It’s 6:30 a.m. in your café. The line is starting to build up as a barista, a good kid who has the coffee bug bad, is pitching a lady to try the new honey-processed Kenyan with incredible intrinsic floral acidity instead of the everyday batch brew. You love this coffee, too, and you’ve pitched it to customers who, like this woman, had previously shown an interest in adventurous coffees. But right now, the man behind her is looking at his watch, and even the barista at the machine is impatient as he rinses the grouphead again.
“So, it has honey in it?” she says.
The barista dives into the details again, going way deeper than this poor customer could follow even if she’d already had her first cup of coffee. A customer at the back leaves. By the time she agrees to try the coffee, probably feeling pressured into it, the man behind her is glaring at his phone and typing furiously. That’s probably a Yelp review. The second barista is just as angry. His coworker cost him no telling how much money in tips.
Educating consumers holds vast potential benefits, the foremost of which is loyalty to your coffee, company, or staff that can have a large impact on business and create repeat customers.
Seem ridiculous? This scenario isn’t too different from many interactions in cafés with baristas who have a desire to educate customers but no filter or concept of the right time and place. The impulse to educate isn’t wrong, and it’s in line with the growth in knowledge across every part of our industry. There is an incredible gap between the amount of coffee consumed in our culture and the amount of information that customers know about it—why not extend that knowledge to customers at every opportunity? It makes sense that more and more café owners and roasters are looking for education platforms that go hand-in-hand with their businesses.
Is this a good idea? Are customers open to learning? Do you sound like a jerk when you offer info? The line is very fine on all three.
Educating consumers holds vast potential benefits, the foremost of which is loyalty to your coffee, company, or staff that can have a large impact on business and create repeat customers. Learning the intricacies of taste, how to brew at home, or the social benefits of seed-to-cup can result in someone not only visiting your establishment more often, but also preaching the good word to their friends. This results in grassroots advertising. A well-educated customer base also creates diversity in drink orders. This usually brings pride or connection to the barista who shares the same beverage taste her customer does. Then, passionate talk about tasting notes or coffee beverages becomes more natural. And this, in turn, creates a culture of knowledge, openness, and refined taste.
But how do you get to that point? The best way to start is to educate yourself in all things coffee and customer service. I’ll follow this directly with the second step, which is equally important: know your customer. Most customers will only be able to take on new facts incrementally over a long period of time. This isn’t meant to be an insult, but if you just finished reading your first Scott Rao book and you want to start a fifty-dollar organic acid class, and you think you’re going to persuade the guy who drinks a mocha every morning to attend it, then you’re a little off target. But maybe he’d be open to his mocha being made with a single-origin espresso that pairs well with chocolate. Maybe a few months later he’d take a cappuccino. You need to be ready to talk coffee as in depth or as shallow as each customer and situation warrants, and having a good customer service philosophy will help guide you there.
Sometimes a few quick, easy conversations about coffee can, over time, turn into real, in-depth coffee relationships with customers.
For geeky trips into coffee, it’s often useful to engage customers in a different forum than the typical over-the-counter exchange. Offering a public tasting is something we have used that has been successful. These attract the right kind of customer, someone who is interested enough to commit a small amount of time. Using this avenue can create a comfortable environment for you to discuss coffee and a good time and place for customers to learn and ask questions. We’ve also offered a few in-depth, fee-based classes. In my experience, these classes have great results and usually create not just regular customers but friends. Social media is another great place to create discussions around coffee. Here as well, your attitude should be one of inclusion, but again customers can choose to participate or not.
Using your menu to broaden horizons can also be useful. Offer the same coffee on espresso and drip. Pairing them immediately opens a dialogue for differences in brew methods. This can create a dialogue for helping a customer find the right brew method for a favorite coffee they can take home. Interesting coffee-based drinks can help customers view coffee in a new way.
And finally, the easiest way to create an environment where customers can learn about coffee is to be friendly and open and to offer appropriate information based on who you are talking to. Sometimes a few quick, easy conversations about coffee can, over time, turn into real, in-depth coffee relationships with customers. Key in on the word relationship. No one wants to be lectured, told they are wrong, informed that the awesome coffee they had in a random city in Costa Rica wasn’t actually nice coffee because most nice coffee is exported, etc. We coffee professionals want customers to know coffee like we do, but only when we start to view ourselves and coffee from the customers’ side of the counter can we really make strides to share that knowledge.
—Jon Allen is the co-owner of Onyx Coffee Lab in Springdale, Arkansas.