Dealing with Customer Requests that Might Damage Quality

(Joshua Dusk-Peebles) #1

Extra hot. 4 extra “shots.” Half caff. The list goes on.

How do you and your shop address these types of requests?

(Truett) #2

If you want to create raving haters of your business, refuse an easily executable request for the sake of ‘quality’. Sure, extra hot makes me die on the inside, but the examples above are all clearly doable. It’s worth communicating drink improvements to customers who know you’re suggesting for their benefit, but many of them wind up acknowledging that they want that ‘low quality’ beverage anyway.

(German D Salamanca) #3

This is indeed a tricky one! There’s a customer that orders a BOILING HOT large Latte, and when I say BOILING HOT, I mean BOILING HOT! The baristas have to steam the milk 2 times… disgusting.

But, he’s been coming to this cafe for 9 years, when boiling milk wasn’t the worst thing you could do, so how can you now say to him, sorry we can’t do that? and then if some one else orders a coffee that we know is not good, how do you tell them “no, we can’t” whilst still boiling the other customer’s milk?

I’d love to say NO! but tricky. After all we are serving people.

(Daniel Cunningham) #4

Our shops serve a wide spectrum of coffee drinkers and we try to treat each one with the same respect whether they order a pour-over or an extra hot decaf “cappuccino” with almond milk. I think the key is to gently guide customers in a way that makes them feel like you genuinely care about their experience rather than your own preferences. I know it’s been said a thousand times, but it’s still true; taste is subjective. Of course it feels great to see a customer move from some extra sugary drink to enjoying our espresso the way we intended it but it’s just as satisfying to make someone a cup that they enjoy even if it’s not the way I would prefer it.

(Joshua Dusk-Peebles) #5

Are there limits to what you will do? Only steam to 165F/73C? 175F/79C? Only do 2 extra shots? 4? 6? If so, how do you communicate that with your customer?

(Felix McCarthy) #6

At my shop we try our best to be as accomidating as possible with our wide range of customers, but I definitely have my limits. The other day someone asked if I could do a half caff pour over, where half the dose is decaf Colombia beans, the other half El Salvador. I told him no, and since I explained my reasons in a way that wasn’t condensending and showed I had his best interest in mind,nhe was very understanding We settled on a half caff latte, which I can deal with. I’ve found if you’re honest with your customer and come off in such a way that shows you’re only looking out for their tastebuds, it especially helps if you offer a replacement instead of saying “I can’t do that.”

As far as people wanting things super hot, I just go with it. It’s only quite irritating when someone doesn’t let you know they expect extreme heat, cause then you’re in one of those shitty “this isnt even hot” customer interactions.

(nicolas) #7

what benefits does half caf shots have? why not order a single shot drink? I’ve served a few half decaf half regular shots and it dumbfounded me

(Truett) #8

All my customers who request half caf order 12oz+ lattes or americanos. Typically, they are pregnant, nursing, or have high blood pressure, so they have a medical reason they want to spread out their caffeine intake. And the drinks are to go.

To acknowledge their dietary choices and meet the flavor they’re looking for, I would much rather serve them a mix of our decaf and regular espresso blends than put just a single shot in a 12oz cup of milk or water. With that much milk or water added, most our customers can’t taste that the beans are different, but they can taste if the general coffee flavor is less potent. In fact, I recently intentionally switched a customer from getting a single-shot 12oz latte to getting a double half caf latte, and she’s appreciated the flavor more.

Also, we happen to have a piston-lever espresso machine. So we’re pulling a fixed amount of water anyway.

(Evan Holder) #9

Herein lies the struggle between accommodating a consumer base while upholding the values of your specific coffee program. If a cafe comes to be known for its “come as you are” principles towards drink making then it will be met with hostility by its customer base if it decides to change or with hold those founding principles. However, if a cafe starts and maintains a restricted policy on drink making, it’s easier to communicate the reasons for regimented policies. If quality is the guiding factor of every action in cafes, then there is leverage for the reasons we choose to say “yes” and “no” to difficult requests.

The shop that I work in has had to learn how to dialog in an educational ways with customers over damaging quality requests. While I’d like to be as accommodating as possible, its just not possible to please everyone. I believe that specialty coffee shops cannot, nor should they, take on every drink request possible. Shops that make exception for overly sweetened/steamed/decaf drinks serve a niche position with “coffee community”. Those who “want what they want” will be able to find it somewhere; I don’t think it needs to be at every shop.

