Opting In

January 13th, 2010

Restaurants have a complex set of rituals, etiquette and laws governing the interaction between the establishment and the guest. Jeffrey Steingarten (and I wish I could quote it but my copy is out on loan) talks about how the best waiters are so good that they become invisible. Plates arrive, glasses are filled and the table is cleaned without any unnecessary interuption. This idea being that people come to restaurants for two reasons: for food and for company. If making sure each of these is as enjoyable as possible is the goal then you can work back and justify the seemingly curious rules and laws laid out in fine dining.

When it comes to coffee I think many places that want to improve service tend to take inspiration from restaurant service, but people come to a cafe for different reasons, expecting a different experience and if we just crowbar restaurant service into a cafe setting then it is going to be very awkward.

Success, from a commercial point of view, requires selling coffee to a great many people every day. It also requires selling coffee to a lot of people who really just want the nicest way possible to get caffeine into their system. They want little more than to exchange money for a cup of something both caffeinated and enjoyable, and to go about their day. Outside of coffee we are just like them when we buy lots of different things.

When it comes to interaction, one key idea for me I would call the “opt-in” moment. When you go to a high end restaurant you (knowingly or not) agree to a number of conditions, from how you are expected to act to how you are expected to interact.  You understand that the portions may not be very large, and they may be hesitant if you ask for ketchup.  For the server to detail ingredients in great length is acceptable (if interesting!) where it may not be in a small neighbourhood place.  Through a series of cues (both verbal and non-verbal) we have an expectation of the experience before we commit to it. 1

With a cafe we will struggle to really interact with consumers, to talk to them about the coffees, the producers and nuance until they agree to let us. If I am working a bar I can’t just start talking to someone excessively about the coffee without their consent. The problem for many cafes that want to push service forward is that they don’t have an “opt-in” moment or space.

Whether we like it or not, a lot of the public’s expectation comes from their experiences with larger coffee chains.  The process of queuing, ordering and collecting is a familiar one – it is routine.  Many cafes choose to model the experience of buying coffee on the same process.  Very rarely, in a branded outlet, will anyone say anything other than the bare minimum to you – you know what the barista will say, and when they will say it.  If they didn’t know what was going to happen, it is unlikely they’d be brashly yabbering into a mobile phone as they queued.

A question from a customer is a great opt-in moment, but without that it is a very dangerous assumption that the customer wants to know anything. By choosing to start talking about the coffee you are assuming a great deal about their mood, their needs and their level of comfort interacting with strangers. I wish I was always in that mood where everything is fascinating, but sometimes I just don’t care. I want that piece of steak/usb memory stick/that shirt without needing to know any more than I do about it.  Getting more information than you want, especially without asking for it, can be an irritating, incredibly annoying experience and can permanently damage a relationship between a customer and a business.

One of the best pieces on coffee service was by David Schomer. It was wonderfully practical and demonstrated a great sympathy for how his customers felt when they walked in the door. He has doubtless served more cups of coffee to customers over the years than just about anyone writing about coffee today and I think it shows through.

I think there are many opportunities to create other opt-in moments. We can create areas in a cafe where customers can clearly see that they are going to get a different experience, and by sitting there they agree to us doing something a little different. If you walk into Tea Smith in Spitalfields and sit down at the long bar, read the menu and chat to the staff then it is pretty clear that it is not going to be builder’s tea with 2 sugars, but a more involved tea experience. You understand that it is absolutely fine to ask your server anything about the tea, you can ask for guidance without feeling stupid and that as they brew the tea they may tell you more about it, pass you lids to smell after the brew and throw out little bits of info about what you are drinking. Watching them prepare the tea right in front of you, dialling in brewing temperatures, carefully monitoring time, almost invites you to question the process.

Giving people a little taster is another good opportunity to get their permission to talk to them a little more.  You could argue that this kind of persuasion is a little manipulative (I’m sure you’ve all read Robert Cialdini‘s book), but if you are asking for nothing more than their attention for a few seconds then I think that is fair.

As an industry we are desperate to inform our customers.  Their increased understanding is essential to the success of our businesses.  We must, however, give them opportunities to give their consent for us to do this.

  1. As a fun exercise – next time you visit a cafe, try to take note of what it is that gives you an impression of what they do: bottles of syrups, syphon bar, sugar on every table, baristas yelling out drinks, a display fridge full of cans of soft drink etc. etc.  ↩︎

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