Feedback and the 151,200 minutes

This is a post that has been floating around my mind for a good while now but has been accelerated by Tim Williams talk at Tamper Tantrum Live last weekend. If truth be told, I actually preferred the conversation after it even more than the talk itself but I think that was entirely the point of Tim’s talk.

I have a certain standpoint on feedback that I’m pretty sure doesn’t sit with a lot of people in the specialty coffee industry, and this post is specifically aimed at the specialty coffee industry.

Negative feedback is gold dust. Its easy to get good feedback but negative feedback is harder to come by, to your face at least. I’ve served customers, asked them if everything was ok. They’ve said yes, paid and then slagged us off on the internet. Happens a lot and always cuts.

Negative feedback helps us understand how we can improve (thats obvious) but also points out where we’re not communicating effectively. I was once told our cups were too small. We have many reasons for this and my first instinct was to disregard this as we weren’t going to change this policy.

It struck me though that most people I explained it to understood why afterwards and the majority agreed on reflection. The feedback made me realise that if you’re doing something for the right reasons and someone doesn’t like it then maybe we haven’t communicated those reasons effectively.

If a customer thinks filter coffee takes too long, your milk isn’t hot enough, your roast is too dark/light or any other common “specialty coffee gripe” then maybe, just maybe, you should be communicating your reasons better rather than just dismissing their opinions.

I do, for the record, seek negative feedback so I think its important to point out that I’m not against it, more who, why or how it’s delivered.

Twitter is not, in most cases, an appropriate medium for feedback. I agree that sometimes a business can be so unashamedly awful at what they do that they deserve a public dressing down but there is a definite line. Lets do some rough maths here for a second.

When a customer is in a shop, we are being “observed”. Say we average 20 people in our shop at any one time and we are open for 9 hours a day over 2 locations. Thats 151,200 observation minutes per week where we are being watched, analysed and judged on various different levels of consciousness.

Every week at 3FE we serve bad coffee and give bad service. Every body does. It slips through the net, it happens and it takes a couple of seconds to happen in that 151,200 minute week. I really want to find out when it does but not through twitter.

Its no different for inter-community feedback. By all means tell me but I’d appreciate an email more than a tweet, blog post or forum thread.

The other issue I have with negative feedback comes down to whether or not they are stakeholder. We owe a duty of care to our customers, suppliers, colleagues and various other people but some people that have nothing to do with what we do (besides sharing an industry with us) feel entitled to have a pop from time to time.

On Saturday Tim gave me a bag of coffee and asked me for feedback. I’ve had coffee from St Ali before that was passed on to me by a friend. I didn’t buy it nor was I given it (by St Ali) so I am precluded from giving them feedback for that coffee. I’m looking forward to sending the feedback on for this current bag.

Before you pass on unrequested feedback, its important to ask yourself if this person owes you anything. Sometimes, its none of your business, keep it to yourself. I don’t buy that we’re all part of the same community so we have to keep each other in line. The community doesn’t clean my toilets, pay my taxes or clear my inbox so the community doesn’t get a say before my customers do.

Tim also raised the point on Saturday (I’m not picking on Tim by the way, I actually like him) that saying everything is great shows weakness and a lack of confidence. I agree, but I also see a massive weakness in slagging people off. Usually when I see someone say that another business doesn’t do X, Y or Z its usually a concealed way of saying “We do X, Y, and Z so why aren’t we getting more credit for it?”.

If you do something amazing, and you’re slagging people off for not doing it too, ask yourself what would happen if they did start and everyone else did too. Would you still be doing something amazing? Would you be happy then? If you’re amazing be confident and happy in your own ability and success, you deserve it.

Communicating what you do and why effectively will gain you all the plaudits you deserve. Slagging someone off makes you look just as weak as someone who proclaims everything is wonderful.

My own policy on this is based on the reasoning that there is power in an ommission. I’d like to believe that if I recommend something people will take that seriously because I have a reasonable track record in doing so (I hope). There are many coffee shops/manufacturers and roasters I will never mention and I think that speaks volumes to anyone who cares to listen.

Certain negative feedback will also come down to the fact that some people like being a dick for fun. I’m not sure why but there is a small section that like slagging people off as a recreational pursuit. I’d be against this.

Yes negative feedback affects jobs but its important to remember that bad service and products do too. In terms of our industry there seems to be quite a degree of negativity being batted about but I think that if it were communicated more effectively we could benefit more.

