Should You Give The Customer What They Want?

cappuccino love

There are two paths you can choose in a Specialty Coffee company (and basically any quality focused food/drink company)

  1. Give the customer what they think they want.
  2. Give the customer what you do best.

My mantra my whole life has been to:

Never give the customer what they want.

Only give them what you do best.

Despite the vain hopes of many an coffee entrepreneur, you can not in fact focus on and excel at both. They are diametrically opposed to each other. They literally fight each other and only one can win.

You can absolutely build your company on the principle that the customer is king and is always right and give them whatever they want. Starbucks and many other companies have nailed this and enjoyed fantastic success.

You can also absolutely build your company on the idea that the customer comes to YOU (and not the other 1,000+ places) because what you do is different, compelling and valuable. They come to you because you are the expert in what you do. (and ONLY what you do) They come to your business to get what you do BEST, not what they think they want.

As Steve Jobs famously said: 

“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

In the Specialty coffee roasting and retail business we are working with by and large a marketplace of coffee consumers who either

  1. Don’t like coffee – but drink it anyway
  2. Like coffee – with massive amounts of sugar and other flavors to hide the flavor
  3. Like the actual flavor of coffee
  4. Total freaks who love everything about coffee and will go out of their way to drink only good coffee

Currently the Top two categories in the USA represent somewhere between 70-80% of the COFFEE market. The other two make up the rest. And the total freaks are likely somewhere in the range of less than 5-8% of coffee drinkers.

In my highly opinionated opinion the main mission of Specialty Coffee overall (as opposed to each individual business)

Is to make a positive change in the world.

That can be any number of things you hold near and dear from environmental changes, reduced pollution, economic parity, improved coffee quality, fair and equitable trade and slowing down and enjoying life more. But at it’s core Specialty Coffee pushes a model of change and improvement. Better coffee from better coffee producers, grown and produced better, packaged better, paid more for, sold better, roasted and prepared better and presented to the final customer better.

I was once told by a specialty coffee person that I was fundamentally wrong in my approach because (and I quote):

Specialty Coffee is about subtlety.

I replied:

OH! I thought Specialty Coffee was about quality and flavor!

I am an opinionated person. And I tend to voice my opinions, loudly. I adore arguments and disagreements over principles. Not so much over trivial details.

Today I had a wonderful argument on Twitter about espresso in a coffee bar. The two points of contention were:

  1. Should a coffee bar give the customer what they want and give them an espresso poured over ice
  2. Or should the coffee bar have standards and ideals that it enforces and NOT do that

Maxwell’s argument was about Coffee bars baiting and switching. If he ordered an iced espresso and they said YES, they better give him that. I agree 100% with that idea.

After that the conversation morphed into a discussion about giving customers what they want or not. Maxwell made some brilliant arguments on both sides. He was not arguing that you should give the custom anything they want, but that if you DO offer something don’t then change it because of some misguided gobbledygook.  Maxwell is a kick butt, quality coffee guy doing great things. (thanks for having such a spirited argument!)

and here is the Men’s Journal article that got him frustrated. (although I do agree with much of it)

There were two basic thoughts about why or not. The first argument was that the customer is right and should get what they want, regardless of what the business wants. That it was the customers “right” to get their coffee prepared any way they wanted it regardless of the businesses desires, goals, principles, standards etc. The second (my argument) was that if the coffee bar had a clear and stated policy about how they prepared and served their coffee then that was the way they should do it. To do it otherwise would go against their stated purpose and mission. It would also, in my opinion, NOT give the customer what they do best.

Depending on your viewpoint of the purpose of a specialty coffee company that may or may not be an issue. If you believe that giving the customer whatever they want regardless of degradation in quality, environmental impact, negative flavors, perception etc. is the highest and best calling for a coffee company then it is a non issue. If you instead have decided to make the mission of your coffee company to give customers only what you do best, then it is a clear violation of your entire mission and foundation.

Now that I no longer own and operate a coffee roasting company I have found that my voice has gotten a tiny bit quieter and my perspective a bit clearer. I have had a few years of decompression and time to reflect and think.

I have realized even more than before that “every coffee has a home.” There are just a whole hell of a lot of coffees I don’t want in my home.

Just because in MY coffee bars (in the past and in the future) you will never be able to buy an espresso or macchiato in a paper cup, nor get espresso poured over ice (that’s what cold brew is for), get an extra hot latte or a dry foamy cappuccino, get any flavored syrups or blended coffee shakes does not mean that the customer can’t go to any of the 1,000’s of other coffee places that will gladly shut up and take their money.

After all it’s the customer’s money; even if the coffee is mine.

Thoughts and Counter Thoughts?