Becoming a customer again

If there is one thing that people behind bars and counters are guilty of it is forgetting what it is like to be a customer. They develop and “us vs. them” mentality with their own customer base.

To give an example of this in effect I want to talk about how many businesses react to having a fairly large queue. As they try and produce more drinks quickly things tend to go downhill – shot times start to drop, drink quality slides and overall service isn’t what it needs to be. To them the most important part of your experience is that you don’t queue for too long.

Now if they only put themselves at the back of their own queue. If they waited with everyone else until they got to the front and then you asked them: Would you like me to rush your drink or would you rather I did it properly? Which of these would justify the time you spent waiting? Which would encourage you to come tomorrow and wait in the queue again?

Rushing out drinks just doesn’t make sense. Why expose the most possible people to anything other than your best possible product? Cutting corners when you are busy is simply unacceptable if you are planning on building a loyal customer base.

Going back to being in your own queue – what was it like to walk in and order? Was it obvious where to go? Whilst you were queuing were there things to tempt you? Were questions answered before you had to ask them? I know this is blindingly obvious stuff – yet countless businesses don’t get customer flow right, or merchandising and upselling.

This is hardly new thinking. In just about every episode of “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” Gordon makes the restaurateurs have a meal in their own restaurant and the experience is often shocking and deeply revelatory.

I can’t urge cafe owners enough to take 10 minutes out from behind the bar, and go and stand in the queue and experience what their customers experience every day. How long did it take for someone to acknowledge you? Are staff asking the right questions?

Would you visit every day if you didn’t own the place?

17 Comments

  1. Speaking from experience, the unbiased and honest monitoring of service and standards is very difficult to implement.

    As a cafe manager, I really had to rely upon feedback from friends and trusted customers, as obviously any savvy staff would make sure that things were moving well, and take extra care with drinks and food when the boss is in the building.

    The problem arises, however, that many people don’t want to be “that guy” who talks about and pinpoints the disappointing and shameful experiences. I know I’ve taken a bit of heat for some comments about venues, as have other friends in the coffee community, but think that there is a certain inherent responsibility for diplomatic, useful and considerate feedback, where appropriate.

  2. I don’t know about you but my customers have a rapport that is so strong with me, they don’t hesitate telling me the slightest thing wrong with the shop, improvements, changes, etc. We try very hard to listen because it’s not ‘our’ shop, it’s really ‘their’ shop.

    One went so far as to dictate how the display shelves should be moved, how more seating could be added, and this from someone not in hospitality or someone I knew prior to opening the place.

    I think again this falls back down into trust, service and respect. When we’re completely slammed, our regulars (which have grown to a fairly large army), are totally understanding and don’t mind waiting when it comes to be served or having tables cleared etc. I personally find it particularly sweet when famous designers and solicitors take their dishes to the counter or grab and napkin and help themselves to the muffin they were after while we serve the other customers.

    However, the best thing to keep in mind is there’s no such thing as VIP. Whether it’s my own husband who comes in down to the person that just walked in off the street, they’re getting the same service–end of story. I daresay that perhaps the regulars get even slightly less service because they clean up after themselves!

  3. This is an issue that’s been bothering me more lately. As a shot puller for a very popular cafe I can relate with the topic. I hate having to rushing and allowing unsatisfactory shots, but my employers loose their cool during the morning rush and push us to go faster at any expense. On the other hand, we have a very strong and loyal customer base, especially take-away’s, so can it be that bad? Could my standards for espresso be creating a preconception on the quality and experience of the customer? Honestly there are good days and bad days with regards to their patience. Truth be told, customers complicate business a fair deal. As simple and romantic as it sounds to serve a customer “their drink” in “their place”, a ‘perfect’ experience cannot be enjoyed at any time of day. The challenge is in making the effort, which along the way we have some problems we need to solve.
    Jim brings up one of the most underrated issues in cafe’s today. Employers unaware of the customers experience. ‘Speed > Quality’ needs to be balanced, like any well prepared espresso. One thing we do at our cafe is give some of our regulars a ristretto while they wait for their takeaway coffee, which rarely gets refused and not always is enjoyed (some people still love their latte’s). It’s not something every cafe can get away with (must have 2 baristi on+not worry too much about the 21grams gratis), but I can vouch that it does help people who need their urgent morning fix, and builds good will (sorely underrated).

  4. We have no choice but to sit in line and wait at Intelligentsia along with the rest of the customers, so we do get to see what is going on from a customers perspective. I will say, though, I have noticed (not to mention names nor cafes) that there are times when a “figure head” will line up in the queue, the staff see him/ her and fall to bits. I wonder what that says about that person who makes his or her staff crumble.

    At times, I think I agree with Tim; feedback from a trusted person–a secret shopper if you will–is always a great way to get a second opinion.