(Maximiliano Chang) #10

It depends on the age the customer has. 45+ customers are usually narrow minded (at least in argentina) and won´t listen what i suggest so… For the well being of everyone, i just give them what they want.

(Joshua Dusk-Peebles) #11

The way we decided to handle special requests at my shop was to put boundaries on it.

For example, 150F was our standard for lattes but we would go up to 165F for “extra hot.” The milk starts to deteriorate and get char flavors after that.

To show that I was taking their request seriously and treating it with care, I would be sure to use a thermometer. Also, i would preheat the cermamic if it was “to stay” and double cup if it was “take away.”

I never heard a complaint from an “extra hot” customer if I did these things. I think it also had to do with the fact that they could tell that I genuinely wanted them to like the drink.

(Derya Ege Akar) #12

Maybe a good percent of people would disagree with me on this, but I think that “specialty coffee” (or whatever else you call this) is fundamentally a distinct way of approaching coffee, which deals with the beverage (and beverage only), aiming for the practices that produce the best possible beverage. Everything else (is fine but) comes after beverage quality.

So when thought in this framework, the customers’ demands should be merely secondary to the beverage quality. And I agree on the issue that taste may be subjective to a great extent; but if it’s a café that claims to provide good quality beverages, than it should serve somewhat standardized beverages that are judged to be “good” (by owners, baristas, or whoever is responsible for the quality).

I strongly think that customer demands are on the “business” side of this job, because there’s no explanation for making a beverage that you think is not good, except for business considerations. And I (not being a coffee shop owner) do not have any respect for any business done only for business’ sake (meaning higher profits). So if you think something is wrong, or sub-optimal, and you still do it; you are simply sacrificing quality for profit.

One of the most obvious examples of this attitude is the “cold brew” craze. Almost every professional (that I’ve spoken in private) agree that cold water is not a good solvent to brew coffee, and the fact that there’s no agreed-upon/right/standardized way to make cold brew proves this method’s defective nature; yet many “businesses” continue to produce and sell it in enormous amounts every day, because they can and it brings them profit.

Just as you wouldn’t roast differently (i.e well past second crack) because customers want it, you also shouldn’t change the recipe arbitrarily just because they want it that way (taking in criticisms and suggestions is different from complying with arbitrary requests).

For comparison, you can think of a very good restaurant. Can you make the chef change the recipe (i.e overcooking a meat) just because you feel like it?

(Chris Moore) #13

I can appreciate the philosophical approach to your opinion, but there are a few problems with it.

For example, I loathe soy milk. I feel like most of us in the coffee industry do. But some customers need it for dietary reason (e.g. diary and nut allergies). Should I not serve soy because of my opinion?

Taste is subjective, as others have mentioned. So if I base my decisions of what to or not to serve for customers based on that, I am trying to make that customer a slave to my preferences. Here is a great piece on TED Talks about spaghetti sauce preferences. I highly recommend it. Malcolm Gladwell on Spaghetti Sauce

How can we, as coffee professionals, take a stand on issues? The only way to have a hard stop on what we will do without coming across as offensive to the customers is in the menu creation itself. So if I don’t carry toffee nut syrup, then it is not offensive to say I won’t put it in a drink. I can’t put it in. But if I carry decaf, then half-caf is fair game… I don’t like it, but it’s a thing. And also as previously mentioned, some need it for medical reasons.

The other exception would be similar to the example that @FelixMcCarthy shared with the mixing of beans. That would cause a breakdown of tested procedure. Who knows about the solubility, extraction, etc…? Also, we have some drink combinations that just do not work. For example, one of our syrups causes the half and half to curdle for hot drinks. If someone asks for that (obscure) drink combination, I explain that it just doesn’t work to make a good drink.

So yes, there are times to say no, but I can’t base it solely on my perception of a “good” drink. Even Apple, who is a great example of curating an experience and limiting options, appreciates that not one-size fits all. They have several options to accommodate differing needs and desires.

Also, atypical requests should challenge us to be excellent and stretch our skills and knowledge. For example, @MattPerger has done research on how to make non-dairy milks better in the steaming and drink-crafting process, but most of us would agree that good, higher fat cow’s milk is best. How can we be better in adverse scenarios? We’re forced to grow and be more creative because of the challenges.

Lastly, making choices for business reasons is a thing. It’s what pays your salary. I wouldn’t be so quick to judge before you’ve tried the shoe on the other foot. I don’t like caramel lattes, but they keep the lights on… and they open the door for dialogue in the future!