Innovating Context: Wireless Internet

(This post is part of an ongoing series of posts regarding how we retail progressive coffee. The first post is HERE)
Wireless Internet: an ongoing debate within our industry. The cause of countless lost Yelp stars, many a facebook argument, and certainly a broken heart or two.

For a line barista, my thinking about free wireless is parallel to my thinking about large soy caramel mocha lattes: if your shop has it, your shop has it. If you are not a decision maker in your company, the best move is to align your thinking along optimization: how can I make this experience the best one it can be? I’d say, generally, an eye-roll never positively contributes to that goal.

For folks in leadership/ownership positions: I don’t think the approach is all that different. As in many things, I think the first step is to consider your vision: what kind of experience do you want your customers to have? Once that experience is defined, you must advance toward it ruthlessly. If you strive to have a community space where people feel comfortable sitting for hours, sipping on free refills and running into their neighbors, then free wireless is probably a good fit for your vision. If you want to focus on the culinary side of things, engage your customers more like a cocktail bar or restaurant than the classic American coffee shop, then free wireless is probably not for you.

It is tempting to give in to public demand (aka “whinging”) and offer free wifi, but attempt to keep folks from camping out all day by reducing the signal strength, or periodically creating outages to roust these folks from their collective perches. This is certainly bad hospitality; offering something, then not actually following through on your offer with authentic effort and pride, is not the way to deal with the wireless problem.

I can imagine a space where free wireless could fit into the vision of excellent, progressive coffee. This is not to say that the two are incompatible; rather, wifi should not be an afterthought, or included because it is something one must do. It will certainly impact the customer base and nature of interactions in your shop, which is something you should approach intentionally, with an eye to your final vision.

Like many of these posts, we get to a point where there is a great deal of tension between our vision for our own spaces and the prevailing patterns of our communities. Much like menu construction or ordering style, if the context of your space fits the bill of a space that ought to have wireless internet, people will expect you to offer wireless internet. Whether this expectation is fair or not is, frankly, not up for debate. The fact is, if your customers arrive certain of what sort of place they are in – and you tell them they are wrong, by not having free wireless internet, or by only serving one sort of cappuccino, or by offering no blended beverages – that is not their fault. It is your fault.

I would posit that if your customers enter your space and are confused as to what sort of place they are in, this is a superior situation to them arriving, being certain of the place, and then being told that their certainty is misplaced – because it is not misplaced. We all live in the same world, and we all recognize the same patterns.

Free Wireless really gets to the heart of the Context Problem, as we have heaps of signifiers which would tell our customers “This is the kind of place with free wifi,” but no signifiers that would indicate otherwise. How can we change our contexts to remedy this?

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