Teaching your customers

My bank taught me something interesting recently. It taught me that to get anything done, to get some decent service, I have to be a bit of an asshole about it.

It seems that if I am nice, friendly, chatting and flexible then I don’t get great service. I don’t particularly enjoy being an asshole, but it undeniably got results.

I am sure I am not alone in this experience, it might be your bank or another service provider or retailer.

The next time that you complain about your customers it might be worth checking whether they might just be acting in the exact way you’ve trained them to.

Just a thought….

28 Comments Teaching your customers

  1. Brett

    I share your thoughts, I hate doing it but you do get taken for granted when you are “nice”. It seems that businesses only look after the pricks and squeeze more money out of their good customers. It is something to keep in mind though when dealing with customers.

  2. Dom

    I think there’s some truth in that James. 

    I can offer a slightly different perspective though. Having spent plenty of time at the hands of the NHS as a “customer”, I found that if I was nice, friendly and chatty, then after a while their attitudes changed and I was no longer just another patient, but a human being. Many of the people I have met are doing a tough job, with extremely limited resources, and very little recognition. The resultant defence mechanism seems to be to depersonalise everything and everyone. I’m not saying this is necessarily right, but I can understand where this attitude comes from. It sometimes takes a while, but I have only met one person, out of hundreds, who remained rude and aggressive throughout.

    The lesson that I would personally take from your bank is, if I have to be an asshole to get any kind of service from a provider, then I would probably not want whatever it is they supposedly provide. I have walked out of cafes and restaurants for that very reason. Sadly, it would seem, good service is rarely a given these days, but it is something I am prepared to pay extra for, and those who fail to provide it, lose my business.

  3. Melody Lu

    I don’t think that is entirely true about being an asshole to get better service.

    The context is different because of service dependency from the user (payer) side. Ordinary people are dependent of banking services, however, the kind of control that a bank has over what is actually provided can be overwhelming. They have their hand in your wallet; they can always assert some sort of power, charge some type of fees and take it right out of your account, but you have no power to request an unreasonable charge being returned unless you make a huge fuss about it.

    Food industry? Not so much.
    A customer can walk out anytime if the good or service is not up to standard. But that has to be within reasonable context for not meeting the expectation, too — reasonable expectation is probably the key. Strangely in all honesty I don’t know what to expect when I walk into a place anymore, yet at the same time customers don’t trust their baristas/chefs to take command of making what is tasty either. Coffee is such a manipulatible little thing, everyone thinks they can have it however they want it.

    Maybe at many places out there service is not a priority, in my opinion great service will always have to come as a default. For coffee, I think when they purchased a cup they also deserved a great deal of respect and appreciation that should be entailed in the service. If on our side we are not friendly and approachable to begin with then there will be no further chance of piquing at people’s interest and estalish a good experience. There’s professionalism in providing a great service that everyone deserves, but I also take better care of customers that are super friendly and patient and respectful. That could be just me.
    It doesn’t equate to accomodate all the demands from a customer though. Flexibility isn’t really a trait that we should demand of the public, to some degree customers have to be empathetic too and respect how an establishment does things. It’s a two way street. But when we don’t have our hand in their wallet the control is theirs whether to do business with us or not. Being a prick definitely gets attention, but not necessarily the right kind, I really think there’s a better and more civil way that people can “communicate”.

  4. jesper

    Could it be cultural? In European countries it tend to be like the way you describe it, but in Australia I’ve found banks extremely polite. It’s actually one of the things they use for competition against other banks. I wish grocery stores had the same policy though ;(

  5. David

    Hmmm, you’re right.  Back when I was younger I made a point of waiting humbly at the counter with a little smile on my face, trying to look cute in order to get served at a bar.  And I almost always got served before the loud louts.  Now that I am creeping up on a more distinguished age I find that being nice and smiley gets me SFA in the way of service.  Maybe grey hair isn’t as cute as my younger locks, whatever, I feel your pain James and I’m becoming quite practiced at Assholocity.  Or Belligerantism.  Or something less attractive than the ideal Me-at-22 that was cast at the beer counters of my youth..