I’ve had a long week, I’m tired, emotional and aware that this post lacks a certain structure and perhaps reads slightly ranty. Indulge me though by allowing me one ridiculous analogy.

The coffee industry is an island and its being thrashed by a gale force wind called negative feedback. Lets build some windmills and use it for the greater good.


p.s. I would really appreciate any feedback from TTLIVE over the weekend from those who attended. Thanks 😉

4 thoughts on “Feedback and the 151,200 minutes

  1. Alan Andrews says:

    Dear Colin,
    As a member of this coffee industry – I have to agree totally with your comments on feedback. This is seen as the typical Irish response to a genuine question from a passionate owner/operator and his/her staff. As you rightly point out – it’s all down to communication and the manner in which you communicate your expertise and knowledge to your customers (were you calling your customers stakeholders too btw)

    The reality is the amount of people who have an interest in the ‘speciality’ section of the industry is small enough. (noted by the smallish crowds at TT at the weekend and also less than 100 at the IBC’S in February) But the people that have a general interest in coffee and are open to learning more are happy to explore and visit cafe’s like 3fe.

    In my opinion you get ‘popped’ at because people find your approach a little high brow and snobbish. It’s important to keep coffee accessible and thus for you this means a much stronger emphasis on communicating why you go to the lengths you do to give your customers a coffee experience that they won’t get anywhere else. And of course because you’ve set the bar in delivering a style of coffee product that no one else offers – people are going to be even more critical.

  2. Brett Lanyon says:

    I love negative feedback (to my face) as it helps you to see where you can improve your worst coffees (some one smart once said they were the easiest to improve apon). It is really hard to get customers to see that you want the feedback as they are so used to a negative response from owners/ managers etc that they pay their hard earned keep their mouth shut and leave disappointed. I think a sign is in order to give free coffees to those who complain (wait McDonalds had already done it). Great post

  3. Jessica MacDonald says:

    One of my favorite things about you Colin (apart from your awesomeness) and 3FE is your ability to think outside of the usual cafe model, you don’t have any set ideas on how things should be done. I believe you do this because you have no hospitality baggage, from years of running or working in cafes, you have no set way that you have always and will always do things, you have nothing holding your ideas back, I fear that by giving people feed back at every given chance we will create a strict set of guidelines to the way things should be done, conscious or not. By telling them they are too this or too that we create a narrow field of what is ideal and I think we are more at risk of stifling innovation.
    But on that note, I do also think though that when we ask for feedback we should really mean it and not do it on impulse, only ask people who we genuinely care for their response.
    I have feedback from TT2live but decided yesterday that I did not what to share it with you or Steve because I want TT3Live to be exactly how you would do it not how I would do it or not restrained by what people think they want to see, so therefore I look forward to seeing TTLive3 how you envision it.

  4. Colin-
    While I agree with some of your positions, I disagree with others. In some respects, it seems you’re discussing the feedback from actual guests, then it others it seems as though you’re talking about industry compatriots.

    For this discussion, I will limit my comments to actual guests rather than industry concerns.

    As an owner/barista, I’ll take critical/negative comments about our business from whichever source we can find it. In today’s world of social media, guests express themselves in a variety of venues. Just because you don’t like the idea of venting through Twitter doesn’t discredit the concern.

    The advantage of critical Tweets is that it happens in nearly real-time. Someone comes in, has a bad experience and is tweeting about it the moment they leave. This gives you the opportunity to: A) see who is working, B) discover any situational issues that exist at that moment, and C) immediately start working towards rectifying the concern. Most people don’t have the stomach for direct, face-to-face criticism (and most people in our business don’t have the guts to listen to it either). Social media criticism allows people to speak candidly and for you to have the time to reflect and respond in a measured manner.

    My thought is that it’s more reassuring to the complainant and the general viewing public when you’ve taken the time to address the issue. We use this approach on Yelp! whenever we receive less that ideal comments. This is our opportunity to demonstrate that we: 1) listened to their concerns, 2) thought about their concerns, and 3) have taken the time to address their concerns. This doesn’t mean that we’re changing our ways, it means that we’re listening and considering their comments – which is what most people want in the first place: to be heard.

    As for myself, while we love positive feedback, it’s the critical feedback that we want to encourage. And we try to encourage that feedback through any means possible.

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