Quality and customers (a dialogue)

So – after my previous blog post, Tim Williams wrote a response here, which I said I would reply to.

I must begin with an admission of failure – I didn’t really do a good enough job communicating what I wanted to with it, which resulted in it being interpreted in a different way from that intended.

That said – there is something to Tim’s post, it does point out a flaw in my idea and approach:

So it worries me when James puts forward a sentiment that could so easily be interpreted as, “I’m OK, You’re OK: If you’re down with past crop naturals… It’s all good!”.

Because let’s be clear – within the industry I don’t really believe there should be any tolerance for those masquerading (intentionally or not) as high quality when it is all smoke and mirrors. It’s disappointing to see “seasonal” espresso blends full of flat, dead, El Salvadoran coffees in February.

I don’t deny that my original post could be a confusing message, but what I’m trying to hone in on is the initial contact with a consumer, who currently drinks low quality coffee, that we would like to “upgrade” to something much better. Great coffee is still a relatively small phenomenon, and every day, around the world,  we’re still giving people their first moment of exposure to it.

My concern is that when our tone implies we have something better, because we think what they are drinking is terrible, then we’re likely to have them become closed rather than open to trying something new and better. I’m not sure there is a way for us to communicate what we see (with their low quality coffees) as a fault in their current preferences, without being totally offensive to them – and I see this borne out in the real world whenever we try.

My point was that someone’s revealed preference should be accepted as a place to start, as a valid beginning to a hugely enjoyable journey – and not a point of judgement. I’m not saying that we tolerate, embrace or encourage low quality coffees – I’m saying that when we meet people that like them we should not try to make them feel bad about it, or come across in a way that makes them think that we see ourselves as their betters, because our preference is somehow morally better.

You could argue that this approach is duplicitous. I don’t think it is. I think taking a little time to understand why people like what they like – and being friendly and welcoming so that they actually tell us – reveals a goldmine of knowledge about that person and a wealth of opportunities to present something vibrant, enjoyable and approachable to them.

I’m not saying that the industry should stop working to improve quality, throughout the whole chain. What goes on, up until the point of consumer purchase, should be pushed to be improved by all of us working in coffee. I just want to make sure there is an ever growing audience of people for the spectacular, delightful coffees we know are possible and could be possible in the future.