Service and Accessibility

I should just face it, this will sooner or later become a website about coffee, or heavily influenced by it. The start of this article will be very coffee-focused, but I’ll abstract the topic at the end and make it applicable to everyday interactions. The job has taught me invaluable lessons about communication and that’s part of what I’m trying to expand on.

For my readers who are unfamiliar with the coffee scene, the industry is currently in a very interesting spot. On the one hand, there’s a big push toward specialty-grade products, sustainable farming practices and a fairer treatment of farmers. On the other hand, we face it day in and day out that coffee is still for many people a drug. It’s a necessity, they can’t think before having the first cup.

This puts us in an awkward spot. There are tons of cafes popping up everywhere, the vast majority isn’t doing anything special and have no intention of considering themselves part of the specialty movement.

The specialty movement, meanwhile, is filled with snobbery. It’s filled with baristas and owners turning their noses up at customers who insist on drinking coffee with sugar and milk. There are horror stories of cafés refusing to service guests who order such things.

Here’s the thing: the specialty industry is working with a very delicate product. We know how much work has gone from seed to cup, knowing at the very least the roaster by name. We see our colleagues and bosses filled with passion for the craft. We see a constant push to reach more and provide a better product.

And often we forget the (arguably) most important element of this chain: our customer.

Some examples

Let’s take some typical first interactions a customer has when walking into a typical specialty café. I’ll dissect them later and expand on my opinion regarding information and service.

1.
Customer: Hello, I’d like a filter coffee, please.
Barista: Do you drink it black?
C: With a bit of milk.
B: In that case I’d recommend you choose an americano with milk.
2.
C: I’d like a filter coffee, please.
B: Do you drink it black?
C: With some sugar.
B (almost turning their nose): Well, we’d still recommend you take it black, but if you’d like to add sugar, I’d make it an americano.
3.
C: I’d like a filter coffee, please.
B: Do you drink it black?
C: Yes.
B: Would you like to choose an origin for your coffee? We have Ethiopia, Kenya, (goes on)
C: Uhh, something mild.
B: Well, what does mild mean to you? Filter coffees are already not very strong, the intensity is like a black tea.
C: Oh, but I want something stronger.
B: Well, I’ll make you an americano then.
4.
C: I’d like a filter coffee, please.
B: Do you drink it black?
C: Yes.
B: Would you prefer a more fruity, or more chocolaty tasting coffee?
C: Chocolaty sounds good.
B: Perfect! I’ll serve you a Costa Rican with notes of vanilla, dark chocolate and marzipan!
C: Sounds good! (thinking: what the hell does that even mean?)

You should have seen at once what all of those interactions have in common: the customer left confused and most likely slightly annoyed.

This slight annoyance and confusion stems from a simple thing: the customer didn’t leave feeling understood.

And yet, those barebone interactions have to be drilled into almost every single new barista’s head. There are blanket flowcharts that aim the make the service efficient. The problem is, once again, that it doesn’t help the customer.

If we objectively look at coffee from an outsider perspective, it quickly becomes clear why that’s the case. It would be one thing to talk about tasting notes, terroir and origin if the subject were wine. Coffee simply hasn’t made its way to become a delicacy and it’s easy to forget that when working behind the counter.

How I see good service:

Good service is about reading your customer. If we try to apply a blanket flowchart to our interactions behind the counter, we’ll be viewed as unwelcoming. Good service is about understanding where your customer stands, where you stand, and how far your customer is willing to go.

5.
C: I’d like a filter coffee, please.
B: Would you like some milk to go with it?
C: Yes, please.
Barista makes an americano with milk, customer is satisfied with the interaction and thoughtfulness in having been asked if he wants milk.

But still we’re specialty, the customer is paying for a higher quality product, and most importantly, for a higher quality service.