  6. Mike Nunn

    I can assure you, a rude or obnoxious customer does not provide me with any motivation to give better customer service. A terse smile through gritted teeth perhaps.

  7. Jay C.

    Hmmm, the source of the asshole-ish behavior of your customers may be a reflection on how you’ve trained them?  Interesting.  But perhaps a bit too introspective for 3W where the attitude is that everyone else is wrong and to blame…

    Someone mentioned that perhaps it is a cultural thing.  Hearing about brusque or rude service in London equates to my experience and expectations there. Sadly.

    In my hometown, I find things a little the same and a little different.  If I must go out of my way to act like an asshole in order to be serviced, then I might as well take my business elsewhere.  I look for purveyors, vendors and business associates that believe in similar to that of my own perspective: one of service and hospitality.

    To contrast your experience, my bank relationship is excellent.  I know my branch manager and the tellers pretty well.  On occasion, I hang out with them a bit and have a lengthy chat about life, families, ambitions and even a little business.   If perhaps you’re unable to develop that at your branch, maybe it’s time to look to another branch or even another bank.  There really is no reason that you must resort to something that you are not (this presumes you don’t normally act like an asshole, of course!) just to be serviced in the manner you deserve.

  8. Chris Tellez

    As an industry, we have such distain for our customers, it’s incredible we still exist… As an industry. I’ve written about this before, and I talk about this regularly when training new baristas. We blame our customers for being assholes, and perhaps when it comes to a select few, that’s warranted. Sometimes customers are just ornery bastards who feed off belittling other people, especially in an industry like ours, where the average age is under thirties. I cannot deny that these customers exist.

    However we also blame customers for wanting extra hot drinks, syrups,  no foam, lots of foam, long shots, short shots, half caff, iced, whip, sugar, cream et cetera. We diligently inform them of the better path, the one without all that extra stuff, that’s not good for you, and ruins all of our hard work. Well, there are two reasons this doesn’t work: Ignorance, and expectation.

    I use ignorance in its most true sense, lacking knowledge, information, or awareness about something in particular (thanks apple dictionary). So our customers walk in, knowing nothing of what we do, as an industry, and we barrage them with information on farms, varietals, processing, roasting and brewing protocol. Then we expect them to instantaneously absorb all of that information, translate it to their own language, and immediately apply it to their next order. That’s a hefty order for any of us. We also have a tendency in our excitement of finding a “green” customer, to come across as arrogant, a barista on a pedestal of coffee knowledge. I don’t know if this happens to do true arrogance and loftiness, or if our eagerness to educate is simply misconstrued. Whatever the case, our customers are clearly thrown off. And the natural human reaction, when met with something we don’t understand is violent opposition. This is when we hear customers say things like “I don’t care, just give me a coffee.” or simply “forget it..” and they walk out. Thus, making them an asshole. I mean, for god sakes, they just want a cup of coffee….

    Secondly is expectation. There are two phrases I like to use, that I think sum up my issue with the current coffee culture, as well as our entire society. Ultimate Customizability and Sensation Junkies. 

    “We are a society of Sensation Junkies. As a people, specifically those living in a first world nation, we have lost the essence of simplicity. We constantly inundate ourselves with sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings that shock our senses, desensitizing ourselves in every way. Brass tacks: We watch absolutely insane television programs. We listen to dubstep. We wear a disgusting amount of cologne and perfume. We eat things crammed full of artificial flavours, and we only seem to be satisfied when our lives are a roller coaster from the moment we wake up to the minute we fall asleep. Except no one can actually sleep anymore.  It’s like every minute of every day has to be filled with a form of pleasure whether we get it from what we are seeing, what we are doing, what we are eating, or each other (by this I mean things like texting, tweeting, checking our Facebook, and for all intents and purposes blogging) This being the case, we more than happily apply this to our coffee experience, wanting the biggest, craziest, most intense drink we can get.”- Trainrec

