Shooting the messenger.

I’m sitting on the train on the way home and for the first time i’ve been compelled to post something off my iPhone (forgive the inevitable spelling mistakes).

Having just flicked through Twitter and facebook I’m near on shocked by the amount of people that seem intent on slagging off their customers. Deriding their orders, mocking their choices and lamenting their lack of knowledge is really not something that we should be doing. If anything it speaks volumes about our own inadequacies as an industry.

I’ve spoken with many baristas, roasters and other coffee professionals about how lucky I feel to be part of such a vibrant and thriving industry. I often feel like I’ve come accross a secret and it’s only a matter of time before everyone else clocks on too.

However lately I’ve seen a tendency from people working in coffee ( and admittedly other specialty fields too) to have a pop at customers for not “getting” it.

I think perhaps we should remind ourselves every now and then that ensuring our customers “get” it is in fact our job.

If your customers are ordering large drinks it’s probably because you sell large drinks.

Peoples ability to order syrups is directly linked to the availability of syrups.

If your customers don’t appreciate filter coffee it’s probably because they’ve had a bad experience. It’s up to you to turn it into a positive experience.

If there seems to be a lack of knowledge amongst your customers it’s up to you to fix that without being intrusive or demanding. Engage them, it’s your job!

A wise man (who needs no further praise from this blog) once pointed out to me that by the time you’ve sat down in a restaurant and looked at the menu you know whether its ok to ask for ketchup. What the restaurant industry does really well is build context, and context is everything if you want to guide your customers. If they never ask for it its probably because of two things;

(i) They don’t know it exists

(ii) Their perception of it is different to yours.

The surly Barista is a stereotype that really needs knocking on the head but unfortunately it’s probably a justified one. It’s up to us as an industry to make this easy for our customers and realise that every sarchastic tweet is damaging every other shop in this industry that’s trying to do a good job.

Be nice, our futures depend on it.


19 thoughts on “Shooting the messenger.

  1. Paul Stack says:

    Nice. Two pet hates – cool barmen and cool baristas, cos it’s all about them. ugg

  2. Couldn’t agree more pal, if our customers don’t get it then its our job to educate and expose, and bring on so the do get it.

    Its a baby of an industry, so we have to work that little bit harder to show the masses the way, but we will, lots of other industry’s like ours have had success.

  3. Mark Prince says:

    There’s an easy solution for this Colin; don’t follow those people on Twitter; the less “voice” they have, the less damaging they are to the industry and the industry’s relationship with consumers. I’ve dropped several coffee folk off my twitter follow list for this very reason.

  4. James says:

    Could not agree more.

  5. Nathanael says:

    I’ve never agreed with an article more. Well played, well written.

  6. Glenn Watson says:

    What goes on twitter, stays on twitter… (and the internet for all the world to see)

    I like Mark’s approach!

  7. Matija says:

    Another great post Colin.
    Keep up the good work, both here online, and in your bar, serving great coffee (hope i ll get the chance to try it soon in 3fe)!

  8. Julia McKenna says:

    I understand what you’re saying here and your right to point it out. I will put my hands up and admit to being someone who would have a tendency to have a rant about customers but only about their behaviour towards me as a fellow human being, not their drink order, but I still feel a bit ashamed all the same. I’ve had to catch myself on now because I’ve realised that I’ve posted a few negative tweets of late due to the stress of opening a new branch and felt the need to “vent” as it were, but twitter is not the place for it. So I do apologise for any of those said tweets you may have come across.

    I’m still finding my voice as a barista and still have a lot to learn. I’m about to become a manager of one of our branches and am hoping to introduce a pourover option to the menu and I know I won’t be able to do so without keeping an open mind about what my customers want and providing the service they’re after. So while I do keep reminding myself on those stressful days that my customers aren’t the enemy, I’m thankful that I have people like yourself to draw inspiration from, it’s the work ethic of people like yourself and Steve that I truely admire and take as my example… a bit corny but it’s true!

    So um.. thanks for being awesome.

    p.s I’ve just noticed there’s an itty bitty smily face at the bottom of this webpage.. I think this has just made my day!

  9. Mark says:

    Restaurant staff piss and moan and make fun of their customers all the time. When they are in front of them they are (hopefully) pleasant, professional, helpful, courteous and efficient. We should expect no less of their coffee bar counterparts.

    By all means educate customers about the beauty of a freshly prepared quality coffee, that’s just good sense if you want to be satidfied for the long run.

  10. Nick Cho says:

    Yep. Great post!

    And if anyone believes it to be contradictory or otherwise hypocritical of me to agree, then you’re misguided. πŸ™‚

  11. colinharmon says:

    Yeh they are Nick!!

  12. Rob Smyth says:

    As a relative newcomer to the industry, I don’t feel I’ve earned the right to comment too much, other than the majority of industry people I’ve encountered so far have been very helpful and more than willing to pass on their knowledge.

