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Why the customer is not always right…but neither are you. Communicating speciality coffee to those w

Anyone who has worked for a significant time in a speciality coffee environment understands the frustration of hearing customers complain over a ‘not hot’ latte, or a ‘lack of foam’ cappuccino. The worst for me personally has always been the delicate light flavours of a V60 or Aeropress being extinguished through the addition of a bucket load of milk.

Over the years of working in coffee shops, I’ve experienced almost every single different approach a manager can take in terms of customer service regarding these. I’ve had the straight out pretentious shops which deny the customer their desires for the sake of ‘exceptional quality’, all the way over to the need to apologise for every single factor which may not be to the customer’s satisfaction. Which leads me to the main question: Is that the customer’s fault, or yours?

The quick answer is neither. It also most definitely comes down to where your coffee shop is situated and what kind of customer-base you receive in the shop. Expect a lot of milky extra hot drinks if you’re in a residential area, where a considerate portion of your customers will be ordering ‘half shot lattes’ and ‘extra weak Americanos with a large pot of milk’. You may be sourcing the best quality ingredients and your expertise in the area may make you shudder from the thought of doing this to the coffee, but I have to stress how much people enjoy routine.

If an elderly lady comes in for an extra hot latte with a half shot, she may have been having this drink for longer than you have been alive. She doesn’t fear change, but she definitely does not want it. She just wants the coffee she has been fine with for the past however-many-years.

The generation before mine (and perhaps yours) were a generation of money-savers and thriftiness. My own mother has tried to teach me these tricks all the same and I do proudly keep some of these traditions. You’ll see customers scraping the last morsels of their coffee from the cup with eagerness, and therefore the idea of not being able to have a drink for a significant amount of time may horrify them. This is where the ‘extra hot’ concept comes into play. To these kind of customers, they do not want to simply drink the coffee, smell the aromas, taste the flavours in the cup. They want to sit down for a half hour of their day and enjoy some peace of quiet, or whatever other reason it may be.

Which takes me onto my other point; this does not necessarily mean that the barista and the company itself are immediately in the wrong. I shudder when baristas or management immediately apologise for a mistake which has not been made. Sure, if there was a slip up and the barista did not steam the milk to the adequate temperature (I recommend 55 to 65 degrees), then that is their fault and responsibility. However, if the barista did steam it to this degree then there should be no apology needed.

What I like to tell baristas and the likes who I have trained is to simply be mindful of what you are saying. A simple explanation of: ‘No worries, I’ll make you another drink and this time it’ll be extra hot’, with a simply explanation whilst preparing the drink (this is crucial! You do not want to be seen as ‘lecturing’ the customer) as to what the standards are within the shop and thus any amendments to this must be addressed at the till for their convenience (once again, very important).

Another example, such as too strong of a drink is also a simple answer. A simple explanation regarding the standard amount of shots (usually two) with which your coffee consists of helps to ease out any confusion. A simple (and smiley!) nod in the right direction of their next order, in which they ask for a single shot (or even half shot…) coffee will help their order be more catered to their taste.

If the barista has approached this in a polite and friendly manner, then nine times out of ten the customer will walk away happy, and for the majority of this chuffed that they have been treated as an individual. Most customers do not enjoy complaining, and thus I’ve noticed from many years of experience that they are much more relaxed with this kind of approach than rather a haste apology and rush to ‘make things right’.

I hope you’ve gained a little insight into the difficulty that is personalised orders, and the telepathy sometimes needed to make things right (which I know can be very frustrating), but I’ll end on this note:

If you are striving to be a speciality coffee shop by which you are proud of the drinks you serve, why would you then apologise for them? But if you’re trying to enter a gap in the market which is unique for customers, why expect customers to apologise when they do not understand the complexities of your business plan?

Izzy Austen

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