    Now Ultimate Customizability is how we apply the idea of Sensation Junking to our lives. With the birth of specialty coffee we wanted to show people how unique and awesome coffee was. Except it still kind of sucked, so we said to our customers, “look at all these neat things we can do to it!”, and on came the whip, chocolate, syrups, foam and all those other things we hate. We grew up pretty fast, and we expected our customers to as well, without giving them the time. if I play piano every single day, I’m going to get better quite quickly. If you play piano once a month, you can’t possibly excel at the same level. So our customers didn’t have a chance. Thus came expectation. The expectation of us to have all these custom things all the time. So when we all the sudden say “no, those things aren’t good anymore”, how are they supposed to feel? Well, they feel pretty pissed off, having some snot nosed 20 year old telling them what they can and can’t do to THEIR coffee. (I am currently only 21, and still very much considered a snot-nose)

    So we, as an industry, have to except the beast we’ve created, understand our customers ignorance to our craft, and give them time to catch up. I know it’s feels like just yesterday when I was preaching the gospel of fair trade organic coffee…


  9. Stephen Gbsn

    Not the coffee industry, but 6 years in high-pressure on-demand print taught me the following:

    Everyone gets good service. Listen to and respect all customers – even the clairvoyant kooks who print their own tarot cards. Engage properly with everyone – if they’re up, lift yourself to meet their mood. If they’re down, meet their level and lift them (easier with an espresso than a fresh business card proof). 

    I never had any customers who felt the need to be arseholes to get their jobs done.

    Truly excellent service only emerged when the customer was just as good as I am at being respectful and engaging properly.

  10. Jay C.

    Chris’ post reminds me of what makes me cringe the most amongst first time guests.  Some of them will ask, make comments regarding or hesitate when bringing up the subject of additives.  Some of them make comments along the lines of “you don’t like it when we put sugar/cream/etc in the coffee” and it just makes me cringe.

    Cringe because it’s obvious that our guest has suddenly become self-aware that maybe we might look disdainfully on their personal choices.  That they must live up to an expectation.  That they feel as though they’re being judged on the basis of what they add to their drink.

    I often wonder if this is due to their experiences at other coffee spots with other baristas, the general perception of the modern coffee industry or simply intimidation at Spro.  Walking into Spro is truly walking into a different place.  Everything is custom.  The tables, the millwork, the approach.  It’s a focused environment that’s so different than other coffee places and with a multi-tiered menu that quickly lets a first-time guest know that this is not your ordinary coffee joint.  Hand brewed coffee ranges in price from $2.50 to $14 for a 12 ounce cup.

    To be honest, I really don’t care if the guest wants to add six spoonfuls of sugar and two ounces of cream.  Heck, if they want to add peppermint flavor to their El Socorro Maracaturra, that’s their prerogative (I should note that we do not offer peppermint syrup).  And they should be able to do so without feeling self-conscious.

    It’s time that we end the pretense and condescension in our craft and start treating our guests in the manner they deserve.

  11. Jon Cowell

    First of all, I always enjoy your blog and find interesting and thought-provoking things here. Many thanks!

    Two things spring to my mind about this post. The first is that you “get what you reward”. I gather that the idea with your post James is that in the case of your bank, behaving like an asshole gets better results for the customer, so the bank gets assholes in return. So if the bank rewarded pleasant behaviour, they would get it, and what does this suggest about how to design approaches to customer service.

    The other is tangential (given that you are addressing a different concern) but concerns a principle of pedagogy that I feel is sometimes on the verge of being violated in the coffee industry and is suggested by the title of this post. That is, if someone doesn’t want to be taught, they aren’t going to listen and they certainly aren’t going to learn. I find the title potentially internally conflicting too – while you teach pupils, you serve customers. So perhaps a question to address would be (given that we are reasonably in agreement that educating customers is important) – how to turn your customers into pupils?

