This is the first in a series of posts on quite a broad topic within coffee, that covers not only elements of brewing but sales, consumption, successes and failures and the challenges that lie ahead for anyone in the industry.

I am going to start with trust.  This might seem an abstract word, but I hope at the end of this it will earn its place as a fitting title.  What I really want to talk about is the state of relations between the average consumer and the average cafe.  In my eyes we have, by and large, lost the trust of the consumer.

To start with I want to use the example of restaurants:  Let’s put you in the situation of being stranded in a strange town, full of independent restaurants and you are very hungry.  You scan the menus outside of three or four places and from this you will make some judgments on those businesses.  Two key factors here will influence your judgement – what dishes they serve and their price.

The first is really quite obvious – from the dishes you’ll know whether to expect home cooking or whether to expect Michelin level cuisine.  However this won’t really give you a very strong indicator of the quality compared to the prices.

Now let’s skip to the end of the meal.  You chose the place with the fancy cooking, and you’ve racked up quite a bill.  What’s more the food wasn’t very good.  In fact it was terrible.  How do you feel?  Angry?  Taken advantage of?  Disappointed?  Betrayed?

When restaurants do this they completely lose our trust – we’ll likely never spend any money with them again, and probably go out of our way to make sure family and friends don’t fall into that trap.

Hopefully you can see where I am going with this – think about the coffee you’ve bought in the past, and the prices you’ve paid.  How often has the price been correctly tied to the quality?  How often have you had your trust abused?  I am sure I am not alone in being extremely distrustful of most places selling coffee (globally I might add).

If you own a cafe then ask yourself if your customers trust you.  I mean really trust you.  If a regular came in and you had an unusual (but excellent) coffee in your grinder, or to drink as a french press brew, would they buy it on your recommendation?  If you found a coffee you thought was worth £5 a cup, could you sell it to them?

The advantages of trust are obvious – increased loyalty, increased customer spend, easier ethical/helpful upselling and a win/win for you and your customer.

I’ll aim to continue this next week…..

10 Comments Trust

  1. s lucey

    Such a crucial topic. In training baristas I tell them they should work towards getting to the point where a customer feels comfortable putting their decision in the baristas hands.
    As far as customer service goes with trust, it’s key to also find the most positive ways to best teach people why your menu is the way it is. Alienation will often happen with snobery/standards that are so high and thick you need a chainsaw to cut it – there are nice ways to go about having the highest standards. This is a huge topic James and it’s good to bring it up. The Barista Guild of America is creating a customer service seminar/class that will be led by SCAA Ex Dir Rick R. – I can say there’s been a nice push from the SCAA for BGA to teach this important detail, we are here for the consumer. We need them to choose wisely.

  2. James Hoffmann

    I agree – it is both a huge and crucial topic. I already have a couple of thousand words lined up but I wanted to chop it up into smaller posts. There are a lot of things I talk about when consulting or just talking to customers that I want to discuss and get feedback on.

    I think we have to accept that coffee service is failing and traiditional wholesale models are failing and either we accept the failure or we try and find ways to improve and change.

    Trust is a big part of that, and many topics fall under that umbrella.

  3. MoBak

    James, I think this is a very important subject. I know the “restaurant situation” you describe from many many times I have bought a cup of coffee. I’m always wondering, why the café does not spend 30 minutes per “barista” (bartender is in most cases a better label), to teach them the very basics. Things like “you have to tamp”, “you have to time the shots and adjust the grinder, when the shot is not near 25 sec.” (sometimes they are more like 7 sec.) and “this is how you make a smooth milk”. They don’t all have to be WBC class baristas, but the first few learning points would in many cafés improve the coffee several 100%.

    But I also think your analogy to the restaurant has a problem. I don’t have your international experience, so I’ll speak for the situation in Denmark only. Your analogy is true for you, me, everyone who reads your blog or my website in Denmark. But I’m not sure it’s true for most of the “normal” people because they don’t taste the coffee in the same way as they taste food or wine. They don’t expect one cup to be different from the other so they just drink it and don’t think more about how it actually tastes. Maybe they even expect it to taste rather bad, so they just add sugar before they taste it. I’ll compare this situation to the beer market in Denmark 15 years ago, where we more or less only knew pilsner beer (Carlsberg, Tuborg and several bad discount brands of the same style of beer). Lots of people – especially women – said “I don’t like beer”. That was fair to say, because there was only one kind of beer and if you didn’t like one, you didn’t like any. Today all supermarkets have at least 50 different kind of beer but lots of people still say: “I don’t like beer”. Which is completely unreasonable because today everyone can find a kind of beer that they like.

    So if we could just make people aware, that coffee can be a lot of different things, and that they should always really taste it and make an opinion of each single cup. Then they would realize that there are good and bad cups – unfortunately more bad than good ones.

    I’ve come to the point where I always spy a little on the person behind the bar, to see if he/she does a real effort to make good coffee. If I can’t judge it, I’ll buy a beer or something else instead, because I always expect the coffee to be really bad. That’s really a shame…

  4. Luca

    This is a topic that well and truly needs to be addressed and it was rather clever of you to split it up into chunks.

    For some time, I have had it in the back of my mind to write a post on a small aspect of this. The huge increase in freely available information on coffee on the internet over the past decade has had two important effects. First, it has made it a bit easier for folk who want to do a great job to focus their efforts. That’s great. The problem arises with the second effect; the jargonistic arms race.

    In a nutshell, savvy consumers and industry professionals alike are exposed to the same information, but their frames of reference – their experience tasting good and bad coffee – differ. This means that when one trader raises a point in support of their product, the competition are quickly able to adopt that point in their advertising, without necessarily delivering and consumers will not necessarily pick up on it.