    So, be fast, prepared and be great its not that hard!

  5. “So, be fast, prepared and be great its not that hard!” – Deaton Pigot, 2008

    I’m having this tattooed on the back of my eyelids, so I never forget!

  6. Are you kidding? Words to live by right there.

    How you haven’t been on Oprah yet, I’ll never know.

  7. I would be more inclined to ask whether the staff members of various bars have the most efficient practices in usage while still trying to retain a wbc mentality behind the bar. You want to be able to deliver speed and quality inclusively, and not just one at the exclusion of the other. I find that you need 1) a supportive boss who provides the work culture required and 2) a barista who is always looking to improve not only their quality but the efficiency and speed of their work and 3) a barista who cares for every coffee all the time and not just most of the time.
    A lot of us work in specialty coffee houses so we represent the best in terms of espresso preparation and knowledge. Its superfluous if you can only talk the talk and not walk the walk. Our prices, service and especially speed of drink delivery is still compared to chain places or the dude down the road who never purges, does two clicks and resteams yesterday’s milk. Therefore we need to be superfamiliar with our techniques and be able to function at half speed, full speed, and double time but with a similar level of focus and competence irregardless of line.

    The hard road and the better one to take is just to be very confident at what you do and learn from as many of your past coffees as possible. I find that if people see the lineup and they see us working like an octopus on speed, they’re generally quite understanding about wait times. If they see a massive lineup and you have baristas that are moving slowly and still talking about what they’re going to do later that night.. that’s when customers get in your face.

  8. A good article.

    No, never sacrifice quality. However, try to accommodate the customers in some way. Three ways that spring to mind are:

    1. Having something for them to do while they wait. Some sort of daily coffee-related bulletin board or informational coffee display (bonus points if it’s some product that, if set up well and informative, may result in a purchase decision while they’re waiting). [This idea comes from architectural design where putting mirrors in the lobby of office buildings led to fewer complaints about how slow the elevators were.]

    2. Offer them something while they’re waiting. I don’t know how well a self-serve water pitcher would work, but something that gets a beverage or small snack in their hands (without slowing down the barasti).

    3. Perhaps something to stimulate conversation amongst total strangers while they’re waiting. This one is a long-shot and requires a great culture within the shop already, plus some sort of catalyst (be it a topic or a person to keep it going).

    Plus, as mentioned above, the regulars who absolutely love the place will not only help themselves, but clean up after themselves when they see the shop is really busy. Make the customer love the place so that it feels like their own.

  9. I have to chuckle at Deaton’s comments about staff getting tense about making mistakes when the “figurehead” is in line. Chuckle because I get a similar reaction from my staff – especially the newer baristas who have survived their training cycle.

    I wonder though if more can’t be done to slow down service. Certainly, as an operator, I want to see the line move as quickly as possible. However, I constantly wonder what we can do to slow things down a bit to help keep our focus on the quality we desire.

    At The Spro, we’ve never had a “condiment bar.” You want cream and sugar (or other substitutes)? We have them and we’re going to mix them into your drink for you. It’s an inherently slow process that gives us the opportunity for greater interaction, service and hospitality. An extra moment to connect instead of just passing a 12z pressed cup of coffee and letting them put the jacket, lid and whatever else at a different location.

    When it comes to operations, we’re always thinking how to shave time and increase efficiency while maintaining standards. Can we place the milk pitchers in a better location? How about the accessories? Are the steps in our procedures as efficient as possible. Just the simple act of pulling and filling a steam pitcher can have exponential effects on service time throughout the course of the day.

    To my mind, the important aspect of all this is defining a standard for your company and sticking to it. Earlier this week, I jetted out to Salt Lake City to visit John Piquet of Caffe D’Bolla. It’s a quaint little shop where the standards are high and, in many ways, uncompromising. Imagine a place where the proprietor doesn’t allow you to put sugar or cream in your siphon coffee. No matter what – even in the face of bodily harm. That’s the kind of commitment to standards I find inspiring.

  10. Early this week I spent the day with one of the Wise Men from the East…

    >>>>>>>>>

    Great post Jim,

    this IS something we think about daily.

    I would definitely visit “here” if I didn’t own the place.

    1) My wife works there, and she’s pretty.
    2) Espresso and coffee standards not touched anywhere else in city.
    3) It’s easily accessible.

    There’s always something we can improve on, but I always think about the coffee experience from entering to door to leaving, and everything in between. Some would say I go over board to maintain standards, but being a tiny-shop, our standards are what set us apart from nearly everyone in the country. How else can you better serve your customer than delivering something memorable every time? I’m not certain if we succeed every time, but that’s our goal. You might want to hit me from time to time, but I promise, you’ll love the coffee.

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    Thanks for sharing!”

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