customer service is hard
ALLISON TASK

By ALLISON TASK
For Montclair Local

Allison Task is a career and life coach in Montclair who hosts the WMTR radio show “Find My Thrive.” Her website is allisontask.com. Need advice? Send questions of no more than 150 words to allison@allisontask.com, or to us at culture@montclairlocal.news.

Dear Allison,

What am I supposed to do when a customer thinks he knows more about making drinks than I do (and he’s wrong)?

—Biting-my-tongue barista

Dear Biting,

Your question brings to mind an urban legend. As the story goes, a well-heeled New Yorker, was dining in a four-star restaurant, licking his chops in anticipation of his flourless chocolate cake with vanilla bean iced cream  (it was the ’80s). Upon receiving the sweet, he was aghast, and promptly told the server, “How dare the kitchen send me ice cream with specks of dirt all over it. What do they take me for, a fool? Take this back and have those specks of dirt removed, at once!”

After the kitchen had a good laugh, someone went to the nearest bodega and got a pint of vanilla ice cream, made without the fresh vanilla beans (and resulting specks).

Simply put: you’re not alone. Customers are often wrong. And yet, the standard mantra in our service-oriented culture is “the customer is always right.” Your customer may, in fact, be dead wrong about the specifics of their order and your technique, but it’s the general expectation that the customer will order what they want, and expect to get it.

For example, I may call a latte an Americano, and you’ll come to know me as the confused lady that can’t get her coffee straight, but I’ll still expect my expresso/water combo (without milk) when I order my latte. Ignorance is bliss for the customer, a little slick of hell for the barista, especially when that ignorance is combined with a patronizing tone. They may be committed to their ignorance.

So you have three options: you can deliver the customer what they want, however they refer to it. You can correct them in the moment (with resulting embarrassment). Or you can begin a subtle education campaign to help them save face.

If you choose to educate your clientele, you can create a “coffee glossary,” or “coffee term of the day.” Coffee trivia or coffee quizzes are also a way to build consumer knowledge. Take a note from the page of the wine industry and how they created more demand through education.

You’re in the service business, which typically favors the customer’s ignorance, but it might be to the benefit of your own mental health to begin to educate your market. Coffee can be complicated, and no one likes to play the fool. A properly educated consumer has the potential to be a loyal customer.

Dear Allison,

As a local business, we hire a lot of high school students. Since many of them have never worked — as in, it seems they’ve never had a chore or even babysat— they have no understanding of what work is. How do we train them to do a job if they don’t understand the concept of work?

—Fed Up with Privilege

Dear Fed Up,

Let’s start with the practical: how are you vetting and choosing the people you hire? Are you responsible for hiring, or is someone else? Could “tell me about your past work experience?” be a part of the interview? It sounds like you are hiring people who are not prepared for the demands of the job. Ask yourself: why are you not attracting and/or hiring the right people?

You are not a school or a job training facility; you are a business. People who don’t understand the concept of work should get some experience before they have the good fortune to be hired by you. There are plenty of ways to pitch in around town, whether that’s shoveling snow, volunteering at a soup kitchen, moving the lawn or painting fences. The high school has an active Key Club with no shortage of students who put in hours of work without compensation.   

If the high school students who come to you looking for a job don’t understand work, then they aren’t qualified to work for you. A good place to start is by making the right hires.

And once they’re hired, and you realize they don’t have it, they can be given more junior tasks until they earn the privilege of moving up in your organization. Everyone starts at the bottom. If they can’t hack it, they’ll likely quit, saving you the aggravation of training someone who doesn’t want to be there.