    Some examples may assist. Example the first; I get some coffee from a new roaster that has an elaborate description, but clearly contains defective coffee. In conversation later, the roaster admits that he bought defective coffee because his supplier didn’t have anything better for him. I read nothing but praise for this blend online. Example the second; a cafe serves up very weak brewed coffee – bearing in mind that this is Australia and we don’t really know much about it – and customers are encouraged to, and apparently do, think that it is ‘subtle.’ Example the third; in the wake of the ridiculous amount written online about espresso brewing temperatures, many traders start advertising their espresso machines using ‘thermostability’ as a selling point, without explaining what they mean by that and without actually possessing any sort of equipment that would allow them to reasonably draw that conclusion. Needless to say, their customers do not have equipment to test that out and later when they actually do get their hands on a Scace device, some report that brew temperatures are manifestly unreasonable. Example the fourth; a barista delivers an elaborate description of their espresso and in fact serves a cup that is nothing like it. The cafe receives favourable reviews in the mainstream media, some of which make a point of mentioning the barista’s expertise. Example the last; a cafe serves stale or burnt coffee and successfuly passes it of as a high end offering.

    As MoBak pointed out, part of the problem is the lack of differentiation in the marketplace and this is where the jargonistic arms race really hurts anyone who wants to provide great coffee. Most coffee places seem to feel a great compulsion to make out that their coffee is great at everything. For example, you go to buy a blend and ask:

    -would you recommend it for milk?
    -would you recommend it for espresso?
    -would you recommend it for filter?
    -is it acidic coffee?
    -is it sweet?
    -is it floral?
    -is it high in body?
    -is it good to go now?
    -will it be good to go in a week’s time?

    The answers will most commonly be yes to everything. Why? Because the person selling it probably thinks that you won’t pick up the differences anyway and fears that a negative response to any question will make it sound worse than the offerings of their competitors … who, doubtless, are also lying about their product for the exact same reasons.

    I think that many of us can say from experience that giving a truthful account of what you are selling develops trust and will ultimately develop a loyal following of customers. But I suspect that there is a large section of the public that can actually be misled and bamboozled by whatever jargon is thrown in front of them. If that is the case – and I hope that it is not – giving a truthful account of one’s product may put one at a disadvantage to their more unscrupulous competitors.

    This point deserves some consideration. Naturally, I think that it is totally unethical to lie to your customers and, fortunately, I can’t remember a situation in which I have been asked to. But there are obviously people out there who disagree.

    I have seen and heard a lot of anecdotal evidence that many people will actually be swayed by quality coffee in the long run, rather than being duped by jargon. That being the case, perhaps one approach is to accept that there is no one general customer, but distinct classes and that the class that is influenced by cup quality is growing. Given that many will experiment with different cafes and coffees, ultimately one would hope that quality product would win the day. As MoBak said, the market for top notch beer has expanded; hopefully it is not naive to expect that the market for top notch coffee will follow suit.

    (Although I should note that espresso machines are such an infrequent purchase that I don’t think that consumers will ever really develop an ability to discriminate there.)



  5. Luke

    To expand on this, there is trust between the producer and the coffee buyer. There is trust between the roaster and the retailer. There is trust between the retailer and the barista and finally… the customer. Tied up in all of this trust is the livelihood of each and every individual employed by this supply chain.

    I trust our roaster (intelligentsia) because of what I can taste and what I can learn through my own research. I pay a premium price for great coffees, and I have trusted them to consistently deliver. I trust my baristas to care and uphold the values I have taught them. We try to be friendly and honest with our customers, and encourage them to enjoy drinks we feel best represent our business. I think you understand what I mean when I say that I’ve been increasingly hesitant to simply “give the customer what they want”. If what we serve doesn’t align with what we feel is core to our business then we risk losing that trust with customers that “get us”. We risk undermining that trust all the way back to the beginning. We walk this tightrope every day because we’re also in this business to make some money.

    Good thoughts here.

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  8. Poul Mark

    James, I have a question for you, well many in fact, but I will leave it just at this one for the moment. I wholeheartedly agree with you on the issue of trust. I know my customers trust me, as they defer to me as the coffee expert. And while I have much to learn, which is painfully obvious to me, I do know far more about coffee than the average consumer in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. But as the business grows, thankfully, I am not behind the bar anymore, and am not even at the roaster. I am the driving force behind the business. While aspects of this reality are lamentable, it is simply the way it is. The hard part of this is knowing that some of our customers don’t, at least not to the same level, trust my staff. They know that my staff haven’t been to origin, and haven’t been behind the roaster. And while we have amazing staff who are loyal and committed, they do not have the knowledge base or understanding. They can articulate descriptions of the coffee, and assist in brewing instructions, but the customer and I know that this is not the same. Apart from actually sending all of my staff to origin and get them on COE cupping tables, what are your thoughts on replicating your knowledge base and understanding in those who work for you, so that you can be sure of the customer’s ongoing trust.

  9. James Hoffmann

    Poul- that is a very difficult question.

    I think part of the answer is that you need to continue to be the main coffee expert, even if you do limit you exposure to customers. I think front line staff should have a good basic knowledge but should be encourage to talk about what they know and are comfortable with. If I am talking to a barista I probably have brewing questions – which I would expect them to answer – but if I had specific roasting or processing questions then I wouldn’t mind if they defaulted to someone else rather than give me an incomplete or useless answer. I think that kind of honest earns trust. I don’t think staff should be expected to know everything, but to know what is important to them doing their job very well. I have no doubt that you guys do a great job of encouraging staff and developing their knowledge and that you already stand way above your competitors in the service you offer.

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