December 18, 2019

Managing Customer Expectations in Your Coffee Shop

To run a specialty coffee shop, you need an experienced and passionate team of staff members at your side. However, your success will depend on more than how quickly they can take orders, pour espressos, and whip up beverages. In order to keep your clientele coming back for more, they’ll need to know how to handle customer expectations. 

In even the most well-run coffee shop, there might come a time when a customer complains that they’ve been waiting too long or that they’ve been served the wrong thing. When this happens, how the situation is dealt with will determine whether you’ve won over a customer for life – or put them off returning for good. 

As Roger Dooley (business author, marketing consultancy founder, and guest speaker) explains in his article on generating customer loyalty in coffee shops, “when decision-makers don’t have empathy for customer concerns or observe the customer experience first-hand, they risk both their reputation and their revenue.”

Here’s how you can fine-tune your staff members’ skills to ensure they can handle the most common communication issues that arise. 

Lee este artículo en español Cómo Manejar Las Expectativas Del Cliente en tu Tienda de Café


Chá das Cinco Café in Porto, Portugal, experiences an influx of customers. Credit: Mirzan Campos Duarte

Don’t Take it Personally

It’s relatively common for coffee shops to encounter customer service issues – no matter how experienced or well-trained staff members might be. Joshua Stevens is the owner of the Café Cultura coffee chain, which has over a dozen locations across Brazil. He states that serving coffee to the public is full of challenges and difficulties that he could never have imagined taking place.

If left unchecked, the communication issues that arise between customers and your coffee shop can impact workflow and create a negative atmosphere that impacts everyone. In the long-term, this can impact profits, demotivate staff members, and keep loyal customers from coming back to your coffee shop.

When this happens, it doesn’t help to take the complaint or criticism personally. If something didn’t live up to a customer’s expectations, you need to change it. However, care should be taken that the request is reasonable and achievable. 

Dr. Alicia A. Grandey (Penn Psychology professor and expert in Workplace Emotional Labor) has undertaken significant research into service employees in coffee shop environments, and states that a service job doesn’t give customers the right to violate norms of ethical treatment – as the customer isn’t always right and shouldn’t assume that they are regardless of behavior.

Hugo Ferraz, owner of Chá das Cinco Café in Porto, Portugal, states that “It’s important to understand the needs of the customer, but also understand how far we can go with technical details.” This means understanding what’s being asked and providing an answer, without delving into confusing or complex details – unless this is what they’re asking for.

To ensure that these kinds of conversations go as smoothly as possible, here’s how you can improve how both you and your staff communicate with the public.

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A barista pours a latte at Chá das Cinco Café in Porto, Portugal. Credit: Mirzan Campos Duarte

Improving Your Communication is Key

According to Hugo, communication is everything in a coffee shop. As your coffee shop will see a diverse range of cultures, perceptions, and beliefs present in its customers every day, this will directly impact how everyone understands each other. 

For example, Joshua says that “when serving specialty coffee we need to educate our customers on the differences in the quality and taste of our coffee. This starts with training your staff to use language that is simple for the customer.” 

The insight of your staff members will be invaluable here, as they’ll be able to inform you what kind of questions are most commonly asked, so that you can draft a standard explanation that everyone can use. 

For the best results, make sure it’s simple, easy to understand, and free from jargon. Research indicates that concrete language is processed quicker, is easier to conjure a mental image of, and is more believable than any alternative. 

According to Hugo, “it’s not an easy task”, but a solution could be to “try to create a pattern [of how to respond to specific issues for] every order so [there isn’t a] lack of communication.”

It will help to put rules, systems and recommended levels of action into an official guide, so that everyone is aware of how to deal with a situation. According to Keys To The Shop, a podcast aimed at coffee service professionals, a coffee shop manual helps keep everyone honest, acts as an impartial third party performance evaluator, and provides a detailed answer to any “what if…” or “what do we do then…” questions that may arise.

A Café Cultura barista prepares a drink at its Florianópolis, Brazil location. Credit: Café Cultura

Identifying Communication Shortfalls

Communication failure occurs for many reasons. Identifying how an error took place as well as when it took place can pinpoint where a shortfall is so that a solution can be found. The purpose of this exercise should not just be about pointing out a mistake and assigning blame. It should also be about finding solutions so that it doesn’t occur again.

This should also be a team effort. When a group works together on identifying possible causes of a problem, you’re likely to generate a range of creative solutions that take into account your local conditions and all team member’s feedback.

According to Retailwire, preparing employees with ready-made solutions for common problems has several advantages. It helps them become more aware of the problems in question, which encourages them to prevent them from occurring. It also helps them solve issues without having to chase down others down for help, and to improvise appropriately should unexpected problems occur.

Here’s how this can be applied to two common situations that could arise in a coffee shop.

Coffee is tamped in a portafilter at Chá das Cinco Café in Porto, Portugal. Credit: Mirzan Campos Duarte

Situation #1: Customers Are Waiting For Long Periods

Problem: Customers are complaining about long queues or waiting periods to be served.

Possible Cause: You might be unexpectedly short-staffed, dealing with a sudden influx of customers, or experiencing an external issue (broken machinery or ingredient shortages).

Communication Pitfall: Not communicating to customers why there’s a delay, or acknowledging their presence and promising to assist them soon. This should take place as soon as possible, as research indicates that the average person will wait in a queue for about six minutes before their satisfaction drops, and they start thinking about leaving.

Possible Solution: Creating and displaying signage communicating delays and expected resolution times will help manage expectations. This way, those in a hurry can leave without having a negative experience with your shop, and return again when the issue is resolved. Research into service delay times indicates that providing an explanation of a delay reduces customer dissatisfaction, as does having staff members communicate this in a timely manner.

Situation #2: Customers Are Receiving The Wrong Orders

Problem: Customers are complaining about receiving the incorrect order – or that their special requests were not observed.

Possible Cause: The error might be due to a staff member taking down an order incorrectly, or an order being placed for an item that’s out of season or stock. It could also be caused by a staff member accepted a request without checking if it’s possible in the first place.

Communication Pitfall: Not creating specific order request protocols with staff. In addition, not communicating menu updates, changes, and restrictions to customer-facing staff members – so they in turn can inform your clientele.

Possible Solution: When taking an order, repetition is key, and repeating an order back to a customer can even lead to higher tips. To prevent issues relating to incorrect menu substitutions or items that are unavailable, it’s important that your kitchen staff brief your front of house staff, and that front of house staff are aware of what goes into preparing an order. You can also consider using digital menus for complex orders to reduce errors.

A customer leaves a coffee shop with their drink.

Keep Improving Your Communications

Managing and improving your communications is an ongoing process, and one that you’ll need to keep testing. It’s important to keep looking for new and better solutions, as well as evaluating what has worked and what can still be improved on. 

Doing so will create an environment of trust for all involved, and ensure that your coffee shop remains a popular place for people to work – as well as visit – for years to come.

Enjoyed this? Read How to Manage Staff Discipline in Your Café

Feature photo caption: Coffee being poured at Chá das Cinco Café in Porto, Portugal. Credit: Mirzan Campos Duarte.

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