The distinguishing factor between café-bars used to be the standard of coffee… but that doesn’t seem to apply any more. The real difference in winning and keeping customers is now appears to be based on the quality of service.
So, is customer service is the next big battleground for the café-bar trade? At a recent seminar attended by top roasters and top cafe-bar owners, two of the speakers, both champion baristas, addressed the subject of service with a vehemence which surprised their audience – not least because they had been expected to speak on the more ‘cool’ aspects of coffee brewing.
The fascinating aspect is that it goes against the idea that the trade are ‘the ones who know about coffee’, and that the customers are simply there to allow us to practise our expertise on them. Colin Harmon, the Irish barista who runs the 3FE coffee bar in Dublin, said that there is a direct correlation between how helpful the operator is to customers, and how nice customers are in return to cafe staff. “It’s about making people feel nice,” he said, “If they’re not nice to you, then it’s you who is doing something wrong!”
Former World Barista Champion James Hoffmann, now the owner of the Square Mile roastery in London, put the same point even more forcefully. “We have generated a lot of agony with our ‘hipster idiocy’,” he said. “Every time I hear the phrase ‘educating the customer’, I die a little inside… this attitude oozes out of our business as being smug, arrogant, patronising, and off-putting. For every customer who wants something you don’t want to sell – it’s your fault, so you fix it!”
They are not alone in this kind of attitude. Peter Kirton, managing director of the Esquires coffee-house chain, recently says that the whole balance has shifted from beverage quality towards a recognition of the importance of customer service. “We are now at the stage where virtually all coffee operators are providing a reasonable product, and so consumers now make their choice on service,” he observed. “The quality of your coffee should be a ‘given’ these days – so customer service is now the most important thing to get right.”
Is there a big problem with customer service in the coffee sector? Modern urban legend does have many stories of our industry being offhand with customers – stories of baristas who feel they know better than the customers are actually outnumbered by those who simply don’t care, such as the waitress at one of the world’s most famous venues who told a customer that she knew the coffee was lousy, but once she had opened the packet, she had to finish it. There was also the customer who asked for a latte and was given a cappuccino with three inches of foam – when he complained, the barista said: ‘oh, you want a latte without foam?’ In some recent trade awards, one of the judges went to one of Britain’s most famous tea-rooms, and reported being served by a ‘sullen’ waitress, a description which would embarrass any right-thinking employer. Similar stories have filled several management books.
There is no end of consultancy available about how to provide good customer service, what to do, and what to say – one American consultant makes smiling a condition of service, and not smiling grounds for termination. The great authority on customer service as a management philosophy is Ron Zemke, author of the Knock Your Socks Off service books, and he preaches the message behind the words that staff use – never let your staff say ‘no problem’, but make them say ‘a pleasure’ or ‘I’ll be happy to’. Never ever ever: ‘that’s our policy’ or ‘do you understand?’, which communicates as ‘I think you’re stupid’.
There is also no end of guidance on greeting every customer coming in (particularly if there’s a queue) but don’t go too far. Believe it or not, there was one American chain which demanded that staff sing at every incoming customer, and applaud when they drop something in the tip jar… and the staff really hate it. A German university did a study that proved that generally hospitality staff intensely dislike being forced into the ‘have a nice day’ culture.
The key to real customer service goes deeper than front of counter attitudes and going through these customer-service training motions. Whether in a one-shop independent café bar or a multi-site chain, customer service is a management philosophy question.
The noted barista trainer Paul Meikle-Janney gives an excellent example of this:
“The Americans are often cited as being ‘better at customer service’ than the British, and generally, you find that American companies are sales-based, and British ones are cost-based. So, the American attitude is to spend more money on premises and staff because they are confident that better service will keep their business full, whereas the English attitude is ‘let’s not put too many sandwiches on display, in case we don’t sell them, and have to throw them away’… as a result, their display looks miserable, and so of course nobody comes in!”
The key is in management philosophy, and management understanding of the relationship between service and results. It is in reassuring yourself that staff attitude is correct… if the attitude is right, then the words will probably be right.
One of Britain’s top hoteliers, Kit Chapman of the Castle in Taunton (who gave several celebrity chefs their first starts), once overheard a conversation between his receptionist and a middle-aged lady weighed down with shopping, leading an aged relative. ‘Could I order some sandwiches?’ the lady asked politely. “No,” said the receptionist, “It is management policy not to do sandwiches in here, which is for lunch guests only. We have a brasserie round the corner.” The woman, disappointed, headed for the door – at which point Kit, seething inside, moved across like a shot, introduced himself, and said the following:
“Madam, it’s true that we prefer not to serve sandwiches in our bar, but that’s only to avoid a crush with people in for lunch. But please take a table in the main restaurant, and you don’t have to choose from the lunch menu – we have a terrific selection of light dishes which I think you’ll enjoy, and your mother will be comfortable there. I’ll introduce my restaurant manager, who will take care of you.”
The real value of it, Kit said later, was not just that he rescued a situation and won back a customer for life. It was the wake-up call about knowing whether staff are working with the right attitude. “My receptionist was harassed, busy, preoccupied, and was caught off-guard,” he said with admirable sympathy. “But how often does this happen? What can prevent the occasional lapse in our proper devotions to our visitors?”
It is a concentration on attitude, rather than just the approved words. It is in the encouragement of the attitude that allows staff to enjoy the freedom of saying ‘here, this carrot-cake is nice – I’ll just provide you with a slither to sample, without fear of being told off by the management for wasting stock.
Does encouraging front-of-house staff to the right customer-service attitude actually show any business benefit? Can freedom to express a customer-service attitude actually drive a company’s business forward? It can – and it was responsible for one of the biggest changes in the entire history of the café-bar trade, which again went against the whole idea of the coffee expert knowing best.
There was a point in Starbucks’ development where a newly-hired member of staff confronted the big bosses about their obsession with coffee quality and what was ‘right’. What, he asked, if the customer’s opinion doesn’t agree with Starbucks’ ideas? That simple question was the birth of the Starbucks idea of making the customer’s drink the way they actually wanted it. Certainly, it also led to the ‘double tall skinny hazelnut decaf latte with wings’ phenomenon, which has been widely derided, and obscures the fact that the root of it is a very valid customer service principle – that the job is to serve the drink the customer really wants.