  12. Alex Beecher

    Make the best coffee you can. What people want to do with it after that is their business. And be nice. It’s not that complicated, really. People don’t want anything unreasonable from their coffee shop experience. They want their drink, and to be treated in a way that is, at least, not condescending. If they’ve experienced something other than optimal service elsewhere, and are perhaps a little contentious because of that, it’s an opportunity to earn their trust, to show them you do things better. 

  13. James Hoffmann

    This wasn’t specifically about banks – more the relationship between a business and its customer.  How the business responds will dictate how a customer will act in the future.

  14. James Hoffmann

    This wasn’t specifically about banks – more the relationship between a business and its customer.  How the business responds will dictate how a customer will act in the future.

  15. John Stubberud

    When training baristi, I always tell them that the day they start behaving like an asshole, they should find themselves another profession. There are too many huge egos behind coffee machines; the more experienced they get, the more they seem to lose the joy of serving plain, good coffee to the ordinairy guy. Attitude and arrogance; you’re more likely to meet this in high profile coffee places than in the bakery on the corner. And I’ve trained quite a lot …who after half a year or so justify answering back and expressing negative remarks on customers preferences. The smalltalk is over, the joy over a smile because you poured a heart turns into a bored face  -the barista may be technically excellent, but the hospitality skills only shines when the customer is a coffee freak.
    There should ring a bell. When judging in Barista Championships I notice the odd competitor whom I can see giving me just that attention and smile while handing me my morning brew. The emphasis on how we treat our customers really deserves top priority.
    I accept grumpy morning faces, but if the people coming to my place for coffee (or my baristi) starts behaving like assholes, then something is terribly wrong  -the same goes for my bank.
    So, I agree that we create the assholes ourselves -on both sides of the counter!

  16. Matias / Down to Earth coffee

    Jon, i guess if you are going to teach, and get the message across, you need to speak with clarity of mind/spirit, passion and be generous with your knowledge. 

    Most people who leave my coffee store/shop thank me for teaching them so much about coffee, and i usually only get enough time to dispell the myths and misconceptions.  I love the slow times when i can spend 30 min with a couple, sometimes only serving a couple of espressos but getting a lifetime client for the web.

    To paraphrase Jim, if you act like an asshole, people are going to feel belittled and reach negatively.   If you come across as a person who is enthusiastically sharing, there is no way your customers are going to turn on you.

  17. Matias / down to earth coffee

    Jay, same happens to me, people alwas say the same about how they spoil the coffee with this andthat, and how i probably would hate it, etc.

    i think it is a natural position from a person who feels insecure in front of a person that knows his/her craft.  It will be the same if you had to sit next to an economics nobel prize winner in a plane. 

    The key when that happens is to make sure they feel at ease after that.  That is their way of saying, i think i dont know anything about coffee.  And it is up to us to make them feel at ease. 

    I always remark that i am a purist in the way i grow the coffee, but once it is in your cup, it is their choice how to mix it.

  18. Matias / down to earth coffee

    Well, maybe i am lucky but people always enter my shop in a different mood.  I guess the fact that i am in Costa Rica where 100% of them are tourists and interested in Costa Rican coffee has something to do with it.

  19. jwwade

    Yes, I agree. Sometimes you have to be a bit pushy to get people to listen to you. It is not enough just to sit around and wait for people to help you. You must let them know that you need them to do their job. 

  20. Boehm

    I find that, in the course of training my new dog, I’ve learned alot about dealing with people. As you implied, A begets A.
    -for every action there is a reaction
    From my standpoint, then, your system does not get the best results.  Inducing fear will get you somewhere; but, it won’t get you to a space where you can feel truly safe.

  21. Boehm

    That said…
    yes, speak up!
    Often people don’t make compliment or complaint for fear of?…
    (umpteem  possible reasons)
    Just say it and reiterate it if you have to… no need to make it nasty, all you have to do is squarely state what you need.

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