Why Good Service is Crucial
As coffee professionals, we sometimes get angry when we hear stories about bad service in specialty coffee shops.
That’s because as an industry essentially working to create demand for a high-end product by increasing awareness of why that product is worthwhile, we can’t afford to turn people off through a bad customer experience. We need to help customers understand that not only should great coffee be worth more money, but that without the willingness to pay higher prices, the crop could disappear altogether in the face of global challenges to the climate and labor market. That’s a daunting task, and we need our baristas to be able to facilitate that experience.
I understand why we sometimes want to pin the blame for bad service on baristas. They’re crucial in the supply chain and definitely aren’t always perfect, and blaming them is often easier than analyzing the structural barriers to good, consistent service within our most prevalent service models. The entire industry needs baristas as a sales force on the ground at every cafe, engaging professionally with their product and customers and showcasing why specialty coffee is worth the money. But we don’t always give baristas the necessary tools to meet the expectations set for them.
At the root of spotty customer service isn’t snobby baristas who want to lord it over their customers. Instead of focusing on baristas as the problem, we need to look at the structural issues that lead to baristas not always having the necessary tools to create a positive experience for every single customer. Since those issues are structural, we need to try to resolve them on a structural level.
Define Good Service in Your Space
We’ve all had or heard about experiences with rude, snobby, condescending baristas, both as customers and as cafe team members. But, before we judge, let’s think about the variety of expectations they might encounter from different customers.
Many customers want to be greeted with a smile and asked how they are, and give a genuine answer. Some want to be taught about the menu options and come out having learned something. Some want the service and menu in a specialty shop to mimic the style they receive in their favorite corporate cafe. Many want a pleasant but anonymous, minimal interaction. Within the paradigm where the customer is always right, all of these people are justified in getting angry if they don’t receive the particular experience they walk in expecting.
These broad expectation can lead to service that’s not what the customer wanted in particular, but it can also lead to baristas who are worn out and sometimes deliver objectively bad service. The solution is to create an actual defined expectation with clear, specific, written guidelines for what good service means in your cafe, and more importantly, what it does not mean. This will help create a clear, consistent standard for employees which will translate to their customers, and this clarity of expectation will also reduce fatigue and help baristas deliver more consistently.
These guidelines should not include things like policing employee facial expressions, but should instead be focused on a clear standard for when a customer is asking for more than they are entitled to. For instance, you might want your cafe to feel like a friendly place, but if you write up an actual manual, you’ll realize that you can’t make a rule that baristas have to laugh at flirtatious jokes. These guidelines are not meant to restrict barista actions, but to draw lines for what customers can expect. Once you lay out these guidelines, your staff will feel focused and supported, knowing not just what’s expected of them but where the line is for what is not expected of them. They will have healthy boundaries, which will actually help them distribute their energy more consistently.
Make Sure Your Service Terms Are Inclusive For ALL Employees
Abusive customers come with the territory in customer service, but the abuse is not meted out equally to all staff members. Staff members of color, queer and trans staff members, female staff members, and any combination of those identities deal with a more generous helping of both microaggression (indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group) and outright prejudicial aggression, ranging from sexual remarks and advances, misgendering and condescension, to unreasonable perception of hostility, unwanted touching, all the way to shouting and complaints to management.
Because of implicit bias, customers often have an unconsciously different standard for what friendliness and good service look like for employees of color, queer/trans employees, and female employees. That means that within the culture where the customer is always right, people who are not cisgender white men have to be proportionally friendlier and more accommodating, and will be read as proportionally less friendly and less accommodating than their cafe counterparts. This is one of many factors that make it more difficult for non-white/cis/men to succeed long enough in the cafe to make it to the higher tiers of the industry.
The solution: your cafe should have clear on-paper policies for how baristas eject and ban customers who are microaggressive or prejudicially aggressive in any way. This type of empowering policy will help baristas deal with run-of-the-mill customer aggression that doesn’t relate to their marginalized identity (in other words, normal customer complaints and conflict rather than customer bigotry).
In addition, make sure that your express standards for service in your space include on-paper rules that smiling, laughing at jokes, and accommodating demands outside of coffee service are not the rule, and that customers complaining about any of these things are outside their rights. Currently, in many cafes, baristas do get written up for vague offenses like “rudeness,” when in fact all they did was withhold a smile from a customer who expected one and made a complaint over it.
Treat Your Employees Well and They’ll Pass It Along
If the employees at a given cafe are habitually rude to customers, the internal culture and pressures of the cafe are usually part of the problem. If you aren’t making enough, are treated poorly, or are forced to compete for raises or shifts, you’re going to have a pretty hard time summoning the strength to be friendly to each and every customer.
I know that very few cafes will be able to give baristas a living wage, fair benefits, growth opportunities, and a wonderfully vibrant company culture, but some could do better than they are in free and crucial ways. Some benefits like 401K plans are very expensive, but a safe and inclusive workspace is free.
Meanwhile, if we as an industry know that many baristas live in literal poverty and without healthcare, we as customers, coworkers, managers, and business owners can allow them to have a bad day every once in awhile. Since we as an industry can’t yet solve problem of barista wages being too low for the skilled labor and experience they bring to the table, we can at least meet occasional service blips with compassion and empathy.
Remember Why Your Baristas Are In The Cafe
So many ideals of barista service revolve around the concept that if baristas don’t enjoy service, they should simply get a different job. This point of view assumes that baristas chose their career because they like customer service, but there are many other reasons for enjoying the craft of coffee.
Baristas who love the customer service aspect of coffee might make excellent educators and sales reps, but baristas who love quietly pulling shots for hours on end might make superb roasters or quality analysts, and baristas who are excellent at time management and cafe chore flow could make ideal operations managers or logistics coordinators. Even within the realm of every sub-sector, we need diversity of interest, so we need to make sure that we don’t take a “love it or leave it” approach to the service aspect of barista work, because it’s only one of many important parts of the job.
Be flexible when approaching roles in the cafe, and don’t make ultra-friendly, ultra-personalized service an ultimatum for participation in a diverse industry.
Give Your Baristas Space To Buffer Bad Customer Interactions
There will always be customers who come to your shop intending to have a bad experience and confront your staff. Service policies help to lend some extra resilience and a stronger starting position to baristas when dealing with these types of customers.
I’ve heard some excellent extroverted baristas talk about “killing them with kindness.” Being so nice that your customer doesn’t have anything to complain about is a great strategy for patient baristas with a lot of spare emotional bandwidth, but as a standard, it doesn’t work for everyone.
Make sure that your staff know they are allowed to approach customer interactions with simple courtesy rather than excessive friendliness, and when a customer is rude, they can often just follow through the interaction as if the customer were not being rude. A customer intentionally creating conflict often wants attention, and as with a child throwing a tantrum, the best policy is often to ignore it as much as possible and just treat them normally.
With a buffer of professional distance and clean policies around confrontational customers, baristas can increase resilience for these types of negative interactions, ultimately creating a smoother, less tense situation for all parties involved and facilitating better, more consistent service over time.
Remember That Baristas Will Still Be Fatigued Sometimes; They’re Human
While official, on-paper policies and clear, inclusive guidelines around the meaning of good service will help the overall problem of barista burnout and emotional fatigue, baristas are still human and will never be perfect. Baristas, like all people, deal with diverse challenges and circumstances, and, at the end of the day, none of us are flawless.
Building Out Service Policies Creates Better Service and A Stronger Industry
Give baristas the tools they need to be successful and make the profession sustainable, and in turn, the industry we all share will benefit not only from improved service but also from a stronger, more diverse pool of skill and experience at all levels of the supply chain. Everyone wins.