Never has a word or an idea so destroyed the good intentions of many cafes, and wrecked an owner’s confidence in their own product.

Over the last few years I’ve done a lot of very varied barista training.  The vast majority of people I met were having their first introduction to brewing coffee carefully and well.  I hope this isn’t an arrogant statement – most of us grew up, myself included, with a “coffee’s just coffee” mentality that had to be shattered at some point when we realised it was a fresh food of variable quality that we could influence through preparation.

Milk texture is the “a-ha” moment for a lot people.  The first time they sip a cappuccino with thick, tight-knit bubbles, with that velvety texture and surprising sweetness a penny drops and they get a little bit excited at how good coffee can be.

Then something terrible happens.  They start worry about their customers expectations.

“This doesn’t look like my normal cappuccino, my customers expect something a bit frothier.”

And that person is right – their customers do.

Let’s re-assess expectations for a moment:  If I chose to eat out in a restaurant in a touristy location in London, let’s say Leicester Square, I expect an average meal, with poor service and an extortionate bill.  Meeting my expectations is not a good thing.  As a consumer I want you to exceed them.

If I walk into a cafe chosen at random then I will likely expect to be served that sea-foam, dry and overheated cappuccino that we see in marketing every day, on tv, on billboards and in lots of other cafes.  Lots of cafes meet my expectations – and those of their customers – but it is worth remembering that those expectations have been set pretty low after years and years of pretty poor coffee being normal.

I think meeting customers expectations has been reinforced by the idea that the customer is always right.

The customer is not always right.

The customer should always be treated with respect, intelligence and made to feel welcome and looked after within your business.  This does not mean that we should bend to their every whim.  I’ve been wrong as a customer countless times, and I will be in the future.

Going to the Fat Duck and expecting roast chicken is wrong.  Asking for your Big Mac medium rare is wrong.  Asking for espresso to go is wrong.

There is a way to say no to me as a customer and to exceed my expectations of you and your business.  I can walk out satisfied and (more importantly) likely a new, loyal a for your business.

The benefits of exceeding someone’s expectations are huge, and in an economic climate where business are looking for a competitive edge then offering something different and desirable has rewards that more than compensate the risk.

  1. Customer loyalty, and education, are another topic I want to look at in a future post  (back)

23 Comments Expectations

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  3. Mike


    Ever considering compiling these posts into a book and marketing it to folks opening a great cafe? It’s sometimes so much easier to hand someone a book from a 3rd party then to work so hard at convincing someone their opinions and past experience do not translate to quality. I think you could make a go of it!


  4. rob berghmans

    good article, hammering the nail on the head. (it’s a dutch expression, i hope you understand)
    sometimes I have professional clients and they think their clientele is going to have problems with our cappuccino’s. sometimes i fight against these kind of stupid thoughts, but sometimes I let them believe what they want and put my energy in others who are willing to go the same path as ours.

    just received a bag of your new el salvador at the bar. testing it tomorrow or saturday at it’s last.

  5. Emily

    this is really interesting – we’ve been going through this ‘revolution’ in expectations of customers of what a basic espresso coffee should look like -to the point now when McDonalds launched their new Rainforest Alliance blend they hired Dave Makin to make(in) the coffees for the TV commercial and stills.

    It works, slowly but surely people will begin to learn and appreciate the quality, loyalty, trust and expect more from their coffee retailers.

  6. Julie

    Once again, I find that I have to, in part, disagree with you James.

    In a small cafe, you have to at least meet the customers expectations. IMHO latte art is not cappuccino. It is caffe latte with art.

    It is possible to make a good “classic” cappuccino, the problem is that so many cafes don’t make the effort. The biggest plus comment that I have on our cappuccinos, is that the customer is delighted and surprised that it is warm.

    Too many cafes, leave the drinks sitting too long before serving, or use froth that was made 10 minutes ago. And now many of these cafes are now trying to do latte art, and since they are not champion baristas, they take too long and the customer gets a luke warm drink.

    As regards price, you have to know your town, and potential customers. Too high and they will not return, too low, and their expectations will be too low.

  7. Jake L.

    How would you begin to change customers expectations when they are so far off from where you believe they should be?

    For example, I work at a shop where the majority of our customers are University students and most of them expect a sugared up latte with as little ‘coffee taste’ as possible. In the year and a half I’ve worked here, I’ve served about 10 shots of espresso to customers. I’ve suggested straight lattes, offered free shots of espresso, held coffee cuppings, to only get many confused looks from students. There is a small group of regular customers interested in quality coffee, but the majority of customers really aren’t interested in good coffee; they’re either looking for a sugary-dessert drink or a caffeine fix.

    Any advice on how to move expectations?

  8. Magnus


    I must disagree with you. In my opinion, it does not at all take a champion barista to pull killer shots, steaming at the same time of course, and pour a wonderful cappu (with milk-art) in the same (or less!) time than making a ‘classic cappuccino’, etc. All you need is good training. Or correct training, at least. And awareness.

