earning trust, OR knowing your shit [without telling everyone about it]

In honor of Bloom’s day, I’ve been thinking a bit about Irish barista champion Colin Harmon’s WBC performance.1

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If y’all didn’t see Colin Harmon’s recent WBC performance, please go do that. It was awesome. The theme of his presentation was trust, and that trust is necessary for developing relationships with customers in the context of specialty coffee. He says that the coffee he is working with “has loads of little small details that make it interesting” (processing, variety, versatility, unusual grind setting), but goes on:

“But I sometimes feel that we’re never really going to get those things to our customers until we’ve earned their trust.”

Of course, he’s right. And – if we’re going to be real – when we fail at this, it’s nearly always because of our tendency to overshare information without first gaining that trust.

So let’s be real for a minute.

oversharing

When I train baristas, I’m careful not to give too much information too quickly. I teach new baristas the mechanics of being on bar, the motions, before moving on to basic brew theory and then more advanced theory. Before moving on from each stage, I try to allow time for practice, the development of muscle memory and the setting in of ideas. The idea is to teach at the barista’s level.2

I don’t want to extend the metaphor so far as to imply we are training our customers. Don’t do that. But I do think that we should be cautious of sharing too much information too quickly with customers as well. Oversharing of information is generally read as pretentiousness and is detrimental to the building of trust with customers over time.

We can’t demand the kind of understanding from our customers that we expect from our baristas, who are payed for their skill and knowledge and have the advantages of a training structure. I think Colin Harmon is going in the right direction by striving to earn the trust of his customers rather than to educate them.

So, effective communication of the “little small details that make it interesting” requires some level of trust from the customer. I’d like to add that it also takes a certain degree of knowledge of the barista’s part, and empathy.3

knowing a lot to say a little

I’ve been talking to Daria a lot about this lately, and the ideas in this section are mostly hers. Her main point is that you have to know a lot to most effectively communicate very little.

Here’s what I mean: Daria ran a blind cupping recently for several employees in her store. At each stage of the cupping, each person contemplated and wrote down some sensory notes on each coffee before sharing as a group. By the end, the group had built up a list of notes on fragrance, aroma, taste/flavor/mouthfeel.

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By the end, when everyone felt they had a pretty nuanced understanding of each coffee, Daria asked how they would describe each coffee to a customer, in just a few words. The circled bit in each column is what they came up with:

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A barista who hasn’t given a coffee much thought may rely on the tasting notes from the bag if pressed to describe a coffee. It will sound forced and rehearsed and insincere – because it is.

Alternatively, a barista who has really contemplated a coffee, and has been encouraged to taste with intentionality, may remember smelling chocolate, tomatoes, spices, coffee cake and walnuts and tasting almonds and Snickers bar, but will be able to describe the coffee with sincerity as “on the sweet side, and nutty.”

Know a lot. Say a little. Communicate effectively.

the art of saying nothing

Now, if this whole post has been about communicating very little in a way that fosters trust in customers as a sort of investment in future communication opportunities, I’d like to end with a seemingly contradictory4 point: that you don’t have to say anything. Serving with kindness and quiet reservation is always an option.

I am reminded of this everytime I go to my (as of recently) favorite cocktail bar, Drink (on Congress St. in Fort Point, Boston). Jeff has been my bartender there each time I’ve been. He’ll often make me a drink after only discussing with me what spirit to use and maybe whether I’d like it to be sweet or dry or whatever. Especially if it’s busy, he’ll serve me my drink without even telling me what it is, then help someone else, and only then come back to ask how I like it and then I ask him what it is I’m drinking.

Of course, this particular exchange requires a relatively high level of trust. But it reminds me that when handing someone a cup of coffee, it’s pretty much always better to hand it off kindly with quiet reservation than to say “here is your x(process) y(variety) microlot from a(farm) in b(country).” (and worse yet to get into the technical aspects of preparing the beverage).

Even an informed and interested customer will appreciate a low key handoff. People are usually good at indicating whether they’re in the mood to learn more. We just need to pay attention, and talk shop with people only when they want to, and on their terms. If we do that, and consistently deliver on our promises of quality, that’s how we’ll gain trust for specialty coffee.

So thanks, Colin, for getting us thinking about this stuff. And happy Bloom’s day!


  1. to see what this blog has to do with James Joyce, read my first post.
  2. The structure of my training program was in no small way informed by this post by James Hoffman.
  3. For the empathy bit, I’ll refer again to James Hoffman – this time to his Tamper Tantrum lecture on customer service.
  4. To awkwardly continue my Joyce theme: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” Ok, Joyce was actually himself quoting Walt Whitman there, but whatever.

About barnwolf

head barista for pavement coffeehouse and erc boston
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