July 24, 2019

STANDING OUT IN A CROWDED MARKET – industry news by Fiona Smart

I’ve recently moved to a new suburb and made the trek to the local cafe which is positioned deep in a suburban area. On this occasion I just wanted a quick outing with my young son for a banana bread and a decent coffee.

My experience in the cafe really made me think about the fine line between success and failure for cafe businesses.

The interesting thing to me about the overall experience was that the coffee was fine, the banana bread was standard and the space was clean and comfortable. The food and drinks menu was generic and fitted the formula you find in most cafes. What was notable and disappointing, and the thing that has really stuck with me, was a lack of customer service.
When we arrived, none of the 3 front of house staff acknowledged us, not the forward facing barista, not the counter attendant, not the person running the floor. After standing at the counter for a very long sixty seconds with all of these humans within 2 metres of me, I eventually broke the ice and put a ‘hello’ into the ether. The counter person, without even looking up responded with, ‘what can I get you?’

I certainly wasn’t out to critique this business when I walked in the door, I just wanted to hang out with my boy for half an hour of quality time. I see this scenario as one of the fundamental flaws in many businesses today. Think about it, the secrets to making a great coffee have been revealed and most menus are offering the same food. If you don’t have avo toast, an acai bowl, pancakes, eggs benny and a kombucha on the menu, you haven’t followed the formula. The internet has made it so easy to cherry pick ideas and replicate everything it takes to set up a cafe, including interior design, at a bargain price. But is there something else in the detail that lies beyond the cookie cutter approach and differentiates success from failure?

Cafes and coffee houses have always been about more than just the coffee they serve. From their very first days in 17th century Europe and the Middle East, coffee houses served as meeting places and venues for social interaction. They’ve been important places for exchanging ideas, discussing politics, developing art movements and creating businesses. Throughout history people have used coffee houses as their meeting places and they’ve always served the multifaceted needs of the time.

In my own experiences as an operator I’ve seen romances spark, couples break up, friendships form, babies grow up, business deals be finalised, secrets shared and lives saved. Cafes are great social levellers, whereby most people can find the money for a cup of coffee, have a bit of a chat and do some people watching. Coffee and cafes are a great facilitator but clearly there’s so much more going on between those walls if you create the space to enable it.

In the current market cafes are not only competing with each other, they’re competing with fast food chains, convenience stores, mobile coffee, office coffee and coffee made at home. Because of the vast range of coffee service points, this is a time where every dollar counts and every customer is precious. Fortunately, cafes can offer something that a chain can’t replicate and a machine can’t offer, and that’s human interaction.
There is a certain kind of magic in great cafes. They’re spaces where customers are made to feel at ease and irregardless of convenience or price, they’ll come back again and again.

Cafes that have harnessed this magical quality tend to have owners that are grounded within themselves, with clarity around their business vision and purpose. They’ve built teams around them who feel listened to and encouraged to grow, both personally and professionally. Their team understands the vision for the business and have been given a road map that defines their contribution toward the goals of the business. There is usually ongoing communication between the business leaders and the team and more than anything else, the customer sits at the heart of the business. None of this can be faked and so authenticity underpins it all.

Creating a customer focused business costs little more than ‘intention’ and it’s one of the key elements that will set you apart from the tens of thousands of other coffee service points available for the customer to choose from.

Obviously there are multiple aspects to creating a sustainable and successful business, including important things like financial management, staying on top of compliance, implementing strategies for growth and ensuring product consistency. Even so, at the core of all these moving parts, is your customer. Without enough customers walking in the door, you don’t have a business.

When I walked into my local cafe, I really didn’t need much – a hello, a smile and some eye contact would have been enough. These basic elements of human interaction are free, and as business leaders, helping your team to understand the importance of these basics is not only good for your business, but good for them as individuals.

But let’s up the ante here because I can get a hello and a ‘how was your day’ at the supermarket.

I believe customer expectations have lowered in the past 5 years and I see the shift from table to counter service having influenced the standard of service we see today, from both a staff and customer perspective. That shift is no excuse for you not to deliver a lasting and positive impression with your customers. In fact it’s an opportunity to set your business apart from the many other cafes that deliver ‘products’ rather than ‘experiences’ to their guests.
The reality is that a customer focused business and the culture that supports it starts with you, the business leader, and you should be very careful about settling for second best with your front of house team. If they can’t bring the magic, connect with the customer, make them feel special and build relationships, then you have some work to do.

If you aren’t sure how you are performing in terms of customer experience maybe you should talk to the boss – that’s your customers. Maybe you already know deep inside that there’s room for improvement. If you’ve lost your way or if it’s been a while since you’ve checked in on how the customer experience is, it’s time to take action.

There are many ways to realign your business but some simple steps could be to take the afternoon off and tap into your purpose for being in business. You could spend some time in a cafe that has a great vibe and reputation for its customer service and draw inspiration from that. If it’s been a while since you’ve connected with your business vision and plan, do so, or even better, re-boot it into a one pager that’s relevant to now and that communicates, in one or two sentences, what you’re about and what your mission is. Drawing up a mind map may be a good tool for you too and something you can create with your team leaders. Think about things like – what makes us special, what can we do better, what are our hidden strengths, where do we want to be?

Once you tap back into who you are and what makes you special as a business, gather your team together, share your vision and mission statement and realign everyone, remembering that the core element underpinning everything you do is your customer.
If you’ve been absent from your team and not driving your customer focused strategy, make a plan to be in store more regularly to lead by example. Being authentic is key, and you will find great results when you invest in your team and help them to be both great at their job, and better versions of themselves.

Some practical things you can implement include a ‘regulars register’. This is simply a list to help your team learn who the regular customers are and what their usual order is. This is a handy tool in helping your team get to know your customers better. Recognising outstanding customer service is another great way to reinforce the positive behaviours you want to see in your team and this can be an informal or formal process. You could also do individual or group awards for positive scores that come up in your digital footprint. Whatever you do, be consistent and be present. Your team WILL be consistent if you are.

So with all of that said, where is the edge and where is the magic that means that your cafe stands out in a crowded market?

It’s in every single interaction between you and your customer. It happens with every exchange and in every minute of the day. Every customer is precious and presents an opportunity to create one authentic interaction, one moment of magic and this is enough to reset the course toward being a cafe that customers become brand ambassadors for and one they will always return to again and again.

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