    Also, a cappuccino with latte art … is still a cappuccino. As much a cappuccino as a classic cappuccino, as long as the foam/milk/coffee-ratio is correct.

    In a small café, one has an even greater oppurtunity to dazzle customers – and even create knowledge about great coffee. Latte-art is a good way to do this (even though latte-art is NOT nececarily a sign of quality.) – But imagine from the customers point of view… you come in this small café, used to classic cappus, or maybe even dry-froth-cappus, and you get a drink with a wonderful pattern – I think the costumer is inclined to become curious about what they’re drinking at this point. In other words, a perfect oppurtunity for the barista to enlighten the customer.

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  10. Josh

    I have to agree that small cafes have a huge responsibility to serve amazing drinks. I manage a small cafe in L.A. that primarily serves a community of university students and some local businesses. If we don’t throw down a little art, a french press of the week and some stellar service, we do not stand out. I know the names of a large percent of the people I serve daily, and their expectations are at least a rosetta at minimum. When one of our baristas doesn’t make a stellar “looking” drink, they ask if they are new. Considering that Starbuck’s is two blocks down and the Peet’s is not much further from that, expectations are our lifeblood for repeat business. Especially with the student sugar-craving crowd. Latte art or some wild tasting dry-processed coffee are huge attention grabbers that no one else around us has to offer.

  11. Star Espresso

    Post creates much thinking about expectation. We cannot fulfill our expectations as it depends on so many constraints, such as our demands and expectations are unlimited. Welcome, enjoy well with espresso.

  12. Star Espresso

    I agree with your thoughts regarding the destruction of self confidence of the products but sometimes mistakes happen related to quality of products. Whatever has been mentioned in the contents of the article is partially right, as after all I am a great fan of coffee. Ok.

  13. David Craig

    Here Here James. Imagine what the world would be like if most coffee shops in the world ‘met customer expectations’ – not a great thought. We’ve come to expect a really average standard of food (especially in the UK) – and sometimes average is fine, but all to often ‘average’ in the world of coffee is just awful. Paying a premium price for awful coffee is even more annoying.

    Cafe’s that push and educate their customers will undoubtedly be stars of the future. I have to credit Eileen from Rutual again who said “We don’t serve our customers what the want, we serve them what we’re good at doing”. Yes, that is arrogant. But every chef I have ever worked with is arrogant. The best chefs create food their way, in a way that reflects their style.

    We’re not talking rocket science. The first most radical change has to be smaler cups sizes.

  14. Poul Mark

    James, this is a great post. We struggle constantly with this, as customers come into our shop and expect inferior quality, and are often a bit put out when we give them something better. While I have a hard time grasping this, it is all about expectations. And it is difficult as an owner, to convey the art and nuance of dealing with these customers to my staff. They come back and ask me what to do, as the customer didn’t like the capp precisely because it wasn’t “dry” enough. The goal is to educate the customer in a deliberate and respectful manner. We are the experts in this business, and we must accept this reality, as well as exercise our expertise in a manner which does not belittle or make our customers feel embarrassed. Keep writing my friend, it is always enjoyable.

  15. The Onocoffee

    I like the discussions that have been going on here. To my mind, expectations are a consideration but I’ve found the establishment of standards to be the definition of what you (or we) do.

    As an espresso bar owner, the expectations of my customers are certainly a consideration. And while it is a goal to exceed those expectations, what about those times when the customer comes in and expects to order a Frappuccino? Our standards don’t allow us to accommodate that request but rather gently inform the customer of the Starbucks three blocks away that will.

    Within our company, we’ve set a standard for our products and service approaches. When we started, the mere fact that we brewed proper coffee exceeded our customers’ expectations. As we’ve grown, so have our customers. No longer are they content with any brew and should the time come that we’ll switch our pressed coffee for drip (as it happened about six months after we opened), they’ll notice and comment.

    As they’ve progressed in their recognition of quality, we’ve been compelled to push our standards to (hopefully) higher levels. What was once a bar serving four sizes have evolved into two (8z and 12z). Where we once served commercial milk, we evolved to use locally grown, pastured milk. Even our chocolate has changed over time from a gourmet brand to a thoughtfully sourced, single-origin Colombian.

    I’ve been in this game now for about six years and I’m saddened by those places that purport thoughtful processes and quality but still maintain the same standards they held in 2004. Our game is about evolution. Develop and nurture the customer and grow with them. Ours is about constant refinement and finesse. It is what I hope our customers have come to expect from us.

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  17. vce

    I think that the general public is becoming more educated on the differences in coffee. I am from Melbourne and find that there are discussions that occur in the coffee shops on the different types of beans, roasting, taste and presentation.

    It is important to listen to customers and particularly their taste and provide quality coffee that meets their taste.

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