse, it probably doesn’t.

From a retail security view, we help organizations train employees on client and situation management techniques all the time. Our main focus is always reminding them that they work in a service industry. As such, their primary objective should be maintaining positive interactions with customers (or potential customers), at all times. That means designing policies that are logical, easily applicable and designed to maximize client goodwill.

Does your store really need a buy-before-sitting policy? If not, don’t consider implementing one in the first place. If the answer is ‘yes,’ under what circumstances should the policy be applied?

Part of that training is focused on helping employees turn negative interactions into positive ones. That takes the right tone, supported by a smile and perhaps even a bit of levity to ease the mood. This is where common sense comes into play. Identifying potential problem situations, or even threat levels, takes a trained eye. Individuals who mean to cause trouble tend to display uncannily similar traits from body language to vocal tone. But the vast majority of people don’t fall into this category. In fact, the average retail employees will likely only have a handful of negative customer interactions throughout the course of their retail careers.

The basic principle is that if a person doesn’t fit the profile of a potential troublemaker, they probably aren’t.

Managers must also be trained in the fine art of de-escalation, and be prepared to build a culture of security vigilance that’s founded on the common sense that I mentioned above. If managers are quick to push the panic button, it sends a message to staff that every unfriendly or unwelcome interaction is a reason to involve police.

On that note, we should remember that—with the exception of extreme circumstances—if police become involved in a customer interaction, something has gone very wrong at the store level. Calling for police back-up should be a last resort for your store staff or security personnel unless a crime has been, or is being, committed.

The Starbucks incident is unfortunate, but at the very least it serves as a reminder that employee security training is essential. We can only hope that the coffee giant devotes part of its full-day seminar on racial sensitivity to security policies, as well.

Winston Stewart, founder

Wincon Security