Educating the customer

Like most people I hate it when I go somewhere and they feel the need to educate me.  I hate being talked down to by whomever is serving me, I hate patronising and irrelevant information and I don’t really ever want to go back to that business again.  However – I love learning, I love being educated – not just about coffee but about anything really.

Does this contradict the goal we have in the coffee industry of trying to educate our consumers?  Whilst contradictory does the above make sense and ring true with any of you reading?

I think one of the gravest mistakes the speciality coffee industry makes is to try and forcefully educate its consumers, putting those of us behind the bar in the position of educator or teacher.  That mental balance of power is why “educating the consumer” often goes so wrong, with strong angry and adverse reactions to our efforts.

I think we need to change the goal, change the mindset around this interaction.  The goal isn’t just to create a consumer with a better understanding, it is to create a loyal consumer.  If you do a great job education is a lot about getting them to appreciate that.

Back to milk again – we fight the constant battle of customers wanting hotter drinks.  We often tell them that overheated milk doesn’t taste as good, and they often feel that they want their drink their way.  Once they understand that milk done this way is sweeter, tastier and feels nicer to drink they aren’t just educated – they are now extremely limited in their choices for where to go and get a good cappuccino.  That is the really great news.

I confess I take a little pride when people come back after an initial training course complaining that they can’t buy coffee anywhere anymore.  Everywhere they look they bad milk, bad technique, terrible and tasteless drinks.  They are now less price sensitive, educated and if I can put great milk drinks in front of them consistently I could well have a very happy customer for life, perhaps even the type of customer who becomes an ambassador for your business or in the term of Kevin Kelly – a true fan.

To turn it back to you being a customer again – think about the formal learning you’ve done, be it school or university or college.  Subject matter was important, but not as much as enjoying the process of education.  We all had teachers that changed our minds from hating a subject to loving it (and doing well in it too) and sadly vice versa.  What is it about those teachers that made their classes a pleasure?

Telling people that what they want is wrong is not education.

Telling people what you think is right and important is not education.

Showing a customer what is great about what you do, and how it matters to them is my kind of education.

9 Comments Educating the customer

  1. Anne

    Hey James,

    Have to say I’m really enjoying reading your articles lately! Thanks and I hope you keep doing more. I think that your Kevin Kelly link is broken though, at least in the feed.

  2. Lawrence

    I believe that educating your customers may well be one of the hardest things to do, especially while working on a counter and dealing with a variety of personalities who walk in the door on a regular basis. Perhaps one approach is to let your customers decide for themselves – make them a free latte that hasn’t had the extra hot treatment, ask them to trust their palette – engaging them in the decision making process is more active of them then baristas standing at a machine and preaching. It’s a tough one!

  3. Peter V

    Great post! Lawrence brings up a great way to let the customer educate themselves. I know it has worked for me before in the case of a fellow who wanted a shot run through for a 10 oz “long black”, so I served him that, and an americano made with a lovingly pulled double. He was amazed at how much better the americano was than the drink he insisted was better originally. You just need to have the time to do that when you’re working bar!

    Now that I’m on the other side of the counter these days as a customer, I’ve had some frustrating moments in education. I’ve experienced condescending ‘education’ from a barista (without asking for any help, I was just eyeing some beans!) and it’s an intensely frustrating experience. Baristas have to be aware of how they approach the customer and be sure that the customer is a candidate for education. Once that is ascertained, then they can go at it.

  4. Seamus McFlurry

    I agree that education is one of the hardest parts of being a barista. I tend to wait until I know someone well, or until they show an interest in what I’m doing. But, of course, we’re all human and get it wrong sometimes, say something stupid and run the risk of alienating customers by coming across as an arrogent coffee-snob.

    When it comes to people insisiting that coffee tastes like crap, and tea is so much better I walk a very fine line between coming across as arrogent and being an educator. Having said that my traditional capps keep them coming back :s

    And I agree with Anne, some really good, thought provoking posts recently :) keep up the good work!

  5. Alistair

    The cost of a cup of coffee is low enough to use the simple sales line of “If you don’t enjoy the coffee more my way, I will make one the way you want it for free”. As you say James, telling people isn’t educating them, to be educated you have to understand the reasoning.

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  8. loma

    BUT SOME PEOPLE ARE JUST SO STUBBORN! And I feel like they are always on the other side of the counter from me. I suppose I am still irritated with a customer that had today who wanted a single shot mocha but 4b only have double naked portafilters. I said I sorry we couldnt do a single shot and told him the reason and then he preceeded to tell me he was used to getting a single shot mocha at tartine! So I offered him a half caff one. He was fine with this and as I was putting the drink up to be made he told me that ours are normally to strong for him. Then I asked if it was too strong in coffee taste or in caffeine and he FREAKED out on me and told me to ‘forget it all’, and ‘it was too much trouble and too complicated’ and that he would just have a regular mocha. I really wanted to give HIM SOME LIP! I would love to be able to give someone the drink without having to compromise quality and also with the portafilters we have chosen. I just want to say that there is definitely a time and place for giving some attitude back!

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