Meaningful, well-structured feedback is the difference between a barista who constantly improves and one who continues to make the same poorly steamed lattes, provide the same bad customer service, and annoy their fellow baristas again and again.
But learning to give good feedback can sometimes be as hard as learning how to brew a V60 – and managers and café owners, unlike the baristas, have no-one there to train them.
So if you’re struggling to give feedback to your café staff, read on. We’ve got several tips that will help you out.
A barista carefully pours latte art in a latte art throwdown. Credit: Aaron Johnathon
Improve Your Barista Evaluations
The first step in providing good feedback is accurately evaluating your team. There are few things more demotivating than a manager who gives unfair or inaccurate feedback.
Evaluations shouldn’t start when you’re preparing for a feedback session, but rather from the first day you hire your baristas. It can be formal, with you telling the barista what their job performance will be measured on and then recording how they do. Or it can be informal, whereby you simply make notes on what they do well and where they can improve.
It’s worth considering a wide range of factors: what do other staff members say about the barista? What does the data say (e.g. speed of working)? Have customers made comments – good or bad? What have your experiences been? And, most importantly, how does your barista think they’ve done? What areas do they see for improvement? Can they provide reasons for a slow work pace or late arrivals?
You might also like to make a list of key skills that good baristas have. Even if you don’t share this list with your baristas, it will help you to not overlook anything.
A barista pours latte art.
Consider How Much Feedback Is Too Much
Good feedback can inspire baristas to do better. Bad feedback can demotivate them, undermine their confidence, and make them resent you. And information overload can quickly turn good feedback bad.
There are only so many areas a person can work on improving at one time. While there may be a wide range of areas you’d like your barista to do better in, you will see more long-term success if you have them focus on a smaller number of issues first.
There are, of course, exceptions to this. If the issues are all related, it helps to explain them together. However, you should then present them as one issue with multiple facets.
Similarly, if your feedback is not simply about improving skills, but rather about a bad attitude or poor behaviour, then it is important to address this immediately. And any safety issues must be of the highest priority.
Baristas at work in Communal Coffee, Texas. Credit: Communal Coffee
Keep Feedback Level-Appropriate
If your barista is new to the craft and still learning how to pull an espresso, there’s no point telling them to improve their signature drink creation. And while that’s an extreme example, it’s relevant at every stage of a barista’s journey.
Some tasks are more difficult than others. Feedback should centre around things your baristas can improve in the short term. Targets must be achievable in order to be motivational.
A barista behind the bar.
Think About How You Give Feedback
Sometimes group feedback is appropriate, but most of the time, a one-on-one session is better. Sitting down with a coffee will create a different atmosphere to standing in the stockroom. And privacy is important.
On top of this, consider how often you give feedback. Regular evaluations are useful, especially for new baristas. Don’t wait until there’s a problem before you talk to staff.
A barista gets ready to tamp. Credit: Middle State Coffee
Put Feedback in Context
Sometimes, feedback may seem like “common sense” to you. However, if it were obvious to your barista, they probably wouldn’t have done whatever it is you want to talk to them about. Always explain why – and, in the name of fairness, ask your barista for their side of the story.
For example, perhaps your barista left a box of stock blocking the fire exit. But maybe they did this because they saw a person on crutches who needed help carrying their order and didn’t stop to consider the potential hazard (or fine!) they were creating.
Additionally, sometimes baristas may not see why certain feedback is relevant or important. To make it more meaningful to them, try connecting it to long-term goals. For example, “I know you want to see career development, but if you ever want to be a shift leader, you need to show me that you have the potential for people management. I’d like to see you being more patient with new baristas.”
A barista brews V60 coffee at Quentin Café, Mexico City. Credit: Ana Valencia
Focus on Ways to Improve
It’s easy to tell your baristas what they’re doing wrong. It can be harder to explain what to do better. Before you start a feedback session, make sure you know the specific ways in which you’d like your staff member to improve.
Let’s take our example above, the one of a barista who’s eager for more responsibility but gets frustrated by new members of staff making mistakes. You might tell them that, instead of snapping, they remain calm so as not to fluster the newer barista and causing more delays. You could also suggest that they offer to give the team member some quick training during a quieter period.
By giving suggestions on how to improve, you make it easier for your staff to put your feedback into practice. It also centres the discussion around actions rather than performance, which can make you seem less critical.
Latte art poured by trainee baristas. Credit: The Baristas Coffee School
Remember to Give Praise
It’s important to acknowledge what your baristas do right, whether it’s technical skills, customer service, teamwork, reliability, attention to detail, or something else altogether. Telling your staff this won’t just motivate them; it will also make sure they keep doing it.
You may have heard of “the praise sandwich”. This means giving positive feedback, followed by the negatives, followed by more positives. This can help feedback to seem less intense but some people can find it insincere. They find it devalues the praise their manager gives them.
Another approach can be to give broad positive feedback (e.g. “customer service”) yet specific areas for improvement (e.g. “attention to detail when cleaning, especially the espresso machine”). This can make staff members feel like they are still doing well overall.
However you choose to give feedback, it’s important that it has a good balance of the positives and the negatives. You can always find areas for praise, even among new baristas with much to learn. For example, you can say “I’m impressed by how quickly you’re improving”, “You have a great attitude, and I appreciate it”, “You take feedback well”, “You have a good work ethic”, or “You ask questions if you’re not sure, and that’s good”.
A barista steams milk. Credit: Huckleberry Roasters
Give Baristas a Chance to Respond
Baristas are unlikely to take feedback on if they feel that it is unfair or they don’t understand it. Invite them to ask questions. Depending on the type of feedback you’ve given, you could ask if they see why it’s important. Remember, strong leadership doesn’t mean being authoritarian. It means leading your team to do better.
You may also find that these questions result in a pleasant surprise. Your barista may be sat there looking mulish only to tell you, “I’m annoyed at myself for making this mistake. Here’s how I plan to improve:…”
A manager leads a staff meeting. Credit: Good Folks Coffee
Check In on Your Feedback
People make the best progress when there’s a sense of continuity. If you’ve asked a barista to work on something, comment on it in the next feedback session. Ask if they feel that they have improved and then give your opinion.
You can also, when providing new areas for improvement, position it as progression. For example, “We’ve been working on improving your descriptions of different coffees and you’ve really improved. Well done. Now let’s build on this by working on making good drinks recommendations and cross-selling.”
Doing this builds your baristas’ sense of self-worth and motivation. It also shows them the value of feedback and helps them to see it not as criticism but as an opportunity.
Baristas at work, brewing Ethiopian coffee with a Chemex. Credit: Vertical Thinking
Giving meaningful, well-structured, and action-focused feedback is hard but you will reap the rewards: motivated staff, real improvements, and a sense of career progression. Feedback is an opportunity, not something to avoid – whether you’re the barista or the manager.
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