B brings coffee to the customer: The coffee today comes from Costa Rica and will taste quite chocolaty, it’s naturally very sweet. Enjoy! *warm smile, wipes table and leaves*
6.
C: Hey, I’d like a filter coffee but I’m a bit lost with all of the selection.
B: Morning! The intensity of our filter coffees resembles black tea a little bit, it’s probably not what you’re used to at home, is that ok?
C: That sounds good, I’d like to try something new.
B: Great! Depending on where the coffee is grown and how it’s processed, the taste is gonna wildly differ, currently we have… *goes through menu*

Of course I can’t tell everything that goes into any interaction in written form, every aspect of the work behind the counter is just as physical as it is verbal. We’ll tailor our manner of speaking, voice and posture to make sure that our guest is feeling most comfortable. We’ll try to hear beyond their words to know what exactly they are ordering. We need to understand how someone outside of the industry imagines what they’ll get when looking at the menu, and adapt accordingly.

How does that lead to accessibility?

Take a wine.
Now take a person.
Tell this person this wine is French and has notes of apricots.1
Nothing too strange there.

Take a cup of coffee.
Take that same person.
Tell this person this coffee is from Ethiopia and has notes of jasmine.
The expected reaction is anywhere from mild disbelief to “oh, it’s flavored coffee!” The word “Ethiopia” likely didn’t even register.

Here’s one of the ways to continue the 6th interaction:
B: Depending on where the coffee is grown and how it’s processed, the taste is gonna wildly differ, it’s similar to wine in that respect.2 Would you like something more traditional or adventurous? 3
C: I’m feeling a little adventurous today.
B: Great! How do you feel about a pronounced acidity in your coffee?
C: Not a fan.
B: In that case I’ll make you a coffee from Honduras, it has notes of pomegranate and white tea, does that sound good?
C: Sounds perfect, thanks!

While this short interaction wasn’t all that short (if it happened to every customer, cafés would need at least one extra barista only to explain everything), it does the job in getting increasingly concrete and palpable for the recipient. If we were to start explaining origins and tasting notes right after hearing the word “filter”, our customer would feel overwhelmed and lost. Elongating it gives us the option of stopping at any moment. The barista in that interaction would have had the option of jumping from anywhere to the last sentence (“I’ll make you an Honduras…”)4 after any point, as soon as he notices he is losing his listener. What often happens to me working at the register after one such order is that the same customer will come back a few minutes later and want more information. Bam, hooked.

Here’s how you make a complex topic accessible:

  1. Consider where you stand;
  2. Consider where your recipient stands;
  3. Consider how far your recipient is ready to go;
  4. Find something relatable (in our case wine, craft beer, whisky, tea);
  5. Give your recipient the chance to create a connection (if the shop’s not too busy and I have time during the interaction, I phrase the wine satement as a question, asking if they drink craft beer, whisky or wine);
  6. Gradually increase complexity, giving them the chance to step out;
  7. Choose too little information over too much. They can always ask for more, but if they’re bored, you lost them.

A final word about coffee service:

Personally, I’m of the opinion that the customer knows what they like best. While we should aim to inform, there’s nothing more annoying than the overbearing “don’t put any sugar or milk in your coffee!” type of barista. I won’t lie, it does feel a little painful when you see the customer adding sugar without tasting the drink you so carefully prepared, but ultimately, they’re the ones who will create their own experience. Make sure your part is done well, and let them choose how they do theirs. At the end of the day, it’s better to serve a bad coffee with a smile than the best coffee in the world without one.

Out of the shop, into the streets

If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this article, it’s that service in a café is not about coffee, although it’s the central conversation topic.

How many times have you had a conversation with a friend or acquaintance about something arguably mundane, but still felt understood? How many times did you feel like you got to see something more in the person than just what they said?

That’s what service—and our whole lives—is about. It’s about connecting. You approach it with a “flowchart mindset”5 and although you might be serving something objectively good, your recipient will feel cheated. In the end, who you are and how you present something means much more than the content itself.

And what means even more than who you are and how you present is whoever you’re talking to.

If the person doesn’t feel understood and listened to, you lost. Hear the conversation, understand what they think, and place yourself accordingly.

It’s tough, as soon as I leave the shop I suddenly become terrible at that, but what we can (and should) do is to keep trying.

Footnotes

  1. My wine knowledge is terrible to say the best, hope that’s not too out of the ordinary
  2. Background information to contextualize. Association to wine to make it more relatable.
  3. We could substitute “traditional” and “adventurous” by “chocolaty” and “fruity with a pronounced acidity” respectively, but remember, it’s about making it accessible.
  4. and perhaps even more importantly, rephrasing it
  5. ”I should ask this if I hear that”
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