You can learn a lot from coffee. Or at least from the business of selling it. I was reminded of this during a recent fantastic week consulting to a business in Seattle. When not working, I ended up spending some quality time hanging out in various branches of a global Seattle-based coffee empire that needs no introduction from me, and whilst I was there they taught me a lesson which I’d like to share with you.
Before I get to that, the US experience was not my first bit of coffee-shop based education. Many of the most powerful lessons in sales and marketing are those you can learn if you just look at what’s happening around you, and one of those happened for me a couple of years ago in a service station on the M25.
Picture the scene - a big queue of people waiting to get their foamy caffeine injection in order to make the next half an hour of crawling along the motorway a little bit more bearable. At the front of the queue is a sales assistant taking orders. Each bedraggled business traveler in turn gets to the front of the queue and says “latte, please”. The assistant’s response? “Small, medium or large?” Interesting to note that every single person, without exception, responded with “medium, please”.
I’m about halfway along the queue when the sales assistant is relieved by a colleague. Same thing - “Latte, please”. However, the new salesperson chooses a different, more directive response - “Large?”. Sure enough, every single person (including your intrepid reporter) says yes. And I re-learned a vital lesson for any marketer. If we frame the choices we offer customers carefully, and are brave about asking for the up-sell, we can add huge value to our businesses. If you want to make your eyes pop, spend a bit of time calculating how much extra profit that coffee business would make if every medium coffee was sold as a large, earning an extra 50p or so for a few more ccs of hot liquid. All that, just by changing the assistant's language a tiny fraction.
So back to Seattle. My lesson this time was a different one. Firstly a confession - I have very ordinary taste in coffee. The first time I had to queue behind someone asking for a “double shot half-caff hazelnut mocha with soy milk” I was a bit embarrassed to follow up with “latte, please” but I got used to it in the end.
So ubiquitous is this coffee chain that there was actually one underneath the hotel I was staying in, and so my morning routine was to eschew the expensive hotel breakfast and go downstairs for a coffee and a bun. The first morning was a nice experience - chatty staff who noticed and commented on my accent, and a nice coffee and bun.
The lesson came on morning two, however, when as I came downstairs they started making my coffee before I’d even come in through the door, and picked out my bun for me. It was reinforced on the third day when again my coffee was made for me but I was asked if I wanted the usual bun or to try a different one.
Naturally I put this personal service down to my own sheer charisma and magnetism, but I’m realistic enough and curious enough that I started listening to what was going on, and in the end I noticed an extraordinary thing. Not only in that branch but in every other one I visited I overheard customers being greeted like old friends, asked if they wanted their usual and generally treated like they were just as much a part of the business as the staff themselves. I even heard one customer, who had obviously been away for a while, issue a friendly challenge to see if the staff remembered his unbelievably complicated usual drink, which they did.
The adage that people in the US are more comfortable with delivering a great customer service experience than people in the UK is an old one. The real lesson from my coffee sessions, I think, is a different one. All of these branches, of one of the biggest brands in the world, succeeded in making themselves feel like small local businesses and in making their customers feel like valued regulars - the real “Cheers” experience. For a big business, that’s an incredibly neat trick, and one which even that company has not succeeded in replicating in the UK as far as I can see. A thought provoking challenge for all of us - how close are our big brands to genuinely delivering the local experience that shows individual customers how valued they are? What kind of culture do you have to create in your business to get that to happen? What could we do to transform our businesses to get closer to that wonderful, loyalty-inspiring goal? Something to ponder over your next coffee.