Tag: customer service

Innovating Context: Sizing

(This post is a part of a series on creating new contexts to retail coffee. See the first post here.)

Let’s think about offering different sizes of a product. Sizing is integral to some products; clothing springs to mind, as well as things like flat screen TVs. More specifically, let’s think about food and drink that comes in different sizes, and what kind of pattern sized offerings are most likely to fit within.

All food and drink that we consume come in a particular size; namely, the size that they actually are. When you order steamed asparagus, they come in a size – you just didn’t choose the size. What I’m mostly concerned with here is taking apart that choosing – what it means to the consumer and her psychology to offer a choice beyond simply “coffee” or “burger” or whatever.

It’s easy to think of things that we commonly order in different sizes; fountain sodas, french fries, ice cream, and so forth. The real question is this: in what context do you generally order a food item that you also choose the size of? We can and do buy soda without choosing a size, mostly in bottles or in sit-down restaurants. When we choose the size of a soda, we’re usually in a fast food joint or highway rest area. We can buy french fries without a size choice, but when we buy french fries WITH a size, where are we? Again, QSRs, rest areas, etc.

Our customers do not exclusively visit our establishments – we as humans like to roam around, and try different things, different places, etc. What that means is that we as humans recognize patterns and then associate outcomes with those patterns. One pattern that exists is eateries offering multiple consistent sizes of different beverages. This is incredibly common, and is a part of the larger world that we are trying to sell coffee in.

I would suggest that if we want to innovate the context in which we serve progressive coffee, we need to consider the effect that offering multiple sizes of beverages can have on our customers. When we see multiple sizes of an offering, especially multiple sizes of every offering, that reminds us, worldly though we may be, of places that are not like our progressive shops. If we want to catch our customers off-guard, to build space for them to be pleasantly surprised by our products, we need to present those products in a context that is not highly reminiscent of places serving a product with the same name (coffee) in the same way (multiple sizes, paper cup). If we sell a cup with the same name, at similar prices, in the same way as folks serving low-grade coffee, then it is irresponsible to expect our customers to spot the excellence in the cup – it’s hidden by the larger patterns at play, like small, medium and large.

Innovating Context

“Men don’t like to step abruptly out of the security of familiar experience; they need a bridge to cross from their own experience to a new way. A revolutionary organizer must shake up the prevailing patterns of their lives.”  –  Saul Alinsky


At Camp Pull-a-Shot East, during one of the group discussions, a point was made that has resonated with me. That point was this; we have gotten very, very good at innovating our products. From superior sourcing and buying methods, to Grainpro, to data-logging roasts, to ever-new espresso machines and protocols to use them. Coffee today is better than it has ever been. What we are not good at is innovating the context in which we sell our new, improved products. To start thinking about innovating context, I’m going to dedicate some posts to just that topic – I don’t know how many, but hopefully more than one!

As humans, we have developed a remarkable ability to recognize patterns. We are able to intake data, interpret it, create correlations, and project those correlations onto the future, letting us create predictions from our past experience. It is easy to see how this kind of mental processing is evolutionarily advantageous. The more we experience a pattern, the stronger our association of that pattern and its correlations become. Every time you see lightning, you expect thunder to follow – it would be strange if it didn’t! By and large, these patterns are useful and informative and don’t really present many problems.

What the problem is, is that we as coffee retailers, are working against human psychology in the way that we sell our products. We are, most of us, trying to sell a unique, lovely, different product within the same context as folks selling lower-quality, less passionate, brew. It is totally reasonable for our customers to be surprised when their cup takes four minutes for a Chemex – their experience up to that moment with that pattern of experience is simple; wait in line, look at overhead menu, order coffee, immediately receive coffee. It is easy to see how this same pattern of experience extends across the spectrum; when a customer is in a grocery store, perusing the coffee offerings, what do they have to justify the higher price point of your whole bean? Their grocery store pattern (as mine, as yours) involves mostly low-cost-hunting, and a hope that you can get home before 7.

I think that the most important thing we can do is to start finding ways to break these patterns. Watch this space!