    What I will say though is that as a customer over the years, sadly I have came across my fair share of baristas who do fit this bill. Those who would rather sneer at the ‘ignorant’ customer instead of taking the opportunity to engage with them and pass on their knowledge, are doing themselves and their colleagues a disservice. We’re all on a journey in coffee, some at different points than others and none of us have not at some been at the same point as these customers. As a growing industry we certainly need to embrace and educate these customers, not alienate them, but it’s also very arrogant to look down on those who are perceived to have less knowledge than ourselves.

    You have struck a chord with me though regarding the syrups, we only stocked them because we believed it’s what the customer would want. I’m pleased to say we’ve had virtually no syrup sales since we started, which I hope is directly related to the overwhelming positive feedback we’ve had about the our coffee. But it’s also made me realise we’ve probably under estimated our customers, which is a failing on our part. While we continue to offer the same products as the rest, then it also becomes harder for us to distinguish ourselves from the rest.

    Great post.

  13. Al says:

    Carry a payroll and run a business and you will understand the free market real quick. People have choices, and most will choose to go with a company that works every day for their business and appreciates their business.

    Good post, and good reminder. Knowledges puffs up and we have many in this industry with much knowledge. Use it wisely.


  14. I agree with Mark Prince’s comment. I purged a couple months ago. We give too much attention to critical and cutting comments about customers and colleagues alike. Lead on Colin, we’re all paying attention to what you’re doing. Cheers

  15. […] here: Shooting the messenger. Β« Dublin Barista Share and […]

  16. Mat north says:

    Finally Someone with the balls to speak out! Amen brother, been harbouring similar thoughts for years.
    My major issue has always been that this attitude toward customers comes across as elitest, exactly what barista’s should not be!

    Quality work col.

  17. Spencer Viehweger says:

    I apologize if I take this on a bit of a tangent; but I’m particularly interested in a question that this post hints at.

    I see a lot of comments titled: I agree completely.

    I, myself, agree completely that none of us should be publicly issuing hateful speech regarding customers that order certain drinks that we are not fond of ourselves.

    I’m not sure that I completely agree with your solution in promoting the purists menu, though.

    Am I right in understanding you to be saying that the correct response to a customer ordering the “bad” drinks is to simply get rid of the drinks; and that this somehow positively communicates our passion for the traditional specialty beverages (espresso, coffee without sugar, cappuccinos, etc.)?

    Does this not create a tragedy of its own? Are we not thereby treating our customers as mere products of whichever environments that we create for them. Would doing so not be to deny their free choice as human beings, or at least their capacity to determine for themselves the drink that they most desire?

    I am particularly interested in the question of whether or not a specialty coffee shop should include the 16 oz. drink on the menu. I have wrestled with this for many years, and inevitably end up changing my mind soon after I thought I have made it up. I believe that, in many ways, it is the defining question for many companies. I have had excellent coffee from those who both offer it and from those who do not.

    Perhaps our customers are less stubborn than we assume them to be. Perhaps merely eliminating the choice enables them to choose an ultimately better product for them. Alternatively, perhaps there is a legitimate reason that roughly 25% of our drinks sold are in 16 oz. cups. Can we realistically ditch this cup size and at the same time truly honour those customers? Should they be our customers? Why or why not?

  18. colinharmon says:

    Hi Spencer,

    I think you’ve missed my point here. There are many excellent cafes that sell syrups/large cups etc. and its far from my intention to deride these establishments.
    My point was that if you choose to do business in a certain way then you should stand by that decision and not blame your customers for any regrets you have.
    My menu may be purest to some but thats just one menu in one shop. I chose it for my shop because thats what I wanted. I expect people in similar positions to choose the menu they see as most appropriate for what they want to do as everyone’s circumstance/goals/objectives are different. I would never be arrogant enough (I hope!) to suggest everyone follows my example. Not on this occasion anyway πŸ˜‰

  19. Melody Lu says:

    Being in the role of serving the drink, I do feel baristas have to take on the responsibility of educating their customers about what philosophy is held and maintain the stand with professionalism and integrity. Certainly attitudes of mockery would not make a good display of such ideal, which is to introduce and share a good coffee experience, not to impose. No one should be forcing a concept onto anyone else, in a sense, my role is inviting them to a thing perhaps even more desirable.

    I think the issue is more with what is perceived to be coffee for a barista versus what customers think coffee is to them. Many times I don’t know who is “insulting” who. I wouldn’t go into KFC to order a Big Mac, even though in a broad sense they’re all fast food; but coffee unfortunately, has this inferior status of being even more homogeneous and manipulable. I am hoping that can be changed.

    I’m somewhat a purist, pretty much will keep that way, but lately I have been riddled with the aspects of serving coffee with flavouring and other ingredients. To me the ridiculousness is not about adding things — if it complements the flavour profile, like how a signature drink is in competition — but to offer an uncontrolled concoction and resenting that it will (very likely) be untrue and turning coffee into, well, something that doesn’t even remotely resemble coffee.

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