August 12, 2015

How to Introduce Customers to Third Wave Coffee


With third wave coffee shops everywhere, specialty coffee websites, specialty coffee associations, World Championships, and public cuppings, it’s easy to become insulated in third wave coffee. We forget that many people actually drink grocery store coffee as their daily brew. Yet these people form a significant segment of the coffee-drinking population, and we can’t ignore them as potential customers.

Lee este artículo en español Cómo Introducir a Los Clientes al Café de la Tercera Ola

So when someone who doesn’t care if their coffee is Nescafé or a single-origin from Ethiopia enters our coffee shop, how can we introduce them to specialty coffee? Can we break through the belief that all coffees are the same, just by communicating the things we love about really great coffee? Well, not quite—although it helps! Setting, menu design, and customer service are also part of the process.

So how do things like setting persuade someone to try specialty coffee? It’s all about managing expectations. This sets the stage for a great experience, enabling you to guide the specialty coffee newbie towards a drink they’ll love and you’ll be proud of.

Setting the Table

People usually love coffee shops for one of two reasons: either the coffee is good or the space is cute, comfortable, or inviting. In Midwest America, it’s usually the latter. Great coffee and a well designed space rarely intersect—but people will often tolerate substandard coffee because they like the couches or the artwork on the wall. This is something we need to pay attention to.

See also: Should We Allow Customers to Dictate How Specialty Coffee is Served?

Rowster Coffee third wave coffee shop

Rowster Coffee lets you know they are coffee-centric without saying a word.

A coffee shop’s design should communicate something about the quality of the products served. Does your shop look like a place you want to hang out or a yard sale? When a new customer comes in do they think fast food or high quality cuisine? Much like with a high-end restaurant, when a customer walks into a third wave coffee shop, they should immediately know that it’s different to the standard coffee shops. It doesn’t have to be black tie, but make sure the tables are clean and the furniture straightened. Fix the wobbly chairs and replace them if necessary. Take pride in the way your space communicates specialty coffee to your customers. People will notice and it will influence the way they order.

sparkling green tea served with espresso in specialty café

The small details, like this sparkling green tea served with espresso, clue customers in.

Menu Design

Though subtle, good menu design can help lead customers into third wave coffee. What is offered and, more precisely, what isn’t offered tells customers what’s important to your shop before a word is spoken. Keeping a short list of house-made syrups, having drink specials that are cocktail inspired, or not offering blended drinks communicates a lot about your priorities.

leaves in water

A small list of house-made syrups guides customers toward new coffee experiences.

Take particular care with the filter coffee menu. Second wave shops shrouded their coffee offerings in mystery, hiding behind vague blend names with no real meaning and no indication of the coffees used in the blend. Many third wave shops have swung in the opposite direction, overloading customers with information about location, varietal, and altitude that often means nothing to the customer. We provide flowery descriptions that, if we are honest with ourselves, have little connection to the flavor experiences of the average customer. Of course, some customers do want that extra information (and we should be prepared to tell them it if they ask), but we need to cater to the average customer as well as the coffee aficionado. A clear and concise menu will help your customers know what to expect from your coffees.

The menu should at a coffeshop

The menu should let your customers know what your shop prioritises.

Now You’re Speaking My Language

The most important aspect of managing expectations and introducing people to third wave coffee is language. If you know that your coffee is above average then you need to talk about it differently—and you might need to avoid the coffee speak you use with your regulars. Describe your coffees in ways that are meaningful to coffee novices. Don’t talk about light and dark or mild and bold; does the newcomer to coffee know what “light” tastes like? Instead, talk about the flavors found in your coffees. It gives people something to look for and can be an entrance into the rabbit hole of specialty coffee.

barista in coffeeshop

Making people feel dumb about their drink doesn’t help anyone. Skillfully communicate with the customer and take the time to listen. Credit: Matthew Mony

Be careful not to turn people off by your language. It’s never worth arguing with a customer over what makes a macchiato a macchiato when you both know they just want a large milky drink with a lot of caramel. And while some customers do want to understand the language we use to describe coffee, don’t scare them off. Carefully guide them through the coffee language without drowning them in information.

Have you ever experienced a customer who’s unable to tell you what coffee they want? Part of our job in specialty coffee is interpretation. Specialty coffee novices often have an idea of what they want to drink, but may find themselves unable to communicate it. Don’t get exasperated; the customer may already feel embarrassed by their lack of knowledge. Instead, try this approach for breaking down the language barrier with customers, adapting the specifics to fit your menu:

1. Ask if they want something hot or cold.

2. Ask if they want it sweet or more coffee-centric.

3. If applicable, ask what size they want.

4. By now, you should have a pretty decent idea of what they want. Try recommending something.

5. If they say no, find another drink that fits the bill. Keep trying until you find something that interests them.

Customer Service

Customer service goes hand in hand with language. Kind and understanding customer care  makes all the difference between a great experience and possibly losing a customer. Never make a customer feel as though they or their drink is stupid, even if it’s not what you consider good coffee. In matters of taste, you can never tell someone they’re wrong.

Baroista handing coffee to customer

There’s nothing more satisfying than making a great drink that a customer loves.

Sometimes interpreting what a customer wants isn’t quite enough; you may need to use redirection. Perhaps your customer wants something that isn’t available. This is particularly likely to happen if, like my shop, you don’t have a blender or a large variety of syrups. The good news is that this alone may be enough to guide a coffee newbie towards third wave coffee—but it must be done with care. We must master the art of redirection in order to maintain a good customer experience. It’s getting a customer something they will love when you don’t have what they want. “I’m sorry we don’t have a 64 oz frozen, macadamia nut, caramel, mocha latte with extra whipped cream, but we do have this other drink that’s still sweet. We think you’ll enjoy it.”

We are in the business of giving people what they don’t know they want yet. We must guide our customers into new experiences and gently show them how to enjoy the things that we love. Remember your customers are there because they are interested in what you have to offer. It is your job to find out where your offerings and their tastes intersect and to guide them toward that in a way that leaves them with a smile on their face.

Edited by T. Newton. Photos by Eric Squires. Follow Eric on Instagram @ercsguitar.

Feature Photo Credit: @sulaiman_kh

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