Subway Violinists and Context

This happened in DC in 2007. The long story is here: http://goo.gl/bEQvk

The short story: a violin virtuoso (not the grinder) who had played a sold-out concert not long before, played a 45 minute set in a DC metro stop. Only one person recognized him, most folks simply carried on through their day. The folks putting this on were mostly concerned about our ability to appreciate art in our lives, etc etc.

It strikes me as a relevant metaphor for much of our progressive coffee industry; we’re trying to make something lovely within an existing context, where expectations are already set up. The music is excellent and superbly performed, but it needs to be presented in a context in which people are prepared to appreciate it.

We make good coffee. What we need to do now is make good contexts..

Re: A Linen Napkin

James Hoffmann has a post up about a recent experience at Blue Bottle in NYC, in which he talks a little about signifiers.

He’s right; it can really come down to little things when we’re trying to create things that will indicate to our customers that we are going to show them something unusual, something special and something nice. It’s worth noting, though, that there is still a much larger context at work, here. A linen napkin alone does not change expectations; it is simply the cherry on top of a beautiful buildout, a long-term local branding strategy, an online marketing program, a continued program of excellent coffee, etc etc.

We definitely need to be better about advancing this kind of thing; linen napkins count. A glass of water with espresso counts. But these are little things; they won’t outweigh a robotic staff in paper hats or a neglected training program. But if you have a well-trained, service oriented staff serving amazing coffee with passion and humility, a nice napkin or a glass of water might be the tipping point that makes your customers start to notice that you really are a little different.

Danny Meyer Interview

Danny Meyer, New York Restaurateur and  a man for whom I have great respect (his book, Setting the Table, changed the way I think about service), was on Charlie Rose. Here’s the interview:

Danny Meyer on Charlie Rose

If you work in hospitality, this is worth your time. If you want to start at the good stuff, it begins around 6:00. He talks about restaurants, but much of it applies to coffee and coffee houses as well. It’s not exactly hard-hitting journalism, but I enjoyed it. Some thoughts:

~8:10: “A restaurant is like a baseball glove … the people who work in our restaurants, and the people who dine in our restaurants, and the communities that surround our restaurants, are what give the glove its shape. All I do is do the stitching.”
 …  A coffee shop, a cafe, an espresso bar – if it is empty, it isn’t anything yet. Our places of business are defined by their function and their population. It is the employees and the customers that shape a place. You can choose your buildout to exacting specifications, but all you can do is provide a canvas upon which your employees paint. It’s so difficult for me to see these absolutely beautiful spaces with expensive and lovely equipment manned by folks who either don’t care or haven’t been taught to utilize their care into an excellent product. Don’t forget to invest in your staff!

~9:40: “Hospitality is a completely different thing from service. Hospitality is how we make you feel, service is what we do, to deliver the product.”
… I’ve touched on this a little in the past. ‘Service’ has become such a buzzword that we don’t even know what we’re talking about most of the time. This idea of hospitality is really appealing to me; we can be hospitable before we even speak to someone, even before their order is placed. A clean space, a friendly staff, a sensible noise level – these things are hospitality, and they are just as important as the service. I am starting to lean toward the idea that context and hospitality are even more important than the interaction itself. This is something I need to think on, but I would suggest that without a good foundation of context and hospitality, good service is very, very difficult, if not impossible. Anyone who has cared about coffee but worked at a place where the ownership did not care about coffee can commiserate here.

~16:53: “A great burger depends on what kind of mood you’re in.”
… This I really appreciate! It rings true with coffee, and is something we could be better about providing our customers. I know that sometimes even with all of the brewing devices in my kitchen, I still just want to hit a drive-thru on my way out of town. I think that Colin Harmon and 3FE do a great job with this, with the Tasting v. Drinking menus. Even coffee pros just want a hot cup of coffee they don’t have to think about – at least sometimes!

(also, not for nothing, I cracked up when Danny Meyer mentions that he prefers his burgers medium rare, and Charlie Rose murmurs kind of quietly, “Me too.”)

~20:00: “We’re trying to make it a restaurant for its neighbors.”
 I like the idea of a shop being for its community. It’s another, larger layer of this idea of context; does your shop fit? Are you forcing it to fit? Or is it natural, an obvious part of the where-ness of the place?