Improving the Quality of their Coffee Life

Thoughts on Connecting with the Consumer
By Meister, Customer Support, Counter Culture Coffee

If there’s one phrase that I balk at when chatting with colleagues and peers in specialty coffee it’s “educating the consumer.”

Of course I understand what’s meant when we industry types bandy “education” around in this context: We want to bring more folks into the fold of high-quality, sustainably grown, responsibly traded coffees by turning them permanently off their preground vacuum-sealed commodity-grade stuff. Or—even worse!—drive them away from those “instant” crystals that brew something only tenuously related to the rich, aromatic cups we’re used to as high-end roasters, retailers, and baristas. We recognize that there are coffee drinkers out there whose palates are being dulled by over roasted or lower-quality beans, and we want to show them that there is truly something better.

You know, we want to improve the quality of their coffee life.

But the word “educate” rubs me the wrong way in this context and, according to market research conducted by the SCAA—the results of which were presented by deputy executive director Tracy Ging at this year’s recent Symposium—it has the same effect on our primary demographic.

As Ging discussed the collection of data compiled from six different focus groups conducted in San Francisco and Los Angeles, she mentioned a recurring theme among the participants: “They want a love affair [with coffee], and we’re giving them altitude and rainfall statistics,” she said.

When we speak about “educating” the consumer, what do we mean? Surely our intentions, hearts, and taste buds are in the right place: We want to bring specialty coffee to more people, and to do that we feel the need to prove how much better it is, how much better we are, and how much worthier of the consumer’s time, attention, and money our products are.

But in place of the patient, passionate, and welcoming “try-this-you’ll-like-it” approach that wins friends and influences people, we sometimes fall into the robotic rut of spouting off obscure facts, mispronouncing farmers’ names, and inundating our customers with intimidating tasting notes.

I see a distinct difference between “educating” a customer and simply guiding her on her journey through specialty coffee. Rather than present a curious new potential coffee lover with an overwhelming list of minute directions, twist, turns, and landmarks, it can be more useful—and more approachable—to say, “There’s some really great stuff over in that direction: Why don’t you go explore it for yourself?”

“[Consumers] make an assessment about whether the people behind their cup of coffee loves it as much as they do,“ Ging continued—and this is where the real across-the-counter connection happens, in my mind. If the barista clearly pours his heart into every cup along with his rosetta, the customer sees that, recognizes that, and appreciates that. What they don’t appreciate is being lectured, feeling talked-down to, or having a chapter from the Coffee Origins Textbook read aloud to them while they hand over their loyalty card for hole punching.

The way I look at it, the only time I’m educating anybody is when I’m standing in front of a roomful of students who are busily taking notes on the topic at hand. The verb itself, to educate, implies some degree of responsibility on the recipients’ part—a need for them to turn around and apply the knowledge and skills they’ve gained in some practical or professional way. (In fact, Merriam-Webster defines the term as “train[ing] by formal instruction and supervised practice especially in a skill, trade, or profession.” Which is all well and good…but perhaps not until I’ve had my coffee.)

To the average—or even above-average—coffee drinker, I might appear to have a certain expertise as a barista or industry professional; he or she might go so far as to ask me questions about the origin and variety of a coffee I’m brewing, or for more information about the method I’ve used to prepare their cup.

But by answering those questions effusively, eagerly, and with a smiling exclamation—”Oh, it’s wonderful! You’re going to love it, and here’s why…”—I’ve done more than educate them: I’ve converted them. And a conversion caused by passion, belief, and trust sticks better than one achieved by browbeating, condescension, and humiliation any day.

How do you connect